It’s Time to Throw Some Sustainable Seafood on the Grill

Here’s a rundown of the best environmentally friendly fish to cook during the dog days of summer.
Sautéed mahimahi with grilled red onion, mango, chili, and lime. (Photo: Hungry Dudes/Flickr)
Jul 20, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

In hot weather, we all want to eat more lightly and minimize time spent in the kitchen. For many of us, seafood is a natural choice, but an ever-expanding list of what fish to avoid for sustainability reasons makes deciding what’s for supper not as easy-breezy as we would like.

While there’s no getting around that overfishing has seriously depleted the oceans, there are still some species that can be enjoyed this time of year without harming their populations or ecosystem. Below are a few suggestions, but first...

The Shop

Most of us are used to shopping for produce that’s local and in season, and the same goes for seafood. You will not only be limiting your carbon footprint but supporting local fishers. It’s also worth noting that getting to know the person behind the counter at your favorite fish market goes a long way toward honest, transparent conversations about the suppliers he or she uses. If you’re traveling on vacation, it’s worth checking into what’s abundant where you’re staying. I was just down in North Carolina, for instance, and NC Catch had a handy list of where to find local seafood, which in July includes the brown shrimp that are running now. These sweet, fat beauties are rushed to seafood markets the same day they’re caught, and they’re sold out of coolers at roadside stands usually by the shrimper’s family. That’s about as local as you can get, especially when the tip jar is labeled “College Fund.”

A Quick Note on Grilling

In general, seafood is on the delicate side, so you won’t need the intense heat you would use for meat or poultry. Moderately hot is the temperature you want. Choose fish fillets with the skin on; that way, the meat is protected, and the skin helps keep it together. The thin layer of fat between skin and meat also adds moisture and flavor. If desired, you can remove the skin after grilling, and if you prefer to grill whole fish, we’ve got you covered.

Wild Alaskan Salmon

Although a number of salmon runs on the Pacific Coast are threatened or endangered, Alaskan stocks are healthy, even thriving, because of good management practices. These days, wild Alaskan salmon mostly comes from five Pacific species: king (aka chinook); sockeye (aka red); coho (aka silver); chum (aka keta, silverbrite, dog); and pink (aka humpy). You’ll find more about each one and why it’s worth paying a premium for wild Alaskan salmon in a column from last July. This summer, I’m completely smitten with this foolproof method for grilling salmon (hint: you don’t have to turn it over) from my former colleague Shira Bocar at Martha Stewart Living. Depending on the species, wild Alaskan salmon is available fresh through September; it’s also available frozen or canned year-round.

Pacific Halibut (Alaska and Canada)

Although it’s best to avoid Atlantic halibut (it is overfished) and California halibut (it has elevated mercury levels), Pacific halibut, which is found from the Bering Sea to Northern California, comes from a well-managed fishery, with low rates of bycatch and little habitat damage. Halibut is a firm-fleshed fish, so it works well on the grill: For 1¼- to 1½-inch-thick skin-on fillets, salt and pepper them all over, then place skin-side down on an oiled grill rack. Grill (covered, if using a gas grill), turning once, until just cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes. Fresh Pacific halibut is available through October. It’s available frozen year-round.

Atlantic Mahimahi

Another name for sweet, mild-flavored mahimahi is dolphinfish, which is not the same thing as dolphin, a marine mammal. Because it’s a highly migratory species, mahimahi is less prone to being overfished from a single habitat area. The fish is also relatively short-lived (a maximum of five years) and reproduces quickly and often, which also helps maintain healthy populations. Lean, firm-fleshed mahimahi fillets are fabulous on the grill; try them with a sweet-spicy salsa made with chiles and pineapple, mango, or watermelon.

Farmed Mussels

Aquaculture isn’t all bad. Mussel cultivation receives high scores from environmental organizations, because, like oysters and other filter feeders, the bivalves need ultraclean waters in which to flourish. No feed or chemicals are used, and most mussels are cultivated on lines suspended from rafts, preventing damage to the ocean floor. The only downside to mussels raised by this method is that they typically gape when out of the water. So always check the open bivalves by squeezing their two shells together; a live mussel will try to hold the closed position. It’s hard to beat mussels simply steamed in white wine, but a zucchini-basil broth makes the most out of summer.

If you live on the West Coast, look for the Mediterranean mussels grown in California and Washington. They have an opposite seasonality (meaning they spawn at a different time) from blue mussels from Prince Edward Island and native West Coast mussels, so they’re at their best—plump and richly briny—during the summer months. (Fun fact: The recycling of mussel shells not only makes mussel cultivation more sustainable but also helps fight industrial fluoride pollution.)

Farmed American Barramundi

Sweet, buttery barramundi, a relatively new fish to the American market, is more often available frozen than fresh, but I’m including it here because it’s a great option (barramundi sliders, anyone?) when other sustainable options are nonexistent or look like someone backed a car over them. If you think frozen fish is a terrible choice in general, then here are some facts that may surprise you.

Australis, an innovative company started by ecologist-turned-aquaculturalist Josh Goldman and based in western Massachusetts, raises barramundi in closed recirculating tanks and purifies and recycles 99 percent of its water, with almost no discharge of solids or nutrients leaving the farm. It also grows the fish, which is native to Australia’s northern tropical waters and parts of Southeast Asia, in a hybrid system of on-land nursery tanks and offshore marine-net pens in central Vietnam; the fish are free of antibiotics, chemicals, and colorants.