Sustainable Seafood: New and Noteworthy Resources

by Sarah Henry on July 12, 2011 · 38 comments

in bay area bites,food businesses,seafood

Up until a couple of recent events, I’d almost given up consuming seafood in this country, saving my shellfish and finfish feasts for my annual visits back home to Australia, where eating sea creatures seems somehow less loaded and certainly more local.

Then in May I was fortunate to attend the Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Foods Institute, a media powwow hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (creator of the Seafood Watch pocket guide). At the event everyone from fired up media mogul turned bison farmer Ted Turner and actor-activist Isabelle Rossellini to chef Cindy Pawlcyn and author Paul Greenberg — along with Seafood Watch scientists and sustainable fishing advocates — schooled me in the latest research and thinking on eating fish.

good fishThat two-day sustainable seafood cram session was followed by a visit to Omnivore Books in June to hear Seattle-based seafood chef-writer Becky Selengut joke about how she caught crabs on assignment for a magazine and, more seriously, dish out advice on how to buy and cook local seafood in her new cookbook, good fish.

Seafood consumers and home cooks should consider this post a companion piece to my Bay Area Bites colleague Denise Santoro Lincoln’s sustainable fish primer from February, which is full of good tips on this very subject. Check that post out and then come back here. I’ll wait.

Okay, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way, shall we? Buying fish is confusing and challenging because you’re concerned about species extinction, pollution problems, bycatch issues, and health concerns, right? And you should be. While seafood is an excellent source of lean protein and heart- and brain-friendly omega-3s, it can also be laden with mercury, which can do a nasty number on the brain and nervous systems of vulnerable populations (think nursing women, children, and the unborn). Add to that persistent organic pollutants (also known as POPS) which, despite the cute acronym, are hormone-disrupting neurotoxins that can wreak havoc on humans, and it’s a wonder you’re not hungry for a slab of farmed salmon or wild tuna cooked quickly on the grill.

Then, of course, for the ethical environmentalists among us, there’s the sad realization that we’re coming to the end of the line seafood-species wise. We’ve done a good job globally of depleting fish stocks to worrisomely low levels, with Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna on a fast track towards extinction. Throw in the real problems with certain farmed fish businesses (think waste-disease-pollution) and the anxiety around GMO-salmon and the dreaded Frankenfish, and it’s enough to make a seafood lover switch to some other protein source.

Enough with the horror stories from the open seas. There are still ways to get a seafood fix, it just takes a little education, thought and planning. But if you’ve read this far you’re probably willing to go the extra mile for mussels or work a bit harder for halibut. Chances are, you’ve likely already done that as far as fruit and vegetables are concerned (local, organic, seasonal) and meat (grass-fed, humanely-raised, thoughtfully slaughtered).

Some suggestions for making healthier, more sustainable seafood choices, gleaned from the experts above:

Grilled spot prawns from good fish. Photo: Clare Barboza

Think small: Americans are conditioned to thinking bigger is better. Not necessarily so when it comes to fish. Sardines and anchovies, those little, oily bottom feeders of the sea, revered in other parts of the world, are delicious, nutritious, and affordable, and carry a lower risk for toxins than big fish like tuna.

  • Buy seasonally and diversify: Would you expect to buy great tasting, local, organic tomatoes in January? Apply the same sensibility to your seafood shopping and pick shellfish and finfish during their peak time for freshness, taste, and price. Dungeness crab is harvested in the fall and winter, for instance. When in doubt, ask. Most Americans who eat seafood choose salmon, shrimp, or tuna. Check out Arctic char or Pacific halibut for a change.
  • Reconsider frozen and farmed fish: A properly frozen fish (landed gently, bled, and quickly chilled preferably at sea) can be a high-quality, carbon-foot print friendly option, if handled well, says Selengut. While hook-and-line wild fish is a better bet than seafood caught by dredging or trawling, which can produce a lot of bycatch (accidentally caught species unintentionally killed in the fishing process), farmed fish are a wise choice in some circumstances, adds the cookbook author. Farmed fish may be a more sustainable choice for fish lower on the food chain that are either vegetarian or require only small amounts of fish protein to produce flesh. Find an example of a farmed fish that may be gentler on the environment in a recent Time magazine story on a western Massachusetts-based outfit farming barramundi, a fish much loved in my homeland.
  • Find a fishmonger you trust: Local picks include the year-old San Francisco-based online sustainable seafood supplier i love blue sea, co-founded by Martin Reed, a panelist at the recent Sustainable Foods Institute. I love blue sea doesn’t sell any of Seafood Watch’s red-listed fish and ships via FedEx across the country. (Bay Area residents can pick up directly, avoiding the expense and guilt associated with air freight).

Newcomer Siren SeaSA founded by Anna Larsen, offers a CSA-like option for seafood lovers: For six Saturdays starting July 16, subscribers can pick up an assortment of seasonal, sustainable seafood in San Francisco or Petaluma. Catch of the day may include wild king salmon from Bodega Bay, squid from Monterey, wild-caught Pacific sardines, Miyagi oysters from Tomales Bay, and hook-and-line caught black cod. Limited to 100 members for its trial run, a six-week subscription is still available at a cost of $255 for seafood portions calculated to feed four people. Larsen plans to continue the program beyond this initial summer launch.

A Community Supported Fishery (CSF) program is also running this summer out of Half Moon Bay. And a very new online resource Local Catch, promises connections to CSF members via a zip code search function.

Cast-iron rainbow trout from good fish. Photo: Clare Barboza

Learn more about sustainable seafood:

Read Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, which documents the tenuous outlook for salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna.

Follow the reporting of sustainable seafood writers such as former Gourmet scribe Barry Estabrook of Politics of the Plate and freelance food writer Clare Leschin-Hoar.

Watch Isabelle Rossellini’s entertaining, educational, and amusing Green Porno series, which documents the plight of sea creatures and other animals.

See the seafood documentaries The End of the Line and Red Gold.

Cook Find Mark Bittman’s simple recipes for serving white fish fillet a dozen ways in the New York Times. Check out acclaimed seafood chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver’s new cookbook For Cod and Country or Selengut’s good fish, which features fifteen types of Pacific Coast sea creatures (including clams, crabs, char, cod, salmon, scallops, squid, and sardines) in 75 recipes. Check out the instructional online videos from the private chef and cooking teacher, who also blogs at chefreinvented.

Got a sustainable seafood resource to share? Add your voice below.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites and was republished on The Huffington Post.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Kyle Cornforth July 12, 2011 at 10:48 am

Sarah,

Thank you for this comprehensive coverage! I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot as I have been eyeing the $20 a pound salmon at the farmers market and thinking if it has to be that expensive, we probably shouldn’t be eating it!

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm

You’re welcome Kyle. Another way, perhaps, of looking at that exxy price per pound for salmon: The real cost of fishing sustainably these days.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi July 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Eating sustainable fish is all about knowing what is best to eat right where you are. Here in New Zealand, I like to eat gurnard and tarakihi both small, fast growing fish and avoid bigger, slower growing species like snapper.

I tried barramundi last time I was in Perth and I gotta say, I found the texture very odd. It reminded me of fish flavored rice noodles.

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Fish flavored rice noodles? That’s an interesting description, Melanie. But your point about eating what’s close is well taken.

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NoPotCooking July 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

A CSA for seafood is such a brilliant idea, unless you’re not on the coast. Then what? A fish CSA that trucks/flies it in? These are such important questions. Great piece on something I never considered before.

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Good question, NPC. i love blue sea, the example i mention in the post, does fed ex fish to the lower 48 states.

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Alexandra July 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Here in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, we have Mac Hay who is extremely knowledgeable and runs Mac’s Shack and Mac’s Seafood with an educated eye towards all the factors you mention above.

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Then you’re lucky, Sandy, to have a resident seafood expert in your town. But I suspect there are many all over Cape Cod, yes?

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Living Large in our Little House July 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm

This is great info. Coming from the Midwest and now we live in the south on one of the best fishing lakes in the country, I try to eat more locally harvested fresh water fish.

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Makes sense, LLLH. What’s your fresh water fish of choice?

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. July 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm

I wish I knew which fish were properly frozen at my local Whole Foods – the company descriptions on their packaging are sadly lacking, IMHO. But I do buy the local clams and scallops, in season, and fresh Gulf or Maine shrimp if they’ve got ‘em. Pretty much stay away from everything else, which is depressing (just like the state of the oceans, I guess).

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Well put, Casey. As for the frozen fish at Whole Foods, which generally gets high marks on the sustainable seafood front, have you tried asking about their practices or pointing out their packaging info is inadequate? They may well respond to such customer complaint.

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Shetul July 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Funny, I always thought of “bottom feeders” as a bad thing. The description makes it sound sub-standard, somehow. Thanks for this very informative post. as someone who doesn’t eat meat and only occasionally eats poultry, I find myself relying heavily on fish.

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2011 at 5:51 pm

I know what you mean, Shetul, about the “bottom feeder” label. Perhaps these fish need some “branding” help, to use a term much bandied about these days.

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Susan July 13, 2011 at 6:52 am

Thanks for compiling such a thorough resource on sustainable seafood.

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Sarah Henry July 13, 2011 at 7:18 am

Pleaure, Susan. Trust it comes in handy.

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Jill Silverman Hough July 13, 2011 at 8:45 am

Amen, amen, amen. Thank you for so beautifully and thoroughly covering this subject, Sarah. It’s near and dear to my heart simply because, completely selfishly, I love seafood and want to be able to keep eating it and eating it! It IS confusing to figure out the “right” choices when purchasing seafood, but the more we all talk about it, the more clear it’ll become. Thanks again. :)

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Sarah Henry July 13, 2011 at 8:51 am

It makes me happy when readers respond as you did Jill on a subject that many find challenging. I should add that Food and Water Watch recently launched their updated 2011 seafood guide too, with new suggestions about eating invasive species (killing two fish with one stone or some such). Details here:

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/fish/seafood/guide/

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/science/earth/10fish.html

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Jill Silverman Hough July 13, 2011 at 8:58 am

More resources! Awesome. Happy all around!

But just in case anyone sees them and says to themselves “MORE to consider? how will I ever figure out the right thing to do?!?” I think it’s worth saying – a consumer doesn’t have to figure that out. I mean, one can, but one doesn’t necessarily have to sift through it all in order to make a difference. Pick one source, or two, and consult them before making seafood choices. That’s a lot. If everyone did just that, it’d make a huge difference.

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Sarah Henry July 13, 2011 at 9:03 am

Sound advice, Jill. My thinking here is that the experts have done much of the leg work for consumers, find a reliable resource (or two, as you say) that works for you and then go about the business of making smart seafood choices.

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Jill Silverman Hough July 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

Amen again.

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MyKidsEatSquid July 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Who knew anchovies get high marks for sustainability? I’ve been meaning to use them more in cooking–do you recommend buying whole? Frozen?

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sarah henry July 14, 2011 at 8:49 am

Most of the wild anchovy catch comes from the California coast, so depending on where you are, you’ll likely be looking for whole, frozen fish.

Some links that may be useful:

http://www.ilovebluesea.com/anchovies-p-85.html
http://www.ilovebluesea.com/marinated-anchovy-fillets-22-lbs-p-89.html

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/fish/seafood/seafood-guide/anchovy-u-s-wild/

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Jennifer Margulis July 13, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Thanks so much for this. I’ve been wondering a lot lately about seafood and this article helps me understand how to enjoy it more sustainably

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sarah henry July 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

You’re not alone, Jennifer, glad you found this helpful.

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Jane Boursaw July 14, 2011 at 9:59 am

Not really a seafood gal here, but with all the food scares these days, seems smart to stick with sustainable, organic, locally-grown food whenever possible. That’s my mantra anyway.

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Sarah Henry July 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Sounds like a wise plan, Jane.

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Jeanine Barone July 14, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I love that you included so many resources in this post. Very useful. I’m a big seafood eater — probably 3 or 4 times a week; maybe more. And sardines and anchovies are two of my favorite fish that are not only sustainable but rich in healthy omega-3 fats.

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Sarah Henry July 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Thanks, Jeanine, always appreciate the nutritionist’s perspective.

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Anna, The Lemon Lady July 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Great article Sarah, as always.

I still eat healthy, choose sustainable options when possible. We enjoyed lunch at Chow in Lafayette today. Wish there were more of these types of restaurants closer to Walnut Creek. Not sure if there is any restaurant at all in Concord/ Clayton serving sustainable or organic food. Shows what I know. Yet, I do know a Mulberry tree when I see one. Still foraging super local fruit and enjoying perks of the job.

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Sarah Henry July 16, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Mulberry trees in your neck of the woods, Anna. That’s a treat.

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Vicki Nichols Goldstein July 19, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Love your blog on sustainable seafood. Just posted it on the Colorado Ocean Coalition facebook page. Come visit us there and share your comments.

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Sarah Henry July 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Hi Vicki, Thanks for spreading the word and I look forward to learning more about your group. Best, Sarah

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merr July 21, 2011 at 8:23 am

I just came across a little pamphlet about this – small enough to be tucked in one’s wallet. It’s a really important issue. Thanks for the post about it.

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Sarah Henry July 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Sounds like the Seafood Watch card, merr, And , yes, these pocket-sized guides are great for shopping or restaurant excursions.

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