We know that seafood can be a wonderfully heart-healthy food choice. But when it comes to buying fish, the options are confusing.
Should we get farm-raised or wild-caught salmon? Is imported fish safe? And which species is in short supply because of human demand?
The answers to these questions can be found through Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood initiative and rating system that divides seafood into three categories for consumers: Best Choices (green), Good Alternatives (yellow) and Avoid (red).
The highest rankings go to seafood that’s abundant and not in danger of overfishing, and are caught in an environmentally friendly manner (it doesn’t cause destruction to our oceans or to other species). Notes on mercury content and other common contaminants found in seafood are also included in the guide.
The rating system was developed by a research team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as organizations around the country including Whole Foods, and research partners, including Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
The Shedd has based their “Right Bite” seafood guide on Seafood Watch. A handy, wallet-sized PDF of this guide is available here on the aquarium website.
“If something is wild caught, it lands in the green category if the population is healthy and abundant and the way it was caught didn’t cause habitat destruction,” explained Brooke Havlik, sustainable seafood coordinator at the Shedd Aquarium.
Havlik works with consumers and Chicago-area restaurants to educate them about sustainable seafood practices and the Right Bite guide.
For example, in her presentations she shares that imported shrimp gets an ‘avoid’ label because many foreign shrimp companies use bottom trawling, which involves pulling a heavy weighted net along the ocean floor, which hurts habitats and catches everything from young fish to sea turtles and other species. These are called “bycatch” and they’re damaged or destroyed in the process. (In the U.S. there’s a much lower rate of bycatch with shrimp.)
And while farmed fish can fall under all three categories, salmon that are farmed in an open-net, rather than a closed-net system, produce polluting waste and allow fish to escape and breed with native, wild fish — earning the avoid label.
Havlik added that about 40 percent of U.S. fisheries are overfished and about 75 percent are overfished worldwide.
“That means that the fish populations aren’t at sustainable levels – they can’t produce enough to increase the population in the future,” she said.
Fish that are especially affected include orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, certain types of grouper and other fish that live for decades and reproduce much later in life. Tilapia, catfish and salmon, which have shorter lives, can start reproducing in less than five years and generally are not overfished.
If you follow sustainable guidelines, in addition to showing concern for the environment, you are also benefitting your health, according to Erica Battin, a registered dietitian at Swedish Covenant Hospital and Galter LifeCenter.
“Fish is important. It’s a really great source of heart-healthy protein and it can be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can have an impact on brain development, have great heart health benefits and can reduce the risk of stroke,” Battin said.
Fattier fish such as salmon, halibut, trout and arctic char are especially good for
“We recommend at least two servings a week of fish (a total of 14 ounces), staying away from higher mercury fish, and 12 ounces total per week for pregnant women and children,” Battin said, adding that eating a variety of fish and opting for grilling, broiling or pan-sautéing, rather than frying, is ideal for health benefits.
You’ll want to either limit consumption or avoid certain fish such as orange roughy, bluefin tuna, shark, swordfish and others that are high in mercury and other contaminants and/or are overfished (these are noted on Shedd’s Right Bite card.)
To make the seafood-buying process easier, Whole Foods stores across the U.S. recently stopped selling red-rated, wild-caught seafood. Atlantic Halibut, grey sole, skate, orange roughy and bluefin tuna have already been eliminated from stores because of sustainability concerns.
For more information on Sustainable Seafood, go to Seafoodwatch.org.
To learn more about Shedd’s sustainable seafood program and to print the Right Bite card, click here.
To make an appointment with a registered dietitian at Swedish Covenant Hospital or Galter LifeCenter, visit SwedishCovenant.org or call (773) 878-6800.