I recently read a sidebar in the cookbook Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louisa Shafia on sustainable seafood, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Because I grew up on the water right next to one of the biggest seafood ports in the world, the idea of not only nonlocal but not-caught-yourself seafood is new to me. I have always loved eating the fish that I caught while out for a sail or the quahogs my sisters and I dug up with our feet in the sand. My family even had lobster traps for a few years. The rest of the seafood we ate came from local markets selling local fish. We did eat salmon often though and I’m sure that was farmed somewhere in the Atlantic.
Living in Pittsburgh, I buy seafood from either the grocery store or one of the big fish markets downtown. There is so much variety available to me, yet I don’t know what to buy. I can’t just pick the type of fish labeled “organic” like I can with tomatoes because there is no such thing as certified organic seafood. There’s only sustainable seafood, and it requires a little research to identify.
The two biggest problems in the modern fishing industry are overfishing and methods of farming and harvesting that cause harm to the oceans. Other concerns for consumers include mercury and other heavy metal contamination. This occurs in a process called bioaccumulation to fish high up on the food chain (e.g. tuna and swordfish) from consuming many other organisms that harbor low levels of toxins, not just from absorbing the metals directly from the water.
There are a few great websites out there for reading about sustainable seafood and learning how to shop for it. The Marine Stewardship Council certifies sustainable seafood so you can look for their seal when shopping for fish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium also publishes a pocket guide (and smartphone app!) with various types of fish divided into the categories of basically “best” “good” and “avoid.” I will definitely be using this next time I go to the fish market.
Here is what I learned and how my seafood shopping is going to change (and why yours should too):
- No more farmed salmon. Fish farms are not well regulated and often environmentally damaging, so Alaska wild caught salmon is a better choice.
- Frozen shrimp are a good buy. They are frozen at sea where they are caught so they cost less to ship and taste fresh.
- Dungeness crab is very sustainably farmed (according to Lucid Food). Never tried this but I plan to if I can find any.
- Canned tuna should be avoided (mother) because cans are lined in BPA. I don’t even like canned tuna, but it’s also at high risk for mercury contamination. Bluefish, which is one of my favorite fish to catch and cook myself, also has high levels of mercury. Sad face.
Obviously the best way to figure out where your fish came from and how it was caught is just to ask. I find the idea of doing this awkward and irrationally terrifying, but I am going to give it a shot.