Living on the coast of California, residents of San Luis Obispo County are lucky to have access to fresh, delicious seafood. Being conscientious of our own personal health as well as that of our oceans, we offer the following tips on how to reel in the healthiest dish without driving any sensitive marine habitats the way of Atlantis.
Be on the lookout for fish, crustaceans and mollusks that are sustainably harvested and products of robust ecosystems. And try to keep an even keel: avoid bottom-feeders (like catfish) that can act like catch-alls for mercury and other heavy metals, and, for the same reason, be wary of top-feeders (like swordfish) that eat just about everything.
When shopping or ordering from restaurants, here are a couple of tips and resources to help you make wise choices for both your body and the environment:
1. Buy smart. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has just launched a new Seafood Watch App for Andriod and iPhones to aid consumers in making wise purchases. Now, in addition to its small, laminated card advising which fish to avoid and which are safe to eat in a sustainable manner, the Watch’s application allows you to share restaurant locations, markets, and businesses in an effort to start building a network of mindful eaters.
Fish are rated with “Avoid”, “Best Choice” and “Good Alternative” rankings to guide decisions. Designations are based on the level of harm done by fishing gear used during harvest, the impact on the species’ population, the amount of bycatch produced, and how well the fishery or farm is managed. The site also offers recipes featuring their “Best Choice” fishes, such as the delicious pan-seared tilapia with kale and lemon vinegarette and Pacific cod tacos.
Want even more detailed profiles of your favorite fruits of the sea? Check out NOAA’s Fish Watch for the skinny on the most common species found on your plate.
2. Make sure your food is fresh. Once you know what to purchase, make sure that where you buy your catch is clean and properly maintained. NOAA lists a number of standards your seafood section should meet, such as verifying that the fresh fish display is properly iced, that the fish is arranged belly down so that melting ice drains away, and that there is no strong fishy, ammonia or sour-like smell. As for the animal itself, the eyes should be clear (with the exception of cloudy-eyed fish like walleye pike) and bulging slightly. Fillets are to be firm to the touch while a whole fish should have bright skin and red gills. Do not buy meat that is dull around the edges, turning brown, green, or yellow, or mushy. Avoid shellfish with cracked or broken shells, and when buying live molluscs, tap them to ensure that they close when provoked (or else you are just harassing a dead and possibly rotting animal).
If you opt for frozen, check to make sure that packages are in tact and positioned above the freezer’s frost line. If you can see into the plastic, take a look for ice crystals. Frost on the food may indicate that it has been thawed and refrozen, a possible sign that there could have been enough time for spoilage to occur.
3. Read labels carefully. While this may seem like common sense, it is vitally important to take heed of warnings and processing notes. This is especially true in the case of shellfish, where the FDA requires harvesters to certify that these bottom dwellers were handled in accordance to safety controls. Checking the area in which the animal was caught may also indicate the health of its habitat, whether or not it was farmed in a sustainable fashion, or how it was harvested.
4. Be aware of allergies and special needs. Needless to say, if you are allergic to shellfish, make a point of asking after the ingredients of the Daily Special or a friend’s potluck dish. If you are a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding, there are a number of warnings that you should consider before ingesting any product of the ocean. The presence of heavy metals that accumulate up the food chain creates the possibility of neurological, nervous, and developmental problems in babies. Pregnant women would do best to steer clear of sword fish, shark, mackerel, and tilefish due to high levels of mercury. Some smoked fish exposes moms-to-be and those with immune deficiencies at risk of listersosis, a food-borne illness. For a list of safe fish for mothers, browse the FDA’s Food Safety Guide for Moms-To-Be to find out what is safe to eat.
5. Be an informed fisherman. All recreational anglers out there want to be careful of where and when they drop their lines. In addition to obtaining the proper licenses and permits, the concerned fisherman can ascertain catch-limits, look into fishery closures, and keep up to date on important bulletins by visiting NOAA’s Marine Recreational Information Program. Keep an eye on local conditions by monitoring beach health, sewage spills, red tide and algae blooms.
What are some of your summertime favorite seafood recipes? Anything on your “fish-list” that makes your mouth water?