copper river salmon

Years ago, fish was considered a top choice when purchasing natural and organic food. High in protein, while low in fat and calories, it never caused us to pause before placing a few gorgeous filets in our grocery cart.

Today, however, buying fish is like spinning a roulette wheel. Media reports keep us guessing about which fish is safe to eat. Concerns about environmental pollution, sustainability, mercury content and other heath risks have added an element of danger to organic food shopping.

How did we get into this mess? Environmental contaminants like heavy metals (mercury, lead), industrial chemicals (PCBs, dioxins) and pesticides (DDT, dieldrin) are one culprit. You can also blame destructive fishing and aquaculture practices.

“Over the last 50 years, our technological ability to catch fish has outpaced our scientific understanding of fish populations and fishing’s impacts on them,” explains Tim Fitzgerald, a researcher with Environmental Defense. “As a result, the United Nations now estimates that more than 70% of fisheries worldwide are either fully exploited, overexploited or depleted,” he tells Organic Authority.

“Aquaculture is often thought of as the solution to declining fisheries,” he adds, “but not all fish farms are created equal. Conventional salmon farming uses chemicals to combat stressful growing conditions and allows fish waste and uneaten feed to pass directly into the environment. In addition, escaped non-native salmon can transmit diseases to or compete with native fish. Shrimp farming has caused a similar suite of problems due to its rapid emergence as America’s favorite seafood item. Developing countries have destroyed thousands of acres of mangrove forests to build enough shrimp farms to meet our insatiable demand. While these examples highlight the problem, responsible fish farming is possible and is currently in use in the United States (for example, catfish, shellfish, crawfish, striped bass); however, any expansion of this industry, especially into offshore waters, must be done with environmental conservation in mind.”

Resources for Organic Consumers

The average American eats close to 17 pounds of seafood each year — an all-time high, according to Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, imports account for 80% of consumption.

“This means that most Americans don’t know where their fish is from or how it is produced,” he says.

You can separate the fit fish from the unfit fish by visiting Oceans Alive, where Environmental Defense maintains a current list of best and worst choices. You can also print a pocket-sized reference (PDF file) by clicking here. At press time, top choices include crab, crawfish, sardines, wild salmon from Alaska and tilapia; worst choices include cod, halibut, farmed or Atlantic salmon, orange roughy, swordfish and tuna. The Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, maintains a similar list.

And how reliable is your local fish merchant?

While no hard data exist, much depends on your region and community. On the West Coast, for example, fishmongers have become more aware of the issues, largely due to the efforts of programs like Seafood Watch, notes George H. Leonard, PhD, the program’s science manager.

“Knowledge on the East Coast is growing, especially around population centers like New York, Washington, DC, and Boston,” he says. “Knowledge in the middle of the country, especially in rural areas, is much lower. That said, I do think consumers need to be skeptical. In some respects, it is ‘buyer beware.’ There have been several high-profile cases of fish being mislabeled in the marketplace — for example, wild vs. farmed salmon. A Science study used genetic techniques to show that much of the ‘snapper’ in the Southeast is from a range of species, many of which aren’t even remotely related to the snapper family. Rather than relying on your local fishmonger, we invite consumers and businesses to visit our website for a range of tools to help navigate the waters.”