fishQ: I love seafood, but all the talk about farm-raised vs. wild-caught fish is confusing. What am I trying to avoid, and how do I figure out the best option?

A: Fish delivers plenty of protein and heart-healthy omega-3s without the calories, cost, cholesterol — or cow guilt — associated with beef. But two major factors negatively impact our seafood supply: high mercury levels and overfishing.

Mercury from industrial pollution affects our land and waterways. Once it’s in the water, mercury tends to work its way up the food chain, leading to higher levels in predators like sharks and swordfish. Unless you eat fish daily, mercury levels aren’t a major concern. However, the FDA suggests that pregnant women avoid shark, swordfish and king mackerel because extremely high mercury levels can damage a baby’s developing nervous system.

If you do load up on fish regularly, keep in mind that tuna is one of the most popular and readily available fish on the “don’t” list. To determine safe levels of tuna consumption based your weight, Environmental Working Group offers a handy online tuna calculator that will help determine safe levels based on your weight. Evidently, I need to give away a few of my oversize cans of Starkist tuna; 3.5 ounces of canned albacore a week is the suggested limit.

Our endless love for seafood also has greatly diminished the number of salmon, tuna and other popular fish in the sea. According to scientists with organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, our seafood supply is reaching dangerous levels, which greatly impacts what’s available at your local grocer or favorite restaurant.

To help stem the tide, Whole Foods grocery chain recently joined forces with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute to launch a sustainability ratings program. A third party will now verify that Whole Foods’ selection of farm-raised seafood is responsibly farmed. As for wild-caught seafood, the grocer will do business only with fisheries that have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Other selections will be color-coded based on input from Monterey Bay.

A green label on farmed rainbow trout means it is abundant and caught using environmentally friendly methods. Yellow labels on items like Canadian swordfish indicate concern for how the fish was caught or potential health concerns due to human impact on the fish’s habitat. Red labels signify that the fish such as Hawaiian big eye tuna was caught using methods that harm other marine life or the environment. It is a category that Whole Foods pledges to phase out by Earth Day, April 22, 2013. A gray label indicates that the fish has not yet been rated.

Of course, not everyone can afford to shop at Whole Foods on a regular basis. That’s why I bookmark the Monterey Bay site. In a previous column, I also noted that this fish-loving organization has a free downloadable app with seafood suggestions divided by region. You also can download handy pocket guides online. Check the site regularly because, hopefully, our shopping habits will lead to positive changes over time.

When it doubt, it also helps to simply ask your fishmonger or grocery store manager about the seafood they carry. If enough customers demand fish caught using sustainable methods, you won’t need to worry about confusion.

The same applies when you belly up to the sushi bar. Most restaurants have a large supply of tuna and salmon. But it may be time to be daring. Ask your sushi chef about the freshest selections and share your concern for sustainably caught fish. You may end up with a yummy assortment of new favorites.

To jump start the exploration, here is a short list of items to avoid at the sushi bar and some interesting alternatives from the Monterey Bay Aquarium:

  1. Unagi (freshwater eel)
  2. Kani (imported king crab)
  3. Sake (farmed or wild-caught salmon from California and Oregon)
  4. Ebi (shrimp)
  5. Aku (Tuna, skipjack)
  6. Maguro (yellowfin)
  7. Hamachi (yellowtail)
  8. Uni (sea urchin roe)
  9. Ankoh (monkfish)
  10. Tako (octopus)
Instead, consider this an opportunity to try something new. If you aren’t bold enough to place your palate in the sushi chef’s hands, then consider these alternatives:
  1. Awabi (U.S. farmed abalone)
  2. Masago (Icelandic smelt roe)
  3. Mirugai (wild-caught giant clam)
  4. Sawara (mackerel)
  5. Muurugai (farmed mussels)
  6. Kaki (farmed oysters)
  7. Iwashi (sardines from the U.S. Pacific)
  8. Suzuki (farmed striped bass)
  9. Izumidai (U.S. farmed tilapia)
  10. Uni (Canadian sea urchin roe) 
Hopefully, this advice removes some of the confusion you face when shopping for seafood. Happy eating!

— Morieka Johnson

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