How to Buy Seafood
What to Know Before You Buy
Sources: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch; The New York Times; On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
The quality -- and the safety -- of our food sources has been in the news a bit too much recently. Fish and shellfish included. As more of us buy and cook seafood, we need to know where it comes from and how it was caught . But to do this, we need to know today's "fish talk." Here's a start:
Farmed Fish and Shellfish
These are fish and shellfish that are raised commercially in tanks, nets or other enclosures. One-third of our seafood comes from farms around the world. Types commonly raised this way are salmon, tilapia, catfish, shrimp, mussels and trout and they're fed manufactured feed pellets made from a combination of vegetables and fish. Farmed salmon are also often fed a synthetic version of a pigment called astaxanthin to turn their naturally gray flesh into the familiar pink color. China is the world's largest fish farming and exporting industry and is the largest source of some types of fish and shellfish to the U.S. Thailand exports more farmed shrimp to the U.S. than any other country.
Among the biggest problems associated with seafood farming are parasite infestation, pollutants, destroying beaches and sea coasts, and depleting and jeopardizing sources of wild fisheries by using wild fish to feed carnivores like salmon and shrimp.
Still, as the fish-smart folks at Monterey Bay Aquarium say, "not all fish farms are created equal" so seafood from a farmed sources isn't necessarily bad. Make an effort to find out which farms supply your favorite fish store. Just ask them.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only farmed fish can be categorized as organic because there must be documentation on what the fish eats. Organic fish are those that are certified to have eaten only antibiotic-free and animal product-free organic food. The organic label is based only on the fish's diet, not its living conditions, nor whether or not a fish farm's conditions are pollutant-free. That means when it comes to fish, an organic label is not an assurance that you're buying and eating a more pristine food with no toxins.
There's another reason why the fish industry doesn't make it easy on us consumers when it comes to organic fish. While tilapia, catfish, and most other fish are primarily vegetarians and therefore can be fed animal product-free organic food, salmon are carnivores. Because they eat other fish, they must be fed organic fish or fish meal to be called "organic" if using the USDA criteria. Organic salmon are also sometimes fed crustaceans as a natural way to add pink color to their flesh. So when you see salmon labeled "organic," the labeling was done by either another country or by a non-government organization or agency.
Finally, because fish farmers often feed salmon (which eat far more than their own body weight) a food made from wild fish, this further depletes wild fisheries, a peril to sustainability.
Wild Fish and Shellfish
These are caught by a boat in the open sea using some combination of methods including dredging, harpooning, hook and line, traps and netting. Some of these methods are kinder to the environment than others; the better ones, e.g., harpooning, only catch individual fish whereas dredging can cause habitat damage. It can be a challenge to know how a wild fish was caught.
The sea is not inexhaustible. "Sustainable seafood" refers to the principle -- and practice -- of fishing, buying and eating only fish and shellfish that are from sources that don't exploit or deplete a population or ecosystem. This term applies to both farmed and fished (i.e., wild) sources. In other words, we do not want to eat fish that are at risk of becoming over-fished or even extinct.
As of April 4, 2004, all seafood merchants, including fish mongers, supermarkets and restaurants, are required to know where all unprocessed seafood is from and whether it is farm-raised or wild-caught. Merchants are required to keep the tags on everything they sell so you can ask to see this government documentation.
Still confused? Most of us are. But there's more help available. One of the best sources for reliable information is SeafoodWatch.org. This site, operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, maintains current listings of what's best to buy and what to avoid. Their guides are done regionally, including one for the northeast United States. The site includes all this information on a handy small card you can print out and carry in your wallet or download their app. See our link.
Knowing all this, here's what I try to do. First, I buy my fish only from a good fish monger. There are dozens of them across the city at all prices. Get to know yours and it will help you get both quality and good value. Second, when I buy salmon I either buy sustainably farmed or wild, although wild salmon can be prohibitively expensive. Third, I never buy farmed shrimp. Never. Farmed shrimp is grown in pits in the ground and are very often toxic. (Nor do I order shrimp in restaurants as it's inevitably also the less costly farmed.) Not every seafood store sells U.S. wild shrimp, but most do since almost all shrimp is processed and shipped frozen and only defrosted at its point-of-sale. Finally, when buying a white fish, I often choose my own as a whole fish and then have the store fillet it for me. That way I know what I'm getting.
It's unfortunate that in our modern world we must be so wary when it comes to eating a food that centuries ago was simply was caught in a back yard stream or off a nearby beach. Civilization gives us the best and the worst sometimes. Living in New York, we're lucky because we've got great fish stores and trusted fish merchants. Please continue to bring them your business.