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Sustainable Seafood

I don't know about you, but I tend to eat more seafood in the summer, perhaps because it's so easy to grill. But it's tricky to know which seafood to eat. A Smithsonian Associates panel discussion I attended this spring, on "sustainable" seafood, had some good advice, although it also demonstrated ...

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Fish advertised as sustainably harvested, courtesy Flickr user stumptownpanda


I don't know about you, but I tend to eat more seafood in the summer, perhaps because it's so easy to grill. But it's tricky to know which seafood to eat. A Smithsonian Associates panel discussion I attended this spring, on "sustainable" seafood, had some good advice, although it also demonstrated that this is a very complex issue.

I came away from that event feeling troubled and still a bit confused, to be honest. One thing was clear, a point I've heard and echoed before: Our food choices don't just affect our own tastebuds and stomachs; they have serious implications for the rest of the planet as well. In the case of seafood, there are certain species that we've fished and eaten far too greedily, such as Chilean sea bass (toothfish) and bluefin tuna.

That doesn't mean we should give up all seafood, of course. Health and nutrition experts are constantly touting the benefits of consuming fish and fish oil (it's high in Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals) and besides that, it's delicious. The key is to avoid consuming overfished or endangered species, or ones that are harvested in an environmentally damaging way.

Which isn't as easy as I'd hoped, it seems. Sure, there is a handy pocket-sized list available from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch group, which breaks things down into "best choices," "good alternatives," and a red list of species to "avoid" buying or eating.

But I thought DC restaurateur Jeff Black, one of several panelists at the Associates event, made an excellent point: Anything that too many people eat will become endangered.

Take the issue of salmon, for example: only Alaskan wild salmon makes it into Seafood Watch's "best choice" category, although wild salmon from Washington state is listed as a good alternative. According to Seafood Watch, all farmed salmon and Atlantic wild salmon should be avoided. (Their website explains why; basically it's because of poor waste-management practices by some salmon farms.) But as Black said, "if we all stopped eating farmed salmon and eating Alaskan wild, guess what? It's gone, too, just like that."

He and other panelists agreed that Americans need to broaden their culinary horizons, and remember that there's more to seafood than salmon, swordfish and shrimp, the classic menu options at many restaurants. I admit I'm sometimes guilty of that kind of limited thinking myself. So I was glad when someone asked the panelists about their "favorite underappreciated" types of seafood, and got these recommendations:

--Fresh sardines, or other small bait fish

-- Sablefish (black cod)

--Carolina wreckfish (stone bass)

-- Haddock (scrod)

--Atlantic bluefish

--Farmed oysters

For more information about the pros and cons of consuming specific types of seafood, check out the National Marine Fisheries Service's FishWatch, the Blue Ocean Institute's seafood guide, the Canadian group SeaChoice, and the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization that certifies seafood as sustainable (you can buy MSC-certified seafood at Whole Foods, among other places). The California-based company  CleanFish is also a great resource for retailers and restaurants to find specific sources and types of sustainable seafood.
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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