Navigating seafood perils

ON THE BAY

Sources: Learn how to find information on seafood that's safe and environmentally responsible.

August 20, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HEALTH authorities tell us to eat more fish, an excellent source of lean protein and heart-healthy Omega-3 oils.

Meanwhile, fish make the news in contrary ways: toxic mercury in tuna, PCBs in farmed salmon, U.S.-banned antibiotics in imported shrimp, Maryland's new limits on eating Chesapeake Bay rockfish.

Add to these concerns worries about overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction from the way some species are caught or farmed.

So, what's left that's guaranteed safe and also environmentally responsible?

"Jellyfish," jokes Chuck Fox, former secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources who oversees ocean fish conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The bay's stinging nettles he refers to are abundant and so low on the food web they don't accumulate toxins like tuna, rockfish and other top predators. But don't look for them at your local seafood counter anytime soon.

Fox says his family eats a lot of farm-raised catfish. The price is right, and there are no problems with toxins, pollution or overfishing.

In fact, there's a wide range of choices for the concerned fish eater. With a bit of guidance -- guidance that's gotten better in the past few years -- we can have our fish and eat them too, all in good health.

A number of Web sites offer reliable, current advice. For health guidelines specific to seafood taken from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, the Maryland Department of the Environment site is the place.

MDE recently issued the first-ever baywide recommendations on how much rockfish (striped bass) and blue crab one should eat.

Generally, kids and women of child-bearing age are advised to eat rock no more than once a month -- twice a month for everyone else. This is based on the amount of PCBs and mercury you'd accumulate in 30 years.

Blue crab is pretty much unrestricted, except for the "mustard," which is where toxins accumulate -- and even that limit is mainly for crabs from the more urban rivers.

The MDE's guidelines are advisory only, and technically apply only to recreationally caught fish. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets standards for commercially caught seafood.

The FDA is generally not as protective as the MDE. I think the MDE's recommendations are the ones to go by. I don't like limits on my consumption of bay seafood, but the state's only being responsible in responding to contamination that's been there for decades, and will decline only slowly.

In addition to human health concerns, there are the impacts of seafood consumption on the environment and on many already-beleaguered species.

Groupers, snappers, shark, swordfish, farm-raised Atlantic salmon, flounder and sole, orange roughy, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod, imported shrimp -- all these tasty choices are poor ones because of serious overfishing, environmental impacts associated with catching or raising them, and in a few cases, health concerns.

Web sites run by groups like Audubon, Environmental Defense, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Seafoodchoices.org, a group of professional seafood chefs, can give you details on the above.

Fortunately, they can also give you plenty of responsible, healthy alternatives: Alaskan salmon and halibut, mahi-mahi, striped bass, scallops, yellowfin tuna and others.

Another fine source is the Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook, titled One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish (Smithsonian Books, 2003).

Carole Baldwin, the author, is a marine biologist who has collected 150 recipes from famous chefs for 80 species of fish and shellfish that anyone can serve in good health and good conscience.

Alaskan sablefish, for example, is a perfect substitute for the overfished Chilean sea bass still served in too many restaurants (most sablefish now goes to Japan, but ask your supermarket or favorite restaurant to order it, Baldwin says).

The cookbook, illustrated gorgeously enough to grace a coffee table, does one of the better jobs I've seen explaining the complex issue of shrimp, whose farming or harvest can destroy everything from mangrove swamps to sea turtles.

From worst to best, there is foreign shrimp, U.S. wild-caught shrimp from southern waters, and shrimp farmed in the United States or caught from northern waters.

Many Web sites say avoid wild-caught oysters because of overfishing and destruction of the bottom caused by dredging and tonging. Some caution against Chesapeake blue crabs because populations are at all-time lows.

This is a dilemma for those who believe in supporting bay watermen (whose populations are also at all-time lows).

I still eat crabs because Maryland and Virginia have legitimate management plans to restore their numbers (though these plans need improvement).

With bay oysters in collapse, the decision is tougher, because oysters are my absolute favorite seafood. My last purchase was from a former waterman who now farms them.

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