The Definitive Guide To Buying The Healthiest Fish (For You & The Planet)
In response to President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, mbg is ramping up its sustainability coverage to give you the tools and resources you’ll need to make a real difference. And as signatories of the We Are Still In pledge, we’ll be taking action right there with you.
Today, we’re sharing a comprehensive guide on clean, sustainable fish consumption in honor of World Oceans Day.
Fish consumption in the United States has risen nearly 20 percent since 1980, and it shows no signs of slowing. It's exciting that more palates are welcoming this nutrient-rich protein, but it also means the burgeoning fish industry has become difficult to keep track of. Here's everything you need to know to make your next fish-centric dinner a healthier one for your body and the planet.
The food chain game.
Big fish that are higher on the food chain (think: king mackerel, swordfish, and ahi tuna) tend to have more mercury and pollutants in their systems, since these chemicals accumulate with each feeding. Going with smaller critters like anchovies, sardines, and scallops, is typically a safer choice, especially if you eat seafood often. It also helps with the problem of overfishing by easing up on demand for those larger fish that we love so much.
However, people's preconceived notions about what makes a proper fish dinner makes this shift a bit trickier. Rick Moonen, a celebrated sustainable seafood chef, explains, "It can be harder to wrap your head around eating some of these smaller fish. The challenge is that people are narrow-minded about what they want for dinner, and it’s mostly on top of the food chain. We need to diversify what we're eating and realize that small fish can be not only palatable but delicious." In an attempt to glorify the varieties that we too often relegate to bland lunch sandwiches, Moonen is experimenting with canned seafood in his upscale restaurant, RM Seafood. His go-to dish? Canned sardines sautéed with some sun-dried tomatoes, capers, spinach, served over crusty bread—the type of simple, delicious cooking he hopes will spark a revolution.
"A few years ago you saw one kind of mushroom in the grocery store. Now there are 20. Today you see a growing area of the healthy selection of supermarkets are now carrying these smaller fish. They're diversifying and expanding, and I hope it continues."
One low-on-the-food-chain food you should be avoiding, however? Shrimp. "Wild shrimp are generally caught by enormous nets dragged over the bottom of the ocean. The catch in these nets is often only 10 percent shrimp, and everything else gets thrown back dead," explains Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., founder of Ocean Collectiv—an advisory group that supports sustainable fisheries management. "Shrimp is the most popular seafood in America and may well be the most damaging to the ocean. Not to mention quite possibly peeled for you by slaves in Thailand."
What's the deal with fish fraud?
Fish fraud—the all-to-common practice of intentionally mislabeling fish to trick consumers into thinking they're getting something they're not—adds another layer of complexity to the safe seafood puzzle. This tactic allows producers to up their prices and even sell fish that were caught illegally. Keep in mind that 180 million tons of fish are caught for food each year, and the United States imports 90 percent of its share of this massive industry from overseas, so fraud can be difficult to track down. A study out of LA just found that half of all fish slices tested from sushi restaurants and 42 percent of fish tested from grocers was fraudulently labeled. Red snapper, mahi mahi, halibut, and grouper, are a few commonly mislabeled species.
Protect yourself from fish fraud by buying locally caught, fresh fare, and if you can't do that, Moonen recommends going for fish that come from Alaska, where sustainability is practically written into the constitution. Without a DNA test, it's almost impossible to tell what's in your fish filet, so buy the whole fish—skin intact—whenever possible.
Fish of the future.
Aquaculture—the process of farming fish in protected areas off the coast—offers one solution to the market's transparency problem. However, the industry has a rocky past, and stories of antibiotic use, chemical spills, and poor management tarnished its reputation for a while. Today, though, new regulations and passionate growers are forging a cleaner, more sustainable industry. Half of the seafood consumed in the United States is now farmed, and the World Bank predicts that this figure could rise to 75 percent by 2030.
Advances in farm management practices include the harvesting of more native species, larger pen systems, and feed formulations that use plant-based proteins. Jacqueline Claudia, co-founder and CEO of LoveTheWild, a frozen seafood brand that serves farmed fish (and recently brought in a wave of funding from one Leonardo DiCaprio), still sees some misconceptions about the industry, despite its impressive progress.
"Folks have a lot of ideas about what fish can or should eat that really have nothing to do with their nutritional needs or what is sustainable," she tells mbg. "They say that fish farms are 'crowded,' forgetting that natural behavior of fish is to school tightly together even in the wide-open ocean. Folks think farmed fish is 'pumped full of drugs,' without realizing that because the feed and water parameters are controlled, most farmed fish is completely free of contaminants. Even the worst aquaculture in the world has less environmental impact than the best hog farm."
She adds that farmed fish can even be cleaner than wild-caught fish in many cases. "Wild fish is romantic, and the epitome of natural, but our wild fish isn't as clean as it used to be."
The first open-ocean aquaculture system (one that lives more than 3 miles off the coast) was recently approved in the United States, so it's safe to say you'll be seeing a lot more farmed fish cropping up in stores. Claudia says it's important to make sure that your farmed fish is BAP or ASC certified, especially if it's a popular species like salmon or tilapia. "In the U.S., consumers should look for BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices)-certified fish. ASC is another strong certification, but it's more prevalent in Europe. Whole Foods Market has their own stringent sustainability standards against which farms are evaluated, making any farmed fish sold in Whole Foods a good choice. Seafood Watch also has several farmed fish rated Best Choice."
Plus, you should remember that not all species are appropriate candidates for aquaculture. "Tuna, for example, have poor feed conversion ratios and won't eat sustainable pelletized feed formulations. For this reason, it's difficult and expensive to raise, so it's hard to find farmed tuna," says Claudia. "Price can be another red flag: As in nearly every large commodity category, when the product is too cheap, you know corners are being cut."
Your seafood shopping and ordering guide.
Larger, more popular fish like tuna and salmon are often mislabeled. Plus, constantly eating them puts more stress an already in-demand species. Try supplementing them with new, smaller varieties, and when you do buy or order them, look for local, wild-caught whole fish with the skin still intact. And check out this Oceana database that lists fish fraud in your area before you make any decisions.
Go with slightly less popular species, such as bass and catfish. Seafood Watch has a great list of fish that is more likely to be sustainably sourced. If you're buying wild-caught, do your research to make sure it comes from a reputable region, and if it's farm-raised, look out for the BAP Certification label and don't go with anything that's too cheap.
Eating small fish has a lower environmental impact and is typically the healthier choice. Look for like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel, either fresh or canned. If you can't find any that are local to your area, search for some from the Adriatic Sea, where operations tend to be more sustainable.