Over 28,000 species of fish swim in the world’s oceans and many more undiscovered species exist. Not all 28,000 species are safe eats due to contaminants, yet many still wind up on our dinner plate. Further complicating the problem, many fish stocks face rapid depletion. The result: eating fish is not as healthy as it once was for both you and the fish populations. However, you do not need to give up this delicious dish yet. By learning to choose your seafood wisely, you can make healthy choices for yourself and the ocean.
Contaminants such as PCBs and metals end up in our fish populations, the most notable being mercury. Mercury is released into the air by both human and natural processes. Nearly two-thirds of all mercury released into the environment comes from human sources such as chlor-alkali production. It falls back down to the land and water and turns into the more toxic methylmercury, which bioaccumulates in aquatic food chains and contaminates the fish we eat. Consequently, fish higher up on the food chain like swordfish and shark, and yes, even tuna, contain among the highest concentrations of mercury in their bodies.
Mercury targets important organs, in particular the heart and brain. The effects of mercury are broad as it can cause many health problems. These complications can include impaired coordination, tremors, irritability, memory loss, depression, blurred vision and a tingling sensation in the skin.
Mercury’s potential impacts on early fetus and child development pose the greatest concern. An EPA scientist has estimated that hundreds of thousands of newborns each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with their mothers eating high mercury fish during pregnancy and breast-feeding.
Consequently, in 2004, the FDA and EPA issued advisories about mercury contamination in commonly-sold fish. The advisory is directed towards women of child-bearing age, including those who are pregnant, and young children. Unfortunately, this important advice is difficult to find and not available where you need it the most: at your supermarket.
The lack of easily-accessible information is especially startling considering how many people enjoy seafood. From smoked salmon to creamy mussel chowder to fried fish sticks, more than 85% of adults eat seafood at least once a month. Americans consume an estimated 5 billion pounds of seafood a year. However, our adoration for seafood comes with a high price tag that not only includes mercury contamination, but also the disappearance of the world’s fish stocks.
A shocking study published in the Science November 2006 edition stated that one-third of all fishing stocks have already collapsed. The researchers also made a distressing prediction: if current fishing practices continue in only fifty years time, all major fishing stocks will collapse.
Fish are being removed at an alarmingly high rate that prevents populations from replenishing. Additionally, many fisheries are poorly managed, due to the use of fishing methods that are detrimental to the environment. For example, bottom trawls that catch wild shrimp not only harm the marine habitat, they also kill unwanted invertebrates, fish, and sea turtles. The popular farmed salmon comes with extensive environmental costs that include water pollution and the spread of disease to wild fish populations. Other unsustainably harvested seafood includes Atlantic bluefin tuna, groupers, Atlantic cod, sharks, and more.
An ideal fishery has a catch limit, determined by scientists and fully enforced. “Bycatch,” the unintentional killing of other fish and ocean life, is controlled. Finally, a well managed fishery protects the marine habitat by reducing its impacts on the environment. Examples of fisheries with effective management include wild Alaskan salmon, U.S. farmed tilapia, and farmed clams, mussels, and oysters.
In addition, many types of sustainable seafood are relatively low in mercury, and are high in omega-3s, the “good” fats associated with eating fish.
To promote eco-friendly eating patterns many chefs and restaurants have taken the initiative to adjust their menus and serve their patrons sustainable seafood dishes. Some laudable chefs have even written recipe books on ocean-friendly seafood. One popular recipe book, Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood by Paul Johnson, includes 96 of these dishes.
Consumers possess the power to play an important role in the fish market. By becoming a smarter seafood shopper and eating ocean-friendly and low mercury seafood you can help promote sustainable fishing practices while also keeping yourself healthy. So, next time you visit a grocery store or order a seafood dish ask specific questions. Is this wild or farmed salmon? What type of tuna? Where is this shrimp coming from? The Blue Ocean Institute guide clearly outlines the sustainability levels of many commonly-consumed fish and highlight which have elevated mercury levels.
Eating fish is a luxury that our children and children’s children should be able to safely enjoy. Our natural resources need to be used in a sustainable way to ensure the continued health of our communities, economy, and environment. There are plenty of ways to still indulge in your love of seafood while eating fish that is safe for both you and the oceans. By educating yourself and others, you can help to ensure that there will always be plenty of fish in the sea.
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