Jane Says: Fish Is Your Friend

You don't have to hurt the oceans to eat well. Our food columnist tells you how.

sardines in pan
Puzzled when it comes to eating seafood? Start with the basics. (Maren Caruso/Getty Images)
Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

This morning I buzzed through my local fish market just to see what was on offer. What I was most struck by was the deer-in-the-headlights look on the face of every consumer. Quickly deciding it would be pasta night, I beat a hasty retreat, but no wonder I gravitated to Miranda Olivas’s query.

“The oceans are overfished,” she writes. “Most farmed fish available comes from China or Thailand and they say it’s full of mercury. What the heck kind of fish are we supposed to eat?”

Shopping for seafood has never been so complicated. The global collapse of fish stocks is due to a number of factors, including super-accurate fish-finding technology, indiscriminate commercial harvesting (and destruction of spawning habitats) by factory trawlers, flawed fishery-management systems, climate change, and plain-old pollution, which sounds almost quaint by comparison.

Even though recent years have brought technological advances to aquaculture, for the most part, fish farming creates a monumental set of problems, too. Many imports come from parts of the world where health and environmental regulations are weak or virtually nonexistent (less than two percent of the imports are inspected for contamination). Farmed fish can and do absorb mercury, but they generally have lower concentrations of the neurotoxin, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, than do their wild counterparts. Considering that the waters where the penned fish are situated are close to the shoreline, I’m more concerned about PCBs, dioxin, pesticides, and other nasties from land-based run-off.

So how do you pick your way through the minefield of choices at the seafood counter?

A reputable fishmonger is proud of what he sells and knowledgeable, too, so don’t be shy about asking questions. Is the fish local? If not, where is it from? Wild or farmed? If wild, how was it caught? Hook and line, troll (as opposed to trawl), jig, and speargun are all environmentally friendly catch methods.

Eating a wide variety of fish—lean, fatty, mild, robust—also helps prevent overfishing and prevents us from overloading on toxins. It also increases our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. If that’s the only reason you incorporate fish into your diet, though, be aware that there are other foods that are rich in them, too, including greens, cereals and breads made with flaxseed, walnuts, and omega-3-enriched eggs.

And remember that you are not alone. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program can help you make an informed decision by sorting out the good, bad, and ugly into region-specific color-coded groups: green (best choices), yellow (good alternatives), and red (avoid); there are even tips on navigating your way through a sushi menu. A year or so ago, I ditched my tattered copy of the Seafood Watch pocket guide for the even-handier (and more fun) mobile guide. In its newest version, you can share the locations of restaurants and markets where you’ve found sustainable seafood on Project Fishmap and watch the database grow.

These days, many fish markets and supermarkets carry fish that is “MSC Certified.”

That is not the same thing at all as MSG, but just listening to a fishmonger try to explain that to a deluded customer one day was enough to give me a blinding headache.

“MSC,” of course, stands for Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s leading international fishery certification program. I first saw their eco-label at Whole Foods Market years ago, and it remains the company’s top indicator for seafood sustainability. If you think that you are doomed to a life of nothing but bland tilapia, think again: Alaska salmon, Pacific halibut, Pacific cod, and Nova Scotia harpoon-caught swordfish are all MSC certified.

When I cook fish at home, more and more often I find myself turning to For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking, by Barton Seaver, a Washington, D.C., chef and National Geographic Fellow. This is a book that lives up to its subtitle; its recipes are accessible and adaptable (the anchovies and peppers combo is heaven on a pizza), and Seaver’s contributions to the National Geographic website, including his Cook-Wise series and nuanced Seafood Substitutions are awfully nice, too. Plus, he is really, really cute.

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