Murky Waters

The Decision To Eat - Or Not To Eat - Seafood Is More Complicated Than Ever

June 27, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Buying seafood used to be simple. You made sure the eyes of a whole fish were clear, its gills bright red, its smell virtually nonexistent.

But now concerns about our health and the environment have made buying fresh seafood complex and confusing. Not only do you have to figure out what is in the fish and what it will do for you; you also are expected to know what catching the fish does to the environment.

Recently, I navigated my way through a number of seafood-buying guides and databases. I compared what they had to say about four of my favorite seafood offerings: striped bass, monkfish, salmon and blue crab. I also spoke with environmental advocates, government spokeswomen, academics and chefs about these four creatures. There were some areas of agreement, but plenty of disagreement, too.

In the end, I concluded that what kind of seafood I buy depends on what I value. Eating monkfish may be good for my health but bad for the ocean. Wild striped bass (also known as rockfish to Marylanders) have terrific flavor but also carry contaminants, which if eaten in volume may pose health risks. Farm-raised salmon are relatively inexpensive, but they have ecological issues, and they are blander than wild salmon. It is murky out there.

Virtually every source I consulted agreed that eating a variety of seafood could be good for me. Fish is high in protein, low in calories and, depending on the species, has varying amounts of potent omega-3 fatty acids that do good things for my body, especially my heart. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish a week, a standard I rarely meet.

However, eating fish that have high levels of contaminants mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that build up in fish-especially in large fish like striped bass that eat smaller fish - could harm one's health.

In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency advised pregnant women, women of child-bearing age and children to avoid swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and shark because of mercury content. Cathy Levenson, associate professor of nutrition at Florida State University, compiled a "good for you/bad for you" list of fish, comparing the mercury level in types of fish with their level of omega-3s. Salmon topped her "good for you" list. She also had good things to say about tilapia, a farm-raised fish that I find tasteless.

The question of sustainability, whether the way the seafood is harvested hurts the environment, is also contentious. For example, Environmental Defense, an advocacy group, told me the monkfish population is under stress and that the gear used to capture the fish damages the ocean floor. It recommends avoiding the fish.

Yet the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, which in August plans to launch its own Web site for consumers, says the monkfish population is being rebuilt. Managing the catch restores the fishery while giving fishermen a livelihood, a NOAA spokeswoman told me.

The most accessible seafood-buying guide I came across was the Seafood Watch chart published by Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif. Designed to fit in a pocket or purse, the guide places seafood in one of three color-coded categories: best choice (green), good alternative (yellow) or avoid (red). The guide addresses seafood sold throughout the United States.

I used a guide designed for the Northeast region. An electronic version on the group's Web site had information on specific fish. With a click of the computer mouse, I could pull up a picture of a fish and read its story. The guide is handy. But some of its buying recommendations have asterisks and qualifiers. And not everyone agrees with them.

Wild about bass

The first fish I looked up on the Seafood Watch guide was striped bass. I was glad to see that farmed or wild, striped bass rated a "best choice." It got kudos because there are plenty of striped bass swimming around. There was, however, an asterisk, indicating there were health worries about eating a lot of it.

More clicking revealed that Environmental Defense, which works with the Monterey Bay Aquarium on this guide, has concerns about the level of mercury and PCBs found in wild striped bass. When I clicked on the affiliated Oceans Alive Web site to see how many meals of wild striped bass I could eat in a month, the answer was zero.

Wild striped bass appeared to be a "best choice" that I couldn't eat. Tim Fitzgerald of Environmental Defense told me I could, however, eat all the farm-raised striped bass I wanted, because farm-raised bass do not have the high levels of contaminants. I told him that wild striped bass tasted much better than the farmed version.

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