Whether you follow a natural, organic diet or not, you probably have heard that you should be consuming a serving of fish at least twice per week. Why? Besides being a healthy, lean, low-calorie source of protein, oily fish like salmon and sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids that, among other benefits, are essential to your body’s neurological health.
Beyond the concern for getting enough fish in your diet each week, the question of sustainability comes into play—namely, which seafood is best for your health and for the environment? Unless you catch and eat your own fish, chances are that the fish you buy at the supermarket comes from a fish farm, meaning it’s neither organic nor sustainable. Although the aquaculture industry began as a way to compensate for the damage commercial fishing has done to the world’s sea life, fish farms have become increasingly dangerous not only for the environment, but also for the health of both the consumer and the fish.
Although the reasons for not eating farmed fish abound, the primary ones deal with the long-term impact of fish farms on people, fish, and marine habitats. Fish farming is exactly what it sounds like: a man-made industry in which fish are essentially “grown” in an unnatural environment on an unnatural diet that often includes massive doses of antibiotics and chemicals. These antibiotics don’t just cause antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans, but the toxins also cause long-term, perhaps irreversible, damage to marine ecosystems. What’s more, the fish themselves, kept in tight, unnatural conditions, are prone to disease and infection; the parasites that often arise from the unsanitary conditions of fish farms migrate from farms into the ocean where they infect not just wild fish populations, but the other species—including humans—who consume them.
But it’s not just parasites and diseases that are escaping fish farms. Farmed fish constantly try to escape the unpleasant conditions of the farm to the detriment of the gene pool of wild fish populations. In fact, up to two million fish escape from North Atlantic farms alone each year, meaning that about 20 percent of all “wild salmon” caught in this region come from farms. And when farmed fish breed with wild fish, they produce a less viable hybrid species that dies quickly at both the embryonic and adult stages, putting pressure on both wild fish populations and the predators that depend on them for survival.
Luckily, the Monterey Bay Aquarium runs a program called Seafood Watch, which compiles data from top environmental and health organizations worldwide to determine the seafood that’s healthiest for you and the environment. Their recommendations include seafood that’s either fished or farmed in organic, sustainable ways, helping consumers make better seafood choices for a healthy ocean. Here are 5 picks from their list of seafood you should be eating.
Alaska’s salmon fishery is one of the most carefully managed and sustainable of its kind in the world. Biologists keep track of the number of salmon that return to rivers to spawn and, if the numbers dwindle, they close the fishery. They also closely monitor and manage water quality, resulting in healthier, more sustainable fish than nearly any other salmon fishery.
While many types of tuna contain high levels of mercury, albacore tuna that’s troll- or pole-caught in the U.S. and British Columbia tend to be younger, meaning they contain far fewer contaminants than other tuna; plus, fish from these cold northern waters typically contain higher levels of omega-3s than those caught elsewhere. To ensure it’s healthy and sustainable, it’s important to know how and where your tuna was caught, so do some research or look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council eco label before you buy.
Unlike farmed fish, farmed oysters are actually good for you and for the environment. They improve water quality by feeding off algae and other natural nutrients in the water, and, by acting as natural reefs, often attract and provide food for other species of marine life. Shellfish from warm waters, however, may contain bacteria and parasites, so it’s best not to consume them raw.
Despite a decline caused by over fishing and a natural collapse during the 1940s, the Pacific sardine has not just recovered, but also become one of the top superfoods you can eat. A 3-ounce serving of sardines contains more omega-3s than salmon, tuna, or nearly any other food while providing a naturally high level of vitamin D.
Lake trout contain high levels of contaminants and other toxins that make them dangerous to both the environment and your health. Thankfully, most of the rainbow trout you’ll find in the supermarket comes from a farm—and not the cramped, inhumane, unsustainable kind. In the U.S., rainbow trout farms consist of freshwater ponds and raceways where fish are protected from contaminants and receive a natural, resource-conserving fishmeal diet.
While you’re browsing the supermarket for your next fish supper, it’s helpful to know which fish not to buy, too. Seafood Watch recommends avoiding Bluefin tuna, Chilean seabass (also known as Patagonian toothfish), grouper, monkfish, orange roughy, and farmed salmon (but go for the freshwater Coho salmon farmed in tank systems in the U.S.—it comes from a healthy, sustainable, and humane practice). These fish are depleted species and also contain high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins; for some, the Environmental Defense Fund has even posted a health advisory.