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When it comes to buying fish and seafood, Green Queen knows it can be hard to know if you are making the right choice. We want to help. In this three part series, we cover everything you need to know to be an informed and sustainable seafood buyer including what to buy, where to buy it and why. There are so many terms flying in the world of seafood, it requires some expert deciphering! Below, we do just that. Note: in this series, we cover fish and we use the term seafood to mean as such.
What is sustainable seafood?
Sustainable seafood is seafood that can be produced without serious damage to fish stocks or to marine life. Pundits disagree on how exactly this can be achieved and what the exact definition of environmental harm is.
What is farmed fish?
Farmed fish, or aquaculture, is the practise of raising fish commercially for the purpose of human food. Fish farming is done under controlled conditions making use of large tanks and/or underwater cages. The most popular farmed fish species worldwide are salmon, catfish, tilapia and carp. When properly managed, aquaculture is seen by proponents as the environmentally friendly answer to the overfishing crisis that the planet is facing as they can help to regenerate almost extinct fish stocks.
That being said, industrial fish farming is often mired in controversy. Critics often point to the following: unnatural confining of fish in small spaces which lead to high incidence of disease; heavy use of hormones and antibiotics to manage said disease, giving fish non natural feed (feed that they are biologically programmed to consume) including GMO feed; interbreeding of farmed fish with wild fish species when the farmed fish escape (which is unavoidable).
When buying farmed fish, it is important to understand where the farm is located, the conditions in which the fish is being raised such as whether they have access to fast-moving currents to keep the farms clean, what type of feed they consume, how many fish per tank are bred, etc. For example, land-based farmed fish are friendly to the marine ecosystem as they can’t infiltrate oceans.
What is wild fish?
There are varying definitions and terms when it comes to wild fish. The purest definition of wild fish to fish species that grown in the wild without human interference whereas the term wild-caught fish refers to the method used to catch the fish. A farmed fish can be labeled as wild-caught. Due to the confusion between these two terms, some use the term native fish to refer to fish species that exist with no human/commercial interference. Eating wild/native fish can be a ecologically destructive if you choose species that are endangered or if the fishing method is destructive to other marine life so it is important to choose well. If you choose non-endangered wild/native fish species, most agree they offer superior taste and quality because they hunt their own food and swim and migrate freely and consume foods that their bodies can easily metabolise.
What is organic fish?
The term organic was originally coined with reference to a set of agricultural farming standard. Today organic is attached to far more than just produce which can lead to confusion as to its exact definition. Wild/native fish cannot, by definition, be labeled organic because wild fish does not grow in a controlled environment. This means that is is not possible to guarantee what the fish ate, what substances they were exposed and what their environmental conditions were during their lifespan. When it comes to seafood, organic fish means farmed fish. (See above for an explanation of what farmed fish is).
Are all fish choices equal?
All fish are not equal and what species of fish you buy matters a great deal. Due to overfishing, certain fish species’ stock have been drastically impacted and are now near extinction in the wild. These include dinner table favourites such as Bluefin Tuna, Orange Roughy and Atlantic Halibut. Overfishing means reducing a fish species’ population to non sustainable levels ie the species is no longer able to reproduce and recover lost numbers on its own.
Another consideration is where the fish you are eating falls on the food chain. The higher on the food chain the species, the more devastating the impact on fragile marine eco systems. The shark fin industry’s damage to shark populations is a good example of where this can lead- when large predators are killed off, the rest of the marine life food chain becomes unbalanced with overgrowth of species lower down on the food chain.
Where should I buy fish from?
For health reasons, it is best to buy seafood from waters that are as unpolluted as possible. For ecological reasons, it is best to buy seafood from geographies that protect their marine resources and actively manage their fishing industries. Certain governments have made seafood and fish stock management a priority. Countries like New Zealand, and Iceland have enacted special quota systems that measure fish & seafood stock levels very carefully and ensure that fishing practices do not harm their surrounding marine life environments. Regular testing depicts these geographies as having some of the least polluted waters on the planet.
Other responsible fishing geographies include the United States, Canada and Australia (particularly Tasmania). The Pacific North West and Alaska were until very recently also recognised as extremely clean until Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant leak in March 2011 since which toxic debris has been found on North American Pacific shores. It remains to be seen how negatively this has affected the seafood stocks.
What about mercury?
Would an discussion of sustainable seafood be complete with out mentioning mercury? We all know that fish species that are higher in the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish, have been shown to contain extremely elevated levels of mercury- this is because they live longer than fish in the lower parts of the food chain so they have more time to accumulate higher levels of it. Most scientists agree that consuming fish with high levels of mercury too many times per week is not good for one’s health. If you are looking to get those good-for-the-brain-and-heart Omega 3s but want to avoid mercury laden tuna and salmon, try Omega-3 heavy smaller fish species like sardines and anchovies.
What about PCBs?
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, another toxin that accumulates in the fish we consume is or polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs as they are more commonly referred to, synthetic chemicals used as coolants in electric motors and capacitors in previous decades. Now banned for use in most countries, PCB ingestion has been linked to liver damage, hormone imbalances, and various types of cancer. As with mercury, avoid the bigger fish predators who ingest higher levels of PCBs.
Fresh or frozen?
Obviously the best choice is to buy local/regional and sustainable fish. Ideally those fish should be fresh. However when buying non local fish, the question of whether to buy fresh (meaning chilled) or frozen arises. This is not so much of a sustainable issue as a taste issue. Many people find that frozen fish is simply not as flavourful as fresh (chilled) fish. Further frozen fish has often been frozen for long periods of time or worse, thawed and then refrozen (which, as with meat, is a no-no).
For a comprehensive list of what fish to consume, review the Consumer Guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, search the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide or download the World Wildlife Fund‘s Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Guide 2013.
A special thank you to Mr. Bradley White, one of the founders of South Stream Seafoods, for his help and expertise with regards to the sustainability of New Zealand and Australian seafood.
Join us next week for Part 2 where we unscramble all the various seafood eco-labels for you.