Posted on November 8, 2010 - by

Sustainable Seafood: What to Enjoy and What to Avoid

Seafood is a staple of many a person’s diet, but for those who are environmentally conscious, it can be very difficult to sort out what is OK to eat and what should be avoided. Seafood comes from all over the world and is grown, caught, processed, and transported in a wide variety of conditions. Finding sustainable seafood is confusing, especially because what sustainability actually is is often misunderstood.

To clear up: sustainable seafood is either fished or farmed in a way that does not harm the surrounding ecosystem and does not decimate a species’ population. Fish that reproduce slowly, like an orange roughy, are vulnerable to over-fishing, but small breeds that reproduce quickly like anchovies are sustainable. Check these seafood do’s and don’ts to figure out which seafood is sustainable, and which is not.

WHAT’S SUSTAINABLE

Alaskan salmon and halibut: Buying American is almost always the way to go, as US fishing standards are much higher than  those in other countries. Alaskan fish are considered healthy species with thriving populations, and so are sustainable. Plus, they’re pretty tasty too.

Oysters and mussels: For shellfish, oysters and mussels are considered the most sustainable. They are plentiful, and so fishing will not decimate their populations; often grown locally, and so reduce the energy costs associated with freezing and shipping; and as a small shellfish, contain less mercury than bigger fish. In that way, they are better for your health as well.

Sardines, anchovies, and other small fish: Small fish populations have little concern of over-fishing — there’s just too darn  many of them. Though you can’t make a meal out of them, as a nice accompaniment to a salad or other dish, small fish like sardines and anchovies are a worry-free addition.

Atlantic lobster: Many a New Englander’s favorite seafood is actually sustainable when bought locally. Atlantic lobster populations are doing fine, and when bought locally don’t leave a carbon footprint. That said, don’t buy Central American lobster: they’re fished in subpar conditions, and the environmental cost of bringing them up north is just too much.

WHAT’S NOT SUSTAINABLE

Tuna: Tuna is a favorite of people all over the world, and that is why it is being over-fished. Some species of tuna are doing OK, like some albacore, but in general, it’d be best if people stopped fishing and eating tuna altogether to allow the species to  recover.

It is estimated that 90% of the sea’s large predators are being over-fished — they just don’t re-populate as quickly as small fish. Plus, most tuna, even dolphin-free brands, are not caught using environmentally-friendly practices. And more so, tuna contains high amounts of mercury, which causes health problems for people the world over. Say no to tuna.

Shrimp: Imported shrimp are grown in Asia and Central America and grown in their own raw sewage. Sound appetizing? Worse, this waste is allowed to pollute the sea as the shrimp are held in open pools or mesh cages. Even US-farmed shrimp are caught using trawl nets, which hurt sea turtle populations. It’s just not worth it for such a small fish.

Tilapia: Tilapia is native to Africa’s Nile River and so is extremely rare in the wild. Imported tilapia is farmed in Asia, where fish are given hormones to induce sex changes so they turn into bigger, more lucrative males. They are also treated with pesticides and other chemicals, which are absorbed by humans when eaten. Plus, a lot of energy is used to freeze and transport the fish to your local grocery store. Local tilapia is not perfect either, as it still may contain antibiotics and pesticides.

Edward Stern is a guest blogger for An Apple a Day and a writer on online nursing classes for the Guide to Health Education.

Photos by boboD90 and Mitchell Goldstein, respectively (via Flikr Creative Commons).

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