By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Like eel? Tuna? Imported catfish?
You might want to find some new entrees. The Food & Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide warns that many such popular fish and seafood are simply not safe to eat, while others are not ethical to eat. Some marine food sources present both health and ethical problems.
Take Bluefin tuna — or rather, DON’T take it. Bluefin has been dangerously overfished and is listed as endangered in the Atlantic. Its population has been decimated by overfishing. As a large fish that typically grows to several hundred pounds, it tends to bioaccumulate mercury. Big fish pack on the toxic chemicals because as top-level predators they spend years eating contaminated little fish. So it’s not only nice, but smart, to stay away from Bluefin.
Yearning for eel? You could get stung with that choice as well, because yellow or silver eel tends to test high for mercury and PCBs, according to Food & Water Watch.
Craving caviar? Here’s a delicacy you may want to put on the same list with foie gras and shark fin soup, because its extraction is harmful, if not cruel. (Foie gras and shark fin soup would have to take top honors there. But you can see on the list below how the harvest of these coveted eggs jeopardizes a struggling population of fish.)
The bottom line: Sadly, a lot of fish are in trouble, and many aren’t safe to eat because of pollution. Even farmed fish can offer up a hidden side dish of toxic pesticides and heavy metals that you wouldn’t want to ingest. (See catfish and salmon below.)
Here then, is Food and Water Watch’s “Dirty Dozen” for seafood (the name echoes the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticides).
12 fish that fail at least two of FWW criteria for safe and sustainable seafood
Catfish, Imported (also known as Basa, Swai, Tra or Pangasius) – Imported catfish often come from Southeast Asia, where use of chemicals and antibiotics is barely regulated. Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects less than two percent of imported seafood, imported catfish may be contaminated with antibiotic, pesticide or bacterial residues.
Caviar, especially from beluga and other wild-caught sturgeon - The beluga sturgeon, also known as the European or great sturgeon, is found primarily in the Caspian and Black Seas. The beluga sturgeon can live for over 100 years and does not reach maturity until at least 15 years of age. As a result of its long lifespan and slow maturation, this species has low resilience and is vulnerable to overfishing. The salted eggs of the beluga sturgeon, known as caviar, are considered a delicacy. The demand for highly valued beluga caviar has led to overfishing and poaching of the species. The construction of dams as well as pollution has further diminished the population.
Cod, Atlantic - The Atlantic cod stock collapsed in the early 1990s and is currently undergoing overfishing. It is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This species is frequently caught using bottom or otter trawls, nets that drag along the seafloor, and can damage the bottom habitat and remove or cover animals and plant life. This fishing method also can result in the unintended capture of many other types of marine life (bycatch).
Eel, American (also known as “yellow” or “silver” eel) - The American eel is known to have high concentrations of mercury and PCBs, toxic chemicals that can prove harmful to human health.
Flatfish, Atlantic (e.g. flounder, sole and halibut) - Most other Atlantic flatfish stocks are also seriously overfished. Atlantic halibut has been overfished off the coast of the Northeastern United States since the 1800’s. Despite management practices that currently prevent targeted fishing of Atlantic halibut and attempt to reduce bycatch of the species, the fishery has not recovered.
Imported King Crab – Although many varieties of crabs live in North American waters, the United States also imports crab from other countries. Often, exporters will sell crab caught here in the U.S. to other countries where they can receive a higher price, while importing cheaper crab, often from Russia, for local consumption in the U.S. Exacerbating the situation, much of the crab caught in Russia exceeds the total allowable catch, making it illegal.
Imported Shrimp - Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, but about 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported from other countries where seafood production and employment conditions are often not well regulated.
Roughy, Orange – Orange roughy may contain levels of mercury contamination that pose a health risk for adults and children. Orange roughy are caught in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans with fisheries off the coast of New Zealand, Australia, Namibia, the Northeast Atlantic, and Chile. This fish is particularly vulnerable to overfishing due to its long lifespan and slow maturation.
Salmon, Atlantic and Farmed – Farmed salmon may contain levels of PCB contamination that pose a health risk to adults and children. It may also be contaminated with pesticides and antibiotics. Farmed salmon are usually raised in cages in open waters. These cages allow free-flow of anything from the farm into the wild, and promote transfer of diseases, especially sea lice, from caged to wild fish.
Seabass, Chilean – Chilean seabass may contain levels of mercury contamination that pose a health risk to adults and children. For nearly a decade, illegal fishing has plagued Chilean seabass populations, while killing seabirds by the thousands, including several species of endangered albatrosses.
Shark – Shark may contain levels of mercury contamination that pose a health risk to adults and children.
Tuna, Bluefin, Atlantic – Bluefin tuna poses a very high health risk due to high levels of both mercury and PCB contamination. Bluefin tuna are internationally overfished, nearly to levels of extinction. They are believed to be 80% or more below their original abundance levels. The eastern and western Atlantic Ocean stocks to which bluefin tuna are native are listed as “endangered,” and “critically endangered,” respectively, in the IUCN Redlist of the world’s most threatened species.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Food & Water Watch also has put out a list of recommended fish as part of it’s comprehensive guide.
Here, not to be confused with the fish to avoid listed above, are some of those recommendations.
Fish that are safer and more sustainably fished or farmed
Catfish, Farmed U.S. – Catfish is farmed in many southeastern states in the U.S. Chemical usage on catfish farms is regulated much more stringently here than in other countries. Catfish do not need wild fish to be included in their diet, so farming them does not deplete wild fish populations, as does farming of many other species.
Haddock, U.S. Hook and Line Caught – Haddock is primarily caught with trawls, which can damage the seafloor, cover or remove animal and plant life, and catch large amounts of non-target species. However, there is also a hook-and-line segment of the fishery, which often results in significantly less bycatch and habitat damage.
Halibut, Pacific U.S. – Pacific halibut are not considered overfished, and populations have been monitored and managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission for almost 80 years.
U.S. Farmed Tilapia - In the United States, tilapia is generally farmed in closed systems that limit pollution. Many of these farms conserve resources by re-circulating the water, and some even make use of nutrient by-products to grow hydroponic crops.
U.S. Pole- or Troll-Caught Mahi Mahi/Dolphinfish – Mahi-mahi is not strongly associated with contaminants, but may contain some mercury. Consumers should check for current warnings to determine safe consumption levels of fish, in particular for pregnant women, those who may become pregnant and children. See the EPA’s list of national fish advisories.
Yellowtail Snapper – Yellowtail snapper is not strongly associated with contaminants, but may contain some mercury. Again, consumers should check for current warnings to determine safe consumption levels of fish, in particular for pregnant women, those who may become pregnant and children.
To find out more about how to eat seafood responsibly, and safely, see Understanding the 2010 Smart Seafood Guide.
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