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SOS: Save our seafood: what's good for us and the oceans.

Seafood is good for our health. But the world's growing appetite for fish isn't so good for the creatures that inhabit our oceans.

Roughly 30 percent of the world's fish stocks are "overexploited"--in danger of collapse--according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. Another 57 percent are "fully exploited"--at or close to their sustainable limits. Then there's the threat from climate change and pollution.

Here's how to find fish that protect your health and the oceans.

Barton Seaver is director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is also a National Geographic Fellow and the first Sustainability Fellow in Residence at the New England Aquarium. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and an award-winning chef, Seaver is the author of For Cod and Country (Sterling Epicure, 2011) and Where There's Smoke (Sterling Epicure, 2013). He spoke to Nutrition Action's Bonnie Liebman by phone from Boston.

Q: Are our oceans in trouble?

A: They certainly are, for a host of reasons, from pollution to overfishing to acidification due to climate change caused by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For a long time, we have not had a very healthy relationship with our oceans. We're beginning to understand how our irrational relationship with the ocean is leading to deleterious health effects in humans.

Q: How is our relationship irrational?

A: We don't use what we take out of the oceans very well. About 20 percent of the entire global wild capture is not used to feed humans directly.

For example, the Peruvian anchoveta is the world's largest single-species fishery. And 98 percent of its anchovies are cooked down to a mush to create fishmeal and fish oil that goes to feed pigs, chickens, and farmed salmon. And now we're seeing this great influx of supplements, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals enhanced with omega-3s from fish oil.

Q: Anchovies can be more than a pizza topping?

A: I happen to think that anchovies are delicious and wonderful. I'll take a pile of anchovies, grilled up with a side of nut pesto, and put that onto a salad of fresh sliced heirloom tomatoes, or stewed into a tomato sauce for pasta. I'll take that any day of the week. And yet, people don't have access to those anchovies.

Q: Is some seafood thrown out?

A: Yes. By some estimates, 30 to 40 percent of all that is captured is unwanted by-catch, meaning that about a third of all seafood caught is tossed overboard dead, bringing no benefit to humans.

For example, in some fisheries, up to 10 pounds of seafood are discarded for every pound of fish that is caught.

Q: Why?

A: In America, we eat about 16 pounds of seafood per person per year. And about 95 percent of that comes from only 10 species. And three of them--salmon, shrimp, and tuna--account for more than 60 percent of our seafood consumption.

In American fisheries alone, there are hundreds of available commercial species, and yet we eat only 10. We have the most robust fishery management in the world, but we do not take best advantage of what the oceans can provide.

So when we ask ourselves, "How do we get more salmon?" we're asking the wrong question. The problem is that we make demands of the ocean rather than asking what the ocean can provide for us.

Q: Fishermen can't sell unpopular fish?

A: When a cod net comes back into a boat, up with it comes pollock, cusk, ling, whitefish, dogfish, monkfish, wolffish, you name it. Yet when that fisherman comes back to dock, only cod commands a high price.

None of those other species are valuable. In fact, many of them lose money because of the ice, the labor, the gas, the space in the hold, and all the expenditures that go into catching the fish. So it often goes overboard dead.

Each of those species is equally profitable for sustaining the human body, but they're not profitable to the industry. We've created a system that skews toward waste and skews toward demand, rather than supply.

Q: Because we ask for only 10 species?

A: Right. When you walk into a store and say "I want cod," you get whatever cod is available, from wherever. When you walk into a store and say "I want whatever seafood is freshest and best fits my price point," you get a better piece of fish, because you're asking for quality, not for species.

Some fisheries end up with 10 pounds of by-catch for every pound of fish caught.

Q: Do unfamiliar fish taste odd?

A: Come on over to my place for dinner and I'll convince you otherwise. We have created these taboos or biases that are really quite detrimental.

Each of those species is absolutely delicious when treated as it should be. If you treat bluefin tuna and cod the same way, you are not going to get the same result.

But the difference between cooking cod and dogfish and wolffish and monkfish and pollock and haddock and hake and cusk is not all that different. My favorite thing to do with those fish is to just turn the oven to 275 degrees, lightly salt and oil the fillet with olive oil, and throw it in.

Q: At that temperature, won't it take longer to cook?

A: Yes. Your fish is going to take 25 minutes to cook. Meanwhile, you can cook some broccoli and make a brown rice pilaf. But you'll get all of that succulent meat, with all of the moisture and richness in the fish, instead of having it dried out by high heat.

You get a piece of fish that's done to perfection, not one that's scorched under the broiler at 700 degrees. The difference between undercooked and overcooked at 700 degrees is 30 seconds. The difference in a 275 degree oven is 10 minutes or so.

Q: Why don't people try new fish?

A: They say, "I'm nervous that it's going to make my house smell like fish." But if you're focusing on buying quality, not species, your house won't smell like fish.

Q: And you might save money?

A: Yes, because cod is king and it commands that high price. But if you put cod in a category of "flaky white fish," it has a whole host of company. You can find the most-available, best-priced species, and then cook it simply: put it under a fresh tomato salsa with olive oil and diced red onion on top.

One trick to open people up to new fish is to give them a familiar flavor. They might not know what hake tastes like so it might be a little intimidating. But put a little fresh pico de gallo on top with a little bit of fresh cracked black pepper and beautiful Tuscan olive oil, and people say, "I might not know the fish, but I know what the dish is going to taste like."

Q: Is it hard to find unpopular fish?

A: Yes. If Americans only eat 10 species, grocery stores are only going to stock 10. But stores are beginning to carry some of these options, and they need consumer participation.

As giant retailers like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Target, and Safeway and small room-and-pop stores begin to look at selling sustainable seafood, they're seeing that Who needs cod? Ask for the freshest flaky white fish instead. there isn't enough from those 10 species to fulfill the market demand. So they're saying, "Maybe we should look outside of those 10 species to see what is sustainable."

Q: Should we avoid farm-raised fish?

A: It's a common misconception that wild seafood is good and farm-raised is bad. But globally, farm-raised seafood now accounts for about half of production and consumption. So aquaculture is here to stay. And it runs the gamut from environmentally just terrible to restorative. In some cases, it can even increase the health of the oceans that it is raised in.

For example, farm-raised clams, mussels, and oysters remove the excess nutrients that get into water systems from agricultural runoff and pollution.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus have created an abundance of phytoplankton in marine and estuarine systems. Well, why don't we grow some delicious farm-raised mussels down there that will actually take in those nutrients and give us fabulous protein? They increase the quality of water and increase the profitability of waterfront communities.

They also preserve tradition and heritage by allowing families to continue to prosper in waterfront communities. We need to save fishermen as much as we need to save the fish.

Q: Can salmon be farmed sustainably?

A: Yes, but not if you create an economic system that produces the most salmon at the lowest price. Not if you're paying for anchovies in Peru to be milled down in energy-intensive production, paying for it to be shipped to Norway to feed to salmon that are grown in densely packed pens of just salmon, and then having your salmon air freighted to San Francisco. If that's the system we're relying on, then you're putting economic pressures on a biological system that is not sustainable.

Q: What's the alternative?

A: Salmon is a carnivorous species. So we can figure out how to use selective breeding to reduce the fishmeal they need but still grow healthy salmon that are resilient to disease, and therefore need few antibiotics.

How can we introduce other species, such as wrasse, that are naturally going to feed off of parasites such as sea lice? How do we introduce seaweed, sea cucumbers, scallops, other species that can take advantage of the waste cycle of salmon?

There are also species of catfish that are naturally disease resistant because they're highly resilient to the problems caused by highly dense populations. And you can introduce other species so you utilize whole systems of nutrients--much like farms do with animals' creating fertilizer for the fields and being fed off of the fields.

When we say that aquaculture is bad, we tend to vilify the species, but it's the system, not the species, that matters.

Q: Why eat low on the food chain?

A: The marine food chain is like a pyramid. At the base you've got your photosynthetic flora and your fauna like plankton. There is a vast bulk of biomass churning out in unbelievable quantities.

One step up you have filter feeders like clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, sardines, and schools of fish in huge quantities.

The next step up you have your first-level predators--catfish, trout, sole, and others. And at the tip of the pyramid you've got your big predators--sharks, tuna, swordfish--the tigers and lions of the sea. We're choosing seafood higher and higher up on the food chain, and that's not the way the ocean is designed to work.

Q: Should we never eat predators?

A: It's okay to eat them sometimes, but we need to place most of our burden on the sardines, the herring, and the anchovies--the small, silver fish that occupy most of our oceans. We need to eat mussels and oysters, which are inherently more efficient. By the time your anchovy becomes a tuna, you've eaten 100 pounds of seafood (see "What We Eat Makes a Difference").

Anchovies are delicious. I'd take 100 pounds of anchovies for a pound of tuna any day.

Q: Is tilapla a good choice if you want a fish that's low on the food chain?

A: It's a really good option because it's clean, lean protein, it's environmentally friendly, cheap, widely available, and it has a long shelf life.

Q: Can we eat sustainable seafood in large quantities?

A: We're not going to save ourselves, our wallets, or the oceans by eating sustainable seafood alone. The only way forward is for us to eat mostly vegetables, greens, fruits, grains, and nuts. This is what the science has told us for a long time.

Small but enjoyable portions of delicious, sustainable seafood should be a regular part of our diet, though, to take advantage of the heart-healthy omega-3s, the nutrients, the lean protein.

Moreover, every time we eat a small, delicious portion of seafood and vegetables, we're not eating red meat, which has a detrimental impact on climate change, our health, and on fisheries. You can't eat a hamburger six days a week and get all your omegas in one day and be fine.

Q: What's a small serving?

A: When I was running my restaurants, we did 4 1/2 to 5 ounces. But we weren't cheating anyone. Our customers were getting delicious dishes like scallion risotto with wood-grilled sardines, topped with a pistachio-roasted garlic pesto, infused with a little bit of orange zest.

By the time you were done, you were very satisfied. And we were treating our guests with respect by not giving them more than they wanted.

Q: Should people avoid frozen fish?

A: No. The technology of freezing fish has evolved to the point where it's comparable to, if not better than, fresh fish.

Historically, seafood was frozen as a last-ditch effort to keep it from spoiling. If fish wasn't sold by Friday, it was frozen so it could be sold when demand was up. So it was a crappy piece of fish to begin with.

But these days, fish is pulled from the water, filleted, and frozen within hours. That sounds pretty good to me.

Q: What about stores that sell previously frozen fish?

A: That shortchanges the consumer of many benefits. If it's frozen, it can stay in the freezer until you use it on your schedule. Why thaw it and start the process of spoilage? Retailers are playing to a taboo about frozen fish.

Q: What does Harvard's Healthy and Sustainable Food Program do?

A: We work with a number of partners to help people understand that our health, and that of our children, depends on the health of the environment, and that we must do everything we can to protect it.

Environmentalism is often a story about how we have harmed ecosystems. However, humans are also harmed by environments. You can't have healthy people without a healthy environment, because we can be no healthier than the environment that our food comes from.

Q: Hence the National Geographic Seafood Decision Guide?

A: Yes. It was built around the idea that many people are not interested in sustainability, but everyone is immediately interested in health.

I try not to stand on my pedestal and tell you why you should care about the oceans. Instead, I invite you to talk about dinner and ask, "What do you care about?" We can talk about health, wellness, delicious food, jobs, culture ... whatever.

And then I can use your own words to repeat back to you why you already care about the oceans.

Bait & Switch

Looking for seafood that's not endangered or raised
on fish farms that damage the environment?
Here's a list of substitutes from acclaimed chef Barton Seaver.

Instead of ...                      Try ...

Atlantic bluefin tuna               pole-caught yellowfin tuna,
                                    blackfin tuna, alba-core, wahoo

Atlantic cod                        Atlantic or Pacific pollock,
                                    Atlantic haddock

Atlantic halibut                    Pacific halibut

Chilean sea bass                    Alaskan sablefish
(Patagonian toothfish)

freshwater eel                      Spanish mackerel

grouper                             haddock, pollock, farm-raised
                                    barramundi, lemonfish

orange roughy                       tilapia, haddock, pollock

shark                               domestically farmed sturgeon,

shrimp                              Oregon pink shrimp, Maine pinks,
                                    U.S. farm-raised shrimp,
                                    Fisherman's Daughter wild Sonora
                                    Coast shrimp

snapper                             farm-raised barramundi

sturgeon/paddlefish (wild-caught)   sturgeon (domestically farmed)

yellowtail (imported)               Kona Kampachi

Source: National Geographic Ocean Initiative

What We Eat Makes a Difference

Your dinner has less impact on the ocean if it's from lower down on the food chain. Try fish from Level 2 (like clams, sardines, scallops, or tilapia) or Level 3 (like catfish, sole, or trout) rather than Level 4 (like mackerel, mahi mahi, swordfish, or tuna).

Mariel Furlong, NGM Staff, and Alejandro Tumas

Source: Sea Around Us Project, University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre

National Geographic Ocean Initiative (
COPYRIGHT 2013 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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