For a healthy and sustainable diet, Michael Pollan famously offered the rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Could it be that simple for fish as well?
For the carnivorously inclined, eating seafood seems like a wise idea. A constant stream of studies detail the health benefits that things from the ocean offer, as well as the reasons red meat in abundance may not be the best choice. But for the conscientious eater, considering seafood choices is a lesson in confounding confusion. Between issues of overfishing and aquaculture pollution and ecological harm and mercury and PCBs and all the rest of the mess, it feel nearly impossible; the Venn diagram would look as if it were plotted by Spirograph.
With all of that in mind, Paul Greenberg’s suggestion in The New York Times that there are three simple rules for eating seafood is really very refreshing. While he admits that his rules are a bit clunky, he is nonetheless able to distill some very important ideas into three distinct things to remember, which is a far cry better than what most of us have been able to come up otherwise. Here's what he suggests:
1. Eat American seafood
This isn’t a “Go USA” thing, rather, the U.S. is one of just a few nations that, according to Greenberg, manages wild fish in a responsible way. When ranked by the level of compliance with the United Nations code of conduct for fisheries, only the United States, Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada and Namibia had “overall compliance scores whose confidence limits overlap with 60 percent.” In the United States, we have in place quota systems and legal statutes that mandate overfishing’s end within a set period of time.
Yet here’s the rub, up to 90 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported! While that doesn’t negate the fact that we are making attempts at managing our fisheries sustainably, most of us end up eating seafood from Asia, where regulation is not nearly as robust. By some accounts, almost one third of our imported seafood may come to us via illegal or unreported fishing. Therefore, we should strive to eat fish that was caught in our home waters.
2. Eat a much greater variety than we currently doMeanwhile, the U.S. exports around 3 billion pounds of what we catch. Why? Basically because more than half of the seafood we eat is comprised of shrimp, tuna and salmon. Shrimp often comes from Southeast Asia where the aquaculture is whacking coastal mangrove forests; meanwhile, the Thailand seafood industry, which is where we get most of our shrimp from, has been repeatedly accused of abusive labor practices. Tuna is a wicked source of mercury. Salmon, which is well-managed in the wild, generally comes from fish farms which have their own host of problems.
Yet while we import much of what we eat, we export tons of fish that Americans just aren’t accustomed to. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do with Atlantic porgy, Acadian redfish or Pacific sablefish – just a few of the 30 wild fish stocks that have been rebuilt from depletion of the last few decades. It's time to get familiar with the unfamiliar.
3. Eat mostly farmed filter feedersBring on the oysters, bring on the mussels! As Greenberg points out, even if we all ate American fish, there is not enough wild seafood available to eat only that caught here – which means more aquaculture is necessary. And the most sustainable farmed fish are filter feeders (like oysters and mussels), which don’t require feed because they strain their nutrition out of the water. One of the great problems of fish farming is that it requires wild fish as feed; and while the industry has improved in leaps and bounds, it is also growing so quickly that supply remains a potential problem.
On the other hand, filter feeders actually give back to the environment as they feed. A single oyster for example, in the process of eating, filters about 30 to 50 gallons of water a day. Mussels also filter water, provide habitat for other creatures, and have impressive omega-3 levels without the mercury that bigger fish carry.
“It’s exactly this kind of farming that we should be doing along our coasts: a kind of ocean farming that supports clean water, gives us nutritious food and creates habitat for other fish.”
So that's it. Eat American seafood. A much greater variety than we currently do. Mostly farmed filter feeders.
And then come the disclaimers, for example: New England cod is still overfished, foreign fisheries are improving, not all filter feeders are sustainable. But it’s a start.
"Food rules are meant to be aspirational, even if they’re not always realistic," concludes Greenberg. “We are what we eat, in both our hearts and our minds.”