Should I Eat Fish?
A question I constantly get from patients is whether or not they should be eating fish. The short answer is YES and let me explain why! Fish is a great protein source, especially for those who prefer to avoid meat. It also provides us with zinc, iodine, magnesium, vitamin D, and calcium. Fatty fish are also wonderful sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids (especially EPA and DHA) which have been associated with cardiovascular disease prevention as well as supporting brain health and mood. We recommend eating 2-3 servings of fish per week.
“If I should be eating fish, which kind do I buy?” Here are some questions to consider:
- Are we overfishing? Am I contributing to the extinction of my favorite fish?
- How many other marine species were caught during the fishing process?
- Was the ocean damaged during the fishing process?
- Is farm-raised fish alright to consume?
- Does the fish contain high levels of mercury or other toxins?
Shopping for sustainable fish will address the above points. Both wild-caught and farm-raised fish can be sustainable choices depending on the species of fish, where you live and shop, as well as where those stores source their fish selection. We will explore how to identify sustainable fish below, but first let’s explore the difference between the two.
Sustainable wild-caught fish are not overfished and fishing practices will avoid harm to the oceans and other species. When shopping for wild-caught fish, try to select those caught in the United States since our fishing practices are one of the most regulated in the world. Overall, wild-caught fish tend to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals such as zinc and B-vitamins compared to farm-raised fish. However, given the limited number of wild fish in our oceans coupled with the growing human population, it is important that we consider farm-raised fish as an option.
Farm-raised fish can help protect wild fish from becoming extinct and offers the ability to feed our growing population, but many contain higher levels of toxins, antibiotics, and hormones. Farmed fish can also be genetically modified and do not have to be labeled as such. Selecting sustainably farm-raised fish will address these concerns since they limit pollution and other means of harm to oceans. Attention is also put on preventing the escape of farmed fish into the ocean. However, the food that is given to farmed fish can be problematic. Many are fed a variety of food such as smaller fish, corn and soy protein, yeast, bugs, rice, vegetable oils etc. Feeding them smaller fish has consequences to our ocean’s ecosystem. Other feed options may be sustainable, such as man-made dried pellets similar to dried dog food, but may not provide the fish or the person eating the fish with the same nutrition as wild-caught fish. Fortunately, the NOAA-USDA initiative focuses on how to feed farmed fish in a sustainable way that does not threaten the survival of smaller fish while maintaining the health benefits of seafood. With that being said, the composition of omega-3 fatty acids can vary depending on the feed used. Non-sustainable farmed fish tend to have lower levels of these essential fatty acids.
When shopping for fish, how do I know if it is sustainable? You can look for these certifications:
- Certified Sustainable Seafood Label from the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) (This certification is only for wild caught practices)
- Certified Sustainable by Friends of the Sea (*Does not include genetically modified fish)
- ASC Certified (*Does not include genetically modified fish)
- BAP: Best Aquaculture Practice Certified (*May include genetically modified fish)
- GGN Certified Aquaculture (*May include genetically modified fish)
Other resources that may be helpful include:
- EDF Seafood Selector (https://seafood.edf.org/buying-fish-what-you-need-know) which provides information on sustainability and Mercury levels of various fish.
- FishSource provides information on the practices of specific fisheries: https://www.fishsource.org/
- Specific to the United States, the Monterey Bay Aquarium SeafoodWatch program provides national and regional rankings of seafood based on sustainability. Their downloadable guides are color coded with green indicating wild-caught or farm-raised fish using sustainable fishing practices. Yellow indicates good alternatives to the green options when not available. Red options are those to avoid. Please note, this program does contain genetically modified fish. https://www.seafoodwatch.org/recommendations/download-consumer-guides
Another option is to consider an online fish delivery service such as Vital Choice and Wild Alaskan Company. Cleanfish works with sustainable fisheries and provides a search engine to look for their branded fish in your area as well as links to purchase various fish species from the fisheries online. For additional resources, check out Sitka Salmon and Local Catch.
Mercury levels and other toxins should also be considered when shopping. Toxin levels are likely to be high in larger wild-caught fish like tuna and shark since they accumulate toxins from the smaller fish they eat. Here is a great resource that lists fish based on Mercury levels:
https://www.nrdc.org/stories/smart-seafood-buying-guide. If you can’t find a particular fish on this list, you can always try to find out what that species eats to get an idea of where they fall on the food chain.
I did some fieldwork of my own to see how easy (or not) it was to shop for sustainable fish. I visited two local grocery stores to talk to the employees in the seafood department. I had varying luck since some employees were more resourceful than others. Both stores had large signs indicating the sustainability of their seafood selection. One even had pictures mounted on the wall with the specific location/company indicating where most of their fish is sourced. Fish were labeled to distinguish between farm-raised and wild-caught, but only some were labeled with the place of origin which was predominately provided for wild-caught only. I asked about the sustainability of their farm-raised fish options and one employee showed me the labels from the shipment which indicated the sourcing farm. This at least gave me the option to look into the sustainability practices on my own, but the employees were not able to provide any detail in this regard. One farm-raised fish tag did have the Best Aquaculture Practice Certified logo which was exciting to see!
While it may take some time to get accustomed to what to look for, there are ways we can use the power of our dollar to make healthy choices for ourselves and sustainable choices for our oceans as well as future generations!