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Illustration of fish

A Good Catch

Farmed shrimp or wild salmon? Ahi or halibut? Scallops or mussels? How to keep from floundering in the fish market on your search for eco-friendly fillets.

by Caroline Bates

As I enter my fish market, the men behind the counter warily exchange glances, as if to say, "Oh no, not her again." I've been a customer almost since the opening day eight years ago, when the younger guys didn't really know how to cut a fish, never mind where it came from -- "around here" was their stock response. They're much savvier now, but when I turn up they don't know whether to steel themselves for an interrogation or a lecture. They've never gotten over how I hectored them about Chilean sea bass, coming on righteously about their responsibility to avoid endangered species from depleted fisheries. They listened, though. Weeks later, they posted a notice saying that they would no longer sell Patagonian toothfish, aka Chilean sea bass, until issues of illegal poaching and overfishing were resolved.

If the only problem were taking "a pass on Chilean sea bass," as one catchy conservation slogan has it, selecting seafood for supper would be a breeze. I am lucky to live in a coastal California city where a large variety of fresh fish is available year round, but how to choose among them? In order to make intelligent, ecologically sound choices today, it seems that you need the equivalent of several undergraduate degrees: in fish biology, marine ecosystems, aquaculture, and even international law as it applies to the $55 billion worldwide fishing industry. It's no longer enough to ask, "When was the fish caught, and did you get it today?" Now I carefully weigh the origin of the species (in the age of FedEx it could come from anywhere), whether it was fished or farmed in a sustainable manner, how it was caught, and, increasingly, if it's a healthy choice. It's not the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids that concern me but the levels of accumulated toxics. These days, it's not easy to be piscatorially correct.

Let me think. When was the last time I bought ahi? A recent study warned of high mercury levels and advised not to eat it more than twice a month. I reluctantly pass on ahi. I puzzle over the identity of some pearly-pink fillets labeled "line-caught snapper, U.S." Despite the FDA's efforts to bring some nationwide uniformity to fish nomenclature, Americans love to stick with their regional pet names. So this "snapper" could actually be a rockfish from California (not to be confused with the Chesapeake Bay "rockfish," which is actually a striped bass). Whatever it is, how do I determine whether it was caught by hook and line or by longlines, those hook-studded lines that can extend for 80 miles and kill millions of birds, turtles, and other untargeted sea life? Ask your fishmonger, articles advise. Believe me, unless he dealt directly with the boat that caught the fish, he won't know.

Oh, those cream-colored scallops look good. They don't appear to have been soaked with preservative phosphates or they'd be whiter and sitting in a pool of water. But what does "wild caught" mean? Not diver caught, or the price would be higher. More likely they were dredged using trawl nets that were dragged along the sea floor, destroying bottom habitat in what is considered the ocean equivalent of clearcutting. What about shrimp, America's favorite seafood? Today's display is from such exotic locales as Thailand, India, and Mexico, and all would be a worse choice than scallops. Coastal shrimp farms displace mangroves and wetlands, which act as finfish nurseries. Farmed shrimp are treated intensively with antibiotics, and their waste pollutes surrounding waters. And most wild shrimp are no better: For every pound of shrimp caught in trawl nets, up to 10 pounds of unwanted marine life is shoveled overboard.

One of the seafood guys steps forward and smiles pleasantly. "We can't get the wild salmon you like right now, but this farmed Scottish salmon is even better," he says, pointing to the preternaturally red fillets fetchingly draped on ice. I don't think so, but I keep quiet. When freshwater species such as trout, tilapia, and catfish are fed a vegetarian diet and raised in closed systems, such farming is said to have little environmental impact. But the rap sheet against farmed salmon reads much the same as the one against farmed shrimp. And how good for you is farmed salmon? A study published recently in the journal Science compared farmed and wild salmon, and found that the farmed fish contained levels of PCBs, dioxins, and two banned pesticides that were 10 times higher than those found in wild Pacific salmon. And the most-contaminated samples came from farms in Scotland. He should know this news, but for the moment I bite my tongue and say, "I need a few more minutes."

Another good source for finding truly edible fish: Audubon has recently updated its iconic Seafood Wallet Card, which separates 30 popular seafood species into color zones of green (abundant, well-managed), yellow (some concerns about fishing methods and management), and red (significant problems; best avoided). You can order the Audubon book and download the card at

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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Illustration: Craig Larotonda

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council