What are you going to fix for dinner tonight? Alaskan halibut in a lemon pepper sauce, shrimp pad Thai or steamed Maine lobsters with butter?
We’ve all heard the adage “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” Although it often refers to relationships, it’s also something to think about when we ponder the availability of seafood for the dinner table. The oceans are so vast, yet tens of thousands of species of fish and shellfish in our oceans and rivers are being adversely impacted by overfishing, bycatch (inadvertently catching unintended species), removal of prey and predators from complicated food chains, and habitat and ecosystem damage. Fish are also becoming contaminated in a variety of ways. Landfills, fertilizer and pesticide runoff from farms, waste discharge from factories all contaminate our waters. Mercury, for example, enters an aquatic ecosystem from power plant runoff. Rivers feed into the ocean and the contaminant finds its way into the marine ecosystem.
In the once rich fishing grounds of Japan overexploitation of Pacific bluefin tuna has reduced its population by as much as a third over the past two decades. In 2014 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down cod fishing, from Provincetown, Mass., up to the Canadian border, in an effort to reverse plummeting numbers of the fish in the Gulf of Maine. They also put restrictions on Atlantic salmon, sea scallops and a number of other species. In the Georges Bank fishing area of New England, there are catch limits on haddock and herring, the latter being bait for lobsters.
So, what can we do? How can we be mindful, health-conscious consumers of seafood? The answer lies with sustainable seafood, which is caught or farmed in ways that have minimal impact on ocean health and considers the long-term vitality of harvested species. Our best choices for fish have low levels of mercury (less than 216 parts per billion) and provide at least 250 milligrams of omega-3s per serving.
On the New Hampshire Seacoast a cooperative of fishermen and consumers have joined together to protect the ocean, sustain NH’s fishing industry, and support the local economy. Their Community Supported Fishery Program and Restaurant Supported Fishery Program provide weekly shares of delicious, fresh caught fish from local waters. Like community sponsored agriculture programs, participants pay a weekly or monthly amount and pick up their shares at designated locations. For more information, please go to http://www.nhcommunityseafood.com/.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association fisheries service supports using aquaculture to produce sustainable seafood. Aquaculture refers to fish or shellfish farming and has been practiced for more than a thousand years, but it is the last 30 years that we have seen an unprecedented expansion of fish farming, making it a substantial contributor to global food supply. Today, half of our seafood comes from aquaculture.
Two types of aquaculture exist. Marine aquaculture farms the fish species that live in the ocean and fresh water aquaculture is the fish species that live in freshwater. The aquaculture fisheries hatch and raise the fish until market size allowing the wild fish to repopulate without the threat of overfishing. In this way, we can repopulate and save the ocean ecosystem. The types of farmed seafood can vary from oysters, prawns to salmon. The environmental impact of aquaculture depends on the species, the location of the farm and how they are raised.
But there are potential environmental concerns with aquaculture. Farmed carnivorous fish, such as salmon, require a food source which is high in fish-derived proteins. So, fish farms need to find a source of food which does not depend exclusively on wild fish being caught. The second is to ensure that any wild fish used as feed is caught in a sustainable manner. This is because removal of these species low in the food chain can have serious implications for fish stocks, the food chain and other wildlife including sea mammals and seabirds.
There are also problems which stem from fish farms being located in inappropriate areas. These include vulnerable habitats (both terrestrial and marine), essential fish habitats or areas with high concentrations of wild fish. Some of the problems can include organic waste accumulation on the seabed under sea pens – resulting in degraded water quality sea lice and other disease transfer; and altered food chains from escaped fish. Escaped farmed fish can interbreed with wild fish of the same species, resulting in genetic dilution (domestic farmed fish can have low genetic variation); they can spread disease; they can displace eggs of wild fish and they can put pressure on natural resources through competition with wild fish. For example, the Pacific oyster was introduced into UK waters in the 1960s for aquaculture purposes and it was seen as a more commercially viable alternative species to the native oyster. Since this time, the Pacific oyster has spread into the wild. Natural populations of the Pacific oyster can now be found in the Kent and Essex area resulting in reef formations which have displaced or modified some areas of the native oyster and biologically diverse marine environments.
A range of chemicals can be used in marine aquaculture operations such as disinfectants, anti-foulants and medicines (including vaccines) can be toxic to wildlife and can cause significant damage to the wider ecosystem, especially anti-foulants containing copper.
Center for Food Safety works to ensure and improve aquaculture oversight, furthering policy and cultural dialogue with regulatory agencies, consumers, chefs, grocers, fish retailers and legislators on the critical need to protect public health and the environment from industrial aquaculture. They advocate better alternatives to large scale open ocean aquaculture, including Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). RAS, closed-looped and biosecure aquaculture operations which avoid many of the contamination potential inherent in factory fish farming and fulfill the need for clean, sustainable and healthy seafood supplements to our wild fisheries.
The organization Seafood Watch has an app you can download to your iPhone or Android phone that provides up-to-date seafood recommendations and locate restaurants and stores near you that serve ocean friendly seafood. Their recommendations are labeled “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives,” or “Avoid.” Their scientists research government reports, journal articles and white papers and contact fishery and fish farm experts. After a thorough review of all the available data and information, they apply their sustainability criteria. Their website lists their approved Eco-Certification Program labels that you can look for when you purchase seafood. You can also search for seafood recommendations online at http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations.
Some of the best seafood choices you can make now are Atlantic mackerel (wild caught in US and Canada), freshwater Coho salmon (farmed in US), Pacific sardines (wild caught), farmed shrimp (US), and fresh and canned salmon (wild caught from Alaska.)
So, what are you waiting for? Head for the seafood market!