Seafood Lovers’ Dilemma: Eating Healthy, Eco-Friendly Fish

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

New Jerseyans know there’s nothing like going down to the shore in the summer and enjoying fresh seafood. But seafood lovers now face a dilemma when it comes to deciding which fish to eat, due to health and environmental issues.

Mercury, PCBs, dioxin and other contaminants in our oceans, rivers and lakes have made their way into some fish and shellfish, reducing their value as healthy food choices.  And many other fish populations have tanked due to over-fishing. Do we really want to eat poisons or contribute to the extinction of the Earth’s aquatic biodiversity?

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For environmentally-sensitive seafood lovers, navigating these problems at mealtime is difficult but not impossible. There’s the option of buying organically farm-raised fish that are largely free of contaminants that may be found in their wild cousins. But some fish farming harms the ecology of our estuaries and impacts the habitats of native fish.

The N.J. Departments of Environmental Protection and Health & Senior Services can help sort out the safety of the catch of the day with “Fish Smart, Eat Smart: A Guide to Health Advisories for Eating Fish and Crabs Caught in New Jersey Waters.”

Released in June, the report recommends a limit of no more than one meal of freshwater fish per week.  It identifies high-risk individuals – infants, children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age – and recommending a limit of one freshwater fish meal per month. It also provides guidelines for fish caught in specific bodies of water in New Jersey.

Among coastal saltwater species, the state report recommends eating only limited amounts of Striped Bass, Bluefish and American Eel – and high-risk individuals are advised to skip these altogether.  American Lobster also carries a preparation precaution.

So, which fish are experiencing declining populations? If you’ve ever seen a commercial fishing boat dumping a tide of fish on its deck you may have wondered: Can there really be that many fish in the sea?

The answer, as it turns out, is: No, there aren’t.

A sobering study published in the journal Science in 2006 predicts fish populations consumable by humans will have completely collapsed by 2050.  The four-year study analyzed 32 controlled experiments, studies from 48 marine protected areas, and 53 years of global catch data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

This potential collapse is symptomatic of a larger problem that cuts across the wide sphere of human experience: We simply can’t keep endlessly consuming the earth’s resources – fish, trees, petroleum … you name it – at current rates.

Many of our societal systems and cultures around food evolved at times when the Earth’s population was much lower. Continuing our habits with an exploding human population simply will not work in the long run.  Our illusion of bounty is just that, an illusion – an ecological version of the internet stock bubble, or the real estate market bubble.

The answer lies, as it so often does, in sustainability. Sustainably-harvested fish is a growing industry, and there are several guides to help you figure out which fish are okay to eat and which are threatened or endangered.

The Environmental Defense Funds offers a Seafood Selector. The site rates fish from all around the world as “eco-best,” “eco-OK” and “eco-worst.”  On the eco-best list are wild Alaskan salmon, mussels, farmed Rainbow Trout, farmed oysters and wild U.S. and Canadian albacore tuna. On the eco-worst list are Chilean sea bass, farmed Atlantic salmon, shark and bluefin and yellowfin tuna.

The website EarthEasy has also compiled a helpful guide. It rates fish according to the status of wild populations, fishing methods, impact of native populations, the amount of washed catch, and management initiatives to improve sustainability.

Learn more about the future of our planet’s fish by viewing a documentary film based on the book The End of the Line by Charles Clover.  And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website or contact me at info@njconservation.org  if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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