By Stephanie Choate
January 30th, 2014
Vermont is stuffed with local, organic, humane food. From condiments to meat to vegetables of all shades and shapes, it’s not hard to find food you can feel good about eating. But one thing that stumps many locals is selecting seafood that’s healthy and caught without overly harming the environment and ecosystems.
Overfishing is in the news a lot, and for good reason. Many of the ocean’s fish populations
are being fished to extinction, or have been nearly decimated already.
“Nearly 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are fished to capacity, or overfished,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website, www.seafoodwatch.org, one of the most respected programs to help consumers and businesses make choices for healthy oceans. “Our seafood choices have the power to make this situation worse, or improve it.”
It’s a lot to process, but there are tools to help consumers get started.
FINDING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD
“A lot of seafood is not managed in a way that’s going to provide for the future,” said Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a nonprofit that works to promote the health and recovery of the ocean by guiding consumers and retailers to sustainable purchasing decisions.
Galitzine said there are lots of tools out there specifically created for consumers who want to find sustainable seafood.
“There are a lot of sustainable options out there, there really are,” Galitzine said. “The U.S. is doing particularly well. Fishery management in the U.S. tends to be pretty rigorous, compared to other countries. There are good options available, you just to ask the right questions and find the right people and use the tools available.”
One of the “very best,” Galitzine said, is Seafood Watch, which uses a stoplight color-coded method to organize seafood into three categories—best choices (green), good alternatives (yellow) and avoid (red).
Seafood Watch produces a region-specific printable pocket guide that you can stash in your wallet and pull out at the grocery store fish counter, as well as a sushi guide. It also has free mobile app, so you can have detailed species guides at the fish counter, helping you select the most eco-friendly choice from a sometimes-bewildering array of options.
The guides, updated every six months, rates fisheries based on whether the stocks are healthy and abundant, don’t threaten populations, minimize bycatch (unintended species caught in nets or on lines, some of which are endangered) and avoid impacting marine habitats and ecosystems.
Two of the most important things to look out for, Galitzine said, are where fish are caught and how they are caught.
“Just asking questions is good to show businesses that consumers care about these issues,” she said. “You may not get an answer, but often asking the question sends the message to retailers that people care.”
You don’t have to be in it alone, though. Many stores or restaurants are educating their workers or waiters about smart fish choices, and they can help you make a decision.
Eric LaVigne, co-owner of Vermont Meat & Seafood Market in Williston, said he does his best to make sure everything he sells comes from sustainable sources. He knows what he is selling and where it came from—something he said is important to his customers.
“We try to do our research before bringing anything into the store,” he said. “There’s a limited amount of fish in the sea. We want to make sure future generations get to enjoy the same seafood we get to enjoy.”
“Pretty much any fish you can get, there’s good sources and there’s terrible sources,” he said. He uses Seafood Watch and works with his vendors, Earth and Sea in Manchester and Black River Produce in Springfield, to source sustainable wild-caught fish or fish from well-managed farms.
“Our vendors have the same values as us,” he said.
Burlington’s City Market partnered with FishWise last winter to put “best choice” labels on the seafood—the same ones used by Seafood Watch—so consumers can immediately identify the sustainable options.
“We wanted an opportunity to be able to source more sustainable seafood and share educational information with our customers,” said Allison Weinhagen of City Market. “When customers are ready to make a decision that’s right for them and their family, we’re all about giving them the information to do that.”
Weinhagen said approximately one third of the seafood in City Market is labeled as a best choice. The end goal is to be transparent, Weinhagen said.
“We’re here to meet the needs of our members, and to meet their needs, they need to know what they’re buying,” she said.
WATCHING MERCURY LEVELS
Like many foods, seafood can come with risks of contaminants, including pesticides, chemicals and metals, such as mercury.
Mercury, at high levels, may damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetuses, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Methylmercury builds up in the tissues of fish, so, in general, the higher the fish is on the food chain—or the larger and older the fish—the higher the mercury level. Large, predatory fish—sharks, swordfish, bigeye and Ahi tuna, marlin—end up with the highest levels of mercury and other toxins.
The National Resources Defense Council produces a printable or downloadable pocket guide, ranking common fish species from the lowest to highest levels of mercury, available at www.nrdc.org/mercury.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
There are countless fishing or farming locations and methods. Here is a breakdown of a few favorites menu options.
Some salmon tops sustainable seafood lists, while others come with serious health and eco-system concerns.
Seafood Watch recommends that consumers look for wild-caught salmon from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, which have healthy, well-managed stocks.
Farmed salmon is best avoided, with some exceptions.
Seafood Watch recommends that consumers avoid all farmed Atlantic salmon. It takes a massive amount of food to raise salmon—three pounds of wild-caught fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon. In addition, salmon farmed in open pens release waste and pollution directly into the ocean, infecting healthy wild fish with parasites and disease.
The Environmental Defense Fund issued a health advisory for farmed salmon, due to high levels of PCBs—persistent chemicals that may cause cancer.
However, some farmers are turning to closed systems, which keep the water and fish contained on the farm. Since U.S.-farmed Coho salmon require less food, Seafood Watch listed it as a “best choice.”
The large majority of shrimp sold in the U.S. comes from Asian or South American markets, where regulation is minimal, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Seafood Watch lists several shrimp sources among its “best choices:” U.S.-farmed freshwater prawns or shrimp farmed in fully recirculating systems or inland ponds; wild-caught Canadian Pacific spot prawns; wild-caught Oregon pink shrimp; and black tiger shrimp from Southeast Asian Selva Shrimp Verified Farms.
However, Seafood Watch recommends that consumers avoid most imported farmed shrimp, which typically damages habitats and runs the risk of pollution and the introduction of non-native species.
Consumers should also avoid shrimp caught by skimmer trawl, which can harm sea turtles. All states except Louisiana enforce strict federal regulations to protect sea turtles, so while Seafood Watch ranks shrimp caught in most states by otter-trawl in the Gulf of Mexico as a “good alternative,” it recommends that consumers avoid shrimp caught in Louisiana or Mexico.
Tuna is one of our most beloved fish, but its also one of the most threatened by severe overfishing. As a large fish high on the food chain, it also carries a risk of high mercury content.
Look for tuna labeled troll- or pole-caught. Long-line or purse seines can ensnare large amounts of unintended species, including endangered species.
Seafood Watch identifies the best tuna choices as:
Yellowfin caught on a troll- or pole-line in the U.S.
Albacore caught in the U.S. or Canadian Pacific on a troll- or pole-line.
Bigeye caught in the U.S. or Atlantic on a troll- or pole-line.
Skipjack caught on a troll- or pole-line or purse-seine that is FAD-free, or without the use of a fish-aggregating device.
Avoid all Bluefin tuna, which is being fished faster than it can reproduce.
Kid- and budget-friendly canned tuna doesn’t have to be written off either. Canned tuna labeled “white” is always albacore, according to Seafood Watch. “Light” may refer to bigeye, yellowfin, skipjack or tongol tuna.
Seafood Watch recommends selecting albacore tuna from the U.S. or British Columbia labeled troll- or pole-caught or light tuna labeled as skipjack—other species are less healthy. White albacore tuna from other sources is labeled as a “good alternative,” thought not a top choice.
Light tuna is also lighter in mercury content. The National Resource Defense Council has a chart with recommendations for canned tuna consumption based on weight.
Aside from being environmentally destructive, long-line caught tuna catches larger fish with higher mercury levels, while troll and pole lines catch smaller fish with lower mercury levels.