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      Even savvy eaters feel overwhelmed by seafood. The author of American Catch guides us through the fog and into the sun.

By Paul Greenberg  Photograph by Cedric Angeles

American seafood is always a sound start. But this porgy, caught off Montauk, Long Island? Sustainability gold. The guy who caught it, Captain Ron Onorato, 61 (pictured below), is one of a dwindling class of rod-and-reel fishermen who forgo big nets and catch fish one at a time using a hook, a line, and a little luck.

Recently, a smart and meticulously health-conscious university professor I dated in the early aughts called me for some advice about fish. She was, it turned out, pregnant at the age of 47. I was shocked—not that she was pregnant, but that someone of her intellectual stature would have so many questions about how to eat from the sea. Like most people, my friend usually shopped for dinner at her local supermarket. She knew there were troubled waters at the seafood counter, both because the oceans are under threat from overfishing and because toxic substances have made their way into much of the fish flesh on sale. But, like most people, she was confused and frustrated by trying to make the right choices. And even though, unlike most people, she holds an Ivy League PhD and a couple of master’s degrees and speaks three foreign languages, she still couldn’t figure out how to choose fish that would be good both for her and the planet—and for her unborn son.

As I tried to answer her many questions, I realized that eating from the ocean presents a double challenge for all of us, one that’s summed up by the dual needs of my friend: She and her son need healthful food that’s low in toxins and high in omega-3s—food that will sustain their hearts and brains. (This past June, the FDA and the EPA revised their fish-consumption guidelines, including for the first time a minimum amount of fish that pregnant mothers and children should eat.) On top of that, her child will need to build a habit of eating sustainably from an ocean that’s crying out for better management. With 71% of the world’s fish stocks being fully- or overexploited, and a third of imports caught illegally, we have to consider the very real possibility that favorites like snapper, cod, and some types of tuna may be scarce by the time he reaches adulthood.

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When Captain Ron catches a creature he doesn’t want, he tosses it back into the waves, and it has a good chance of living. This sustainable practice means he doesn’t contribute to the 7 million tons of innocent byswimmers killed in the name of dinner every year.

As you—and my friend—have likely gathered by now, there are so many concerns about seafood that I’m hard-pressed to mention them all. We should all be skeptical of the seafood on offer both at stores and in restaurants. But it’s not hard to sidestep the problems and still get our fill of delicious fishy meals. Here are answers to my friend’s most central questions. I hope you’ll find in them a few simple principles that make buying fish a healthier, more sustainable endeavor.

Q: What’s the healthiest, most sustainable, and cheapest fish in the store?
A: First, for the most sustainable choices, buy American fish. Thanks to reasonably tight regulations, seafood from US waters is more likely to be responsibly caught. By buying American, you take us all a step away from a screwy situation—over 85% of the fish we eat is imported, while the US exports a full third of its fish. Second, there’s a basic principle of seafood worth subscribing to: The creatures at the bottom of the food chain are generally more plentiful and faster growing. They also happen to contain fewer contaminants. Compounds like methyl mercury (which in high doses can cause birth defects and neurological problems) and PCBs (pollutants that can cause cancer and other health issues) are passed from prey to predator and tend to accumulate in the flesh of fish that are at the very top of the fish-eat-fish world, like swordfish and king mackerel. The older and more predatory the fish, the more likely it is to contain higher levels of contaminants. Unfortunately, the most popular fish in America, tuna, is an alpha predator and can have elevated mercury levels. Healthy fish that are low on the food chain include anchovies, sardines, and herring (give sardines a chance with these 3 quick and tasty recipes). There are also some large fish that eat low on the food chain and contain fewer contaminants: wild pink salmon and sockeye salmon.

Not a small fact is that a lot of these high-omega/low-toxin fish are mostly found in a can, since they’re delicate and oily and don’t do well sitting out on ice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Canned fish are inexpensive, convenient (a can of fish will last for years), and versatile. Anchovies dissolved slowly in olive oil over a low flame make an excellent base for pasta sauce and give more umami than fishiness to a meal. Sardines can be paired with strong flavors like fennel and olives to expand our narrow American palate. Using canned salmon instead of albacore tuna (the consistency is similar) could be the smartest health-and-sustainability swap you can make.

Q: I’m not going to feed dinner guests canned fish! Can I buy fresh seafood?
A: You can’t go wrong with oystersmussels, and clams. Not only are they high in nutrients, they’re also beneficial for the surrounding environment. These filter feeders, as they’re called, don’t need to be fed anything to thrive—they feed themselves by cleaning the waters around them. A single mussel or oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. That goes a long way toward making our oceans more friendly for the other seafood that we’re in peril of losing. Incidentally, these shellfish are also low-calorie and high in omega-3s (mussels have as much as tuna and far less mercury).

If you’re angling to cook a fillet or two at home, there’s a dizzying amount of information to consider. Just a few of the concerns:

  • Was this fish caught using a method that kills lots of other species in the process? (Large nets called trawls are often dragged across the ocean floor, and longlines—daisy chains of hundreds if not thousands of baited hooks—can catch hundreds of unwanted fish or sea turtles.)
  • Is it from an overfished population?
  • If it is farmed, was it raised in a way that damages the local ecosystem?

Since the answers vary depending on the type of fish, where it came from, and how it was caught, I recommend you do one (or all) of three things: Shop at reputable stores that sell mostly sustainable fish (see how your local store fares with this list of stores). Look for labels bearing the Aquaculture Stewardship Council logo, affixed to farmed seafood free of antibiotic residue and grown under decent environmental and labor conditions, or the Marine Stewardship Council’s designation, indicating sustainably caught wild fish. Or download Monterey Bay Aquarium’s app, Seafood Watch. You can enter any type of fish and get the upshot about whether to buy it.

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“I can dangle a lure in front of a flounder, but if he’s not hungry, he won’t bite," Captain Ron says.

Q: I love tuna and swordfish. Do I really have to forgo these “bad" choices?
A: Four years ago, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman famously told Americans that we should consider meat as a flavor to accent and extend the pleasure of other, more sustainable things on our plates. The same holds true for top-of-the-food-chain fish. I regularly feed my family of three on a single 8-ounce portion of fish, tossed in a stir-fry or grilled with vegetables on kebabs. Even if it’s swordfish or tuna, two fish known to have high levels of mercury, I don’t sweat it too much, as long as I’m careful about how often I serve it. When it comes to mercury, dose is everything. The EPA recommends that we limit high-mercury species like albacore tuna to the equivalent of a 6-ounce can per week. Eating this way also has some clear advantages. It is the nature of ecology that big fish are less numerous than small ones. We should be careful about how many we kill. As the ultimate alpha predator, we must take care not to eat ourselves out of house and home.

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I hope these rules will help you and my friend feel great about eating seafood. I also hope that one day soon you won’t need them. As an ocean scientist once said to me, you shouldn’t need a degree in marine biology to figure out how to eat correctly from the sea. That should be the job of the people who sell us our fish. My professor friend, I think, would agree. She’s already got plenty of degrees and doesn’t have time for another. After all, she has a son to raise.

Paul Greenberg is the author of American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood.

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