Buying Safe Seafood in Baltimore’s Fishbowl

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Healthy Choice Seafood Guide
Excellent chart listing healthy & sustainable seafood courtesy of Washington State’s Dept. of Health

Laurel Peltier writes GreenLaurel.com, a monthly alert about environmentally friendly practices for everyday living. Beginning today, she will write regularly about the environment for the Baltimore Fishbowl. – The Eds.

Buying healthy and sustainable seafood locally is fishy business. Two factors have collided in recent years that have made choosing fish and shellfish complicated; we’ve eaten too many fish, and the fish that are left swim in polluted ocean waters. 

But no fear, we won’t leave you hanging on the line because right here in Baltimore lives Dave Love, a renowned scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. With Love’s help, we’ll point out the good fishing holes and offer direction on how to choose sustainable and healthy seafood. Hopefully smart seafood picks today will ensure future generations will have access to healthy and plentiful seafood tomorrow. 

What’s the problem:

Most fish are contaminated-some more then others: Mercury pollution from power plants and industrial chemicals, like PCBs, have found their way into our oceans. Mercury is a neurotoxin that kids, moms-to-be and breastfeeding moms need to avoid.  Cross off shark, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish and king mackerel from your shopping list because of their high mercury levels. But, Love advises, “The positives from eating seafood do outweigh the risks if you choose your fish wisely. Eating a variety of seafood, especially the heart-healthy types, is a good idea because seafood can be a good source of protein and part of a healthy diet.”

Q: Where are the fish? A: We ate them. Industrial-type fishing took off in the 1950s and fish catches peaked in 1995. Since then, fish stocks have plummeted, collapsing even. Did you know that Atlantic cod, the fish stick fish, collapsed and may not rebound? Smart seafood consumers avoid eating the “red-don’t-eat” seafood listed in the handy chart, above, in the hope that overfished species make it in the future.  Dave Love points out, “Ironically, the Food and Drug Administration’s new seafood guidelines to eat 8-12 ounces of a variety of seafood each week translates into demand outstripping today’s supply, by a lot.” Average seafood consumption is only two ounces per person, with shrimp and canned tuna the top sellers.

Bait and switch seafood fraud: To make matters worse, supermarkets, fish stores and sushi restaurants often switch cheaper fish for pricier varieties. The seafood industry is fragmented and tracing a tuna caught in Japan to a sushi place in Baltimore is tough. The non-profit Oceana has been on top of this story by testing, reporting and pushing for regulation. Oceana’s DC restaurant testing revealed that 26 percent of fish was mislabeled with all red snapper switched out and all sushi venues serving mislabeled fish.

What to do?

1. Choose low mercury and sustainable fish. Truthfully, the the list isn’t long. Check out this State of Washington’s Healthy Choice chart that combined both contaminant and overfishing info and even noted heart-healthy fish high in omega-3 fatty acids. 

Green and heart-healthy fish to be eaten two to three times per week: anchovies, black sea bass, herring, canned mackerel, oysters, salmon, sardines and trout.

Green fish to be eaten two to three times per week: butterfish, catfish, clams, Pacific cod, crab, flounder/sole, pollock (fish sticks), scallops, U.S. shrimp and U.S. tilapia.

2. Know your RED fish.

High in mercury: king mackerel, imported mahi mahi, shark, swordfish, tilefish, tuna (bluefin and bigeye) and sablefish (also known as black cod).

Overfished or not eco-friendly: Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, Atlantic sardines,  Chilean sea bass, bluefin tuna, imported king crab, imported shrimp, imported tilapia (unless clearly marked sustainable source), imported spiny Caribbean lobster and imported tuna.

There are well-managed fisheries, with Alaska leading the pack in strong coordination between fisherman and government.

3. Not all canned tuna is equal. The FDA added a caveat to their new guidelines with this one-liner, “Limit white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week.” It turns out the tastier white albacore, while high in omega-3 fatty acids, is also high in mercury at about 40 mg mercury per serving. “Light canned tuna” has scant mercury, but also one-fifth the omega-3 fatty acids.

4. Support sustainable supermarkets and fish stores.  The good news is consumer pressure has prompted most supermarkets to clean up their fish act and buy from sustainable wholesalers.  Greenpeace’s Seafood Retailer Scorecard winners reveal that Baltimore is awash with options: #1 Whole Foods, #2 Safeway, #3 Trader Joe’s, #4 Wegmans, #6 Target, #11 Walmart and #13 Costco.  And, the fish manager at Graul’s Market in Ruxton and Mays Chapel shops from sustainable sources. But, every supermarket still sells over-fished species. Want to know where Dave Love buys his fish? “I go to Shore Seafood and buy a whole fish that’s clean, the eyes are clear and the fish has a mucous layer. The fishmonger cleans and filets it for me.”

5. Trust, yet verify, at restaurants. Now it gets dicey because unless explicitly stated, the only way to verify if the restaurant’s fish is healthy, sustainable and labeled correctly, is to ask the manager.  A key reason for asking is that you want to know if that pricey red snapper is really mercury-laden tilefish. If the restaurant can’t articulate its fish source and if the folks there make no mention of sustainability, maybe it’s wise to order something else. Maybe speak up about your thoughts on the type of seafood you’d like to eat at the establishment?

6. Buy American. Farm raised that is. Dave Love explained that U.S. fish farms have higher standards than foreign fish farms which have not focused on managing the fish waste well.  Here’s a good read on farmed fishing and aquaculture’s potential pitfalls.

7. Get help from third party non-profits. The consumer leader is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a mobile device app that instantly identifies if a certain fish is healthy and not overfished. The Marine Stewardship Council promotes sustainable fishing practices and fisheries and many suppliers carry the symbol on their product.

It’s smart to apply the points above to ensure you are choosing healthy and sustainable seafood. If the recent past is an indication, the industry as a whole will improve. Consumers are now better educated and demanding better practices so that we won’t all be fish out of water caught gasping for air on land.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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4 COMMENTS

  1. Love the article, Laurel. It is clear, does a great job of explaining the issues and problems, but also does an excellent job of informing us on how to do better – what fish to avoid, what fish to buy, what to look for and most importantly how to ask and where to go. Thank you!

  2. What an informative and easy to read article and on a topic has been very confusing for me. Thanks for making it so simple to understand and to implement –

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