Q: I've heard salmon farms are bad, but what about other kinds of fish? Are any of them safe to eat?
A: Gone are the days when buying farmed salmon was seen as the best way to protect wild breeds from overfishing. Unfortunately, that fatty pink flesh is loaded with way more than just omega-3s. We're talking high levels of dioxins, DDT and seven times the amount of hormone-disrupting PCBs found in wild salmon. (Note: the canned variety is generally wild, and wild Pacific salmon is also available at the Big Carrot and many fish markets. The Carrot also carries wild salmon smoked with organic maple syrup.)
All this bad news came down the pipe right about the time another Canadian favourite was swimming out of favour: tuna. Findings of high mercury content meant lunchtime would never be the same, and now the matter is muddled by complicated calculations. If I'm eating fresh tuna in, say, sushi or steak form, and I'm a woman of child-bearing age, even the more conservative Health Canada says I shouldn't eat it more than once a month. However, if I'm eating a sandwich with canned light tuna, I can have it weekly (though environmentalists suggest monthly is safer). But not white or albacore tuna, which has three times the mercury level of the light stuff.
And we hate to break it to you, but Canada isn't really enforcing the truthfulness of dolphin-friendly or dolphin-safe claims implied by logos on tuna. RainCoast Trading-brand canned tuna, however, catches BC tuna using hooks and lines versus dolphin-snaring nets. Plus, it tests all its fish for mercury ($4.59 at Big Carrot).
Of course, tuna isn't the only fish drowning in this neurotoxin. Thanks to our polluting tendencies, our oceans are full of the stuff, and high levels can be found in Atlantic halibut, king mackerel, sea bass, shark, swordfish and Gulf Coast oysters.
Then again, low-mercury but overfished or destructively harvested species like Atlantic cod (remember the cod ban of the 90s?), Atlantic sole and imported shrimp should be avoided for environmental reasons.
Yes, most shrimp are wild-caught, but more and more are farm-raised, especially Asian shrimp. And all the clear-cutting of coastal lands that comes with shrimp farming has not only destroyed animal habitats but also made humans much more vulnerable when the tsunami struck last month. That doesn't mean you're safe with imported wild-caught either. Shrimp trawling has the highest "bycatch" rate of any commercial fishery: 3 to 15 pounds of unwanted sea animals are caught and trashed for every pound of shrimp cocktail you chow down. American, or Gulf of Mexico shrimp, are considered better, since this industry is more regulated and the nets are supposedly designed to let sea turtles and other fish escape. Some environmentalists say certain Gulf of Mexico sea turtle populations have been ravaged by shrimp trawlers over the years (though turtle protection has improved over the last decade). Your best, most sustainable bet is always trap-caught shrimp.
Disregard for fishing regs and poor enforcement are serious problems in many overseas stocks, like Russian king crab (versus Alaskan) and the oh-so-tasty but oh-so-overfished Chilean sea bass. Turns out policing is hard to carry out in the remote Antarctic oceans where these late-breeding fish are caught, and pirate fisherman netting 10 times what's permitted are considered totally out of control. European sea bass (sometimes available at Whole Foods on Avenue Road) is a much greener option.
Keeping track of which sea creatures from which coast caught by which methods are more sustainably fished than others can be impossible. For a good pocket-sized (and printable) guide, check out Seafood Watch at www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch. asp, but this guide doesn't doesn't take levels of pollutants in the fish into account.
If you're looking for organic seafood, good luck. Only two countries in the world certify organic fish: Scotland and Ireland. Nortown Foods on Eglinton sells the Irish variety. You can find farmed, antibiotic-free salmon fed organic feed at Whole Foods, though it's not certified organic. Some markets carry a mix of sustainable and completely over-harvested fish. To be sure you're buying the right stuff, stick to Big Carrot and Whole Foods. They ensure that whatever fruits of the sea they sell are sustainable - whether we're talking scallops, halibut, lobster tails or trout.
What if you're eating out? Most restaurants feed our appetites for over-farmed fish without question, but there are conscientious chefs out there. In fact, a group of such Canadian cooks got together to start the Endangered Fish Alliance: concerned chefs looking for sustainable options. Its members, like Bar Italia on College, make a point of not serving four endangered fish, namely swordfish, Chilean sea bass, some caviars and orange roughy. You can see the full list of member restaurants and caterers at www.endangeredfishalliance.org.
Got a question?
Send your green consumer queries to firstname.lastname@example.org