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.
I found happier recommendations about wild striped bass on the Maryland Department of Environment Web site. It said I could eat up to 24 eight-ounce meals a year of small stripers, less than 28 inches long, caught in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, or 12 meals a year of big rockfish, more than 28 inches long.
I also got more seemingly contradictory advice on blue crabs. The Seafood Watch and Oceans Alive Web sites warned that concerns about contaminants caused them to recommend that women 18 to 75 limit their consumption to one meal per month. But the Maryland Department of Environment Web site, while warning against eating the crab "mustard," said adults could eat up to 96 meals of blue crabs per year. Each meal equaled nine crabs.
I asked Fitzgerald of Environmental Defense to explain the differing advice. He said each state has a slightly different method of determining what constitutes an acceptable risk.
He pointed out that the Maryland data was looking only at striped bass and crabs caught by recreational fishermen in Maryland waters, while his Seafood Watch group looked at fish and crabs caught in waters up and down the East Coast, where contaminant levels were apparently higher.
He also noted that the Maryland Web site specified the size of the striped bass. Smaller striped bass have fewer contaminants and are safer to eat, he said. The Seafood Watch guide assumes that people, restaurant diners probably, are eating fillets cut from large fish.
Finally, he said, Seafood Watch's per-month calculations mean that you end up with fewer allowed meals than if consumption were calculated on a yearly basis, as Maryland does. Using the Seafood Watch method, an adult male could not eat a meal of wild striped bass every month, but he could eat it a couple of times a year. Somehow, that made me feel better.
Monkfish: a no-no?
The Seafood Watch guide said monkfish was a fish to "avoid." It said monkfish was being overfished and that the bottom trawls that capture it also bring up a "bycatch" - several other types of marine creatures that are damaged or discarded.
But the monkfish stock on the East Coast is being rebuilt, said Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the NOAA. Rather than boycotting a fishery that is being restored, a better approach is to limit the catch, she said.
(In May, the FDA warned consumers not to buy imported fish labeled as monkfish because it might actually be mislabeled puffer fish from China that contained a potentially deadly toxin. The fish, which was recalled, was distributed by Hong Chang Corp. to wholesalers in Illinois, California and Hawaii.)
Farmed Atlantic salmon was also problematic, according to Seafood Watch. Raising salmon in open pens and cages on the ocean coasts produces immense amounts of waste, creates a risk of disease spreading among the captive fish and threatens the health of wild salmon, the group says.
The salmon farming industry disputes this characterization, saying its operations meet rigorous environmental standards. Problems with the waste discharge from older salmon farms have been rectified by technological improvements and moving the salmon farms to better locations, said Mark Burgham, an official with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Everybody seems to love wild salmon from Alaska and the Northwest. It is a "best choice" of Seafood Watch. It is loaded with omega-3s and has terrific flavor. But with the exception of canned wild salmon, this fish is, as chef John Shields says, "very expensive, and the supply is very sporadic."
Shields is the owner of Gertrude's restaurant in Baltimore and the author of several seafood cookbooks. Two years ago, he participated in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions gala, an annual event in which chefs prepare dishes using "sustainable seafood." Shields said he was cheerful when he was cooking sustainable seafood in California. But when he returned to Maryland and read the Seafood Watch advice for this region of the country, he got depressed.
"Everything I like to eat, like rockfish or crabs, was either a recommended zero meal, or half a meal a month," he said. "It looked like all we were supposed to eat was catfish and tilapia."
So Shields, a native Marylander, makes compromises. He still loves blue crabs, but eats them less frequently. "I could eat crabs every day, but now I make it a special occasion, maybe once or twice a summer." He misses monkfish. "The texture is unique; when you pan-roast it, it is like a lobster tail."
He struggles with salmon, sometimes buying farmed-raised products that come, he is told, from a "clean" operation. His restaurant sells "a ton of rockfish," he said.
Lately, Shields has tried a new strategy, using a smaller portion of fish. "Instead of just a 6-ounce piece of fish, I will serve a 4-ounce and build the dish around a plant base, maybe adding some charred tomatoes and lima beans," he said.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't figured all this out," Shields told me.
Neither have I.
I like the Seafood Watch guide, but I am not as ardent a fan of it as Marion Nestle is. Nestle, a New York University professor and author of several books on nutrition, including the recent What to Eat, told me the shopping guide is a terrific idea because "I can't keep fish straight."
She applauds the environmental component of the rating system. "I think it is a national scandal that we can't eat all the fish from our native waters. It is the sign of complete neglect."
My journey through these waters left me with these thoughts.
Like most adult Americans, I am not in significant danger of harming myself by eating fish. In part that is because, like most Americans, I don't eat that much seafood.
There is not universal agreement on how much seafood you can eat that has contaminants like mercury. Because I like wild rockfish, I am going with the advice that lets me eat more.
I am becoming more aware of how fish are caught. At the same time, I am going to eat more seafood because the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. I am going to try the canned wild salmon. I am going to eat fewer crabs, but appreciate them more. But I am going to eat the mustard; I can't break that habit.
On the Internet
Fishing for more information? Check out these Web sites:
Monterey Bay Aquarium has Seafood Watch buying guides at seafoodwatch.org.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has recommended yearly consumption tables for fish caught in Maryland waters at www.mde.state.md.us/citizensinfocenter/fishand shellfish.
The Food and Drug Administration has information about mercury in fish and shellfish at www.cfsan.fda.gov/seafood1. html.
WILD STRIPED BASS
Environmental impact: Rated a "best choice' by Seafood Watch for its plentiful population.
Health issues: Mercury levels and PCBs could be a concern.
Flavor: Meaty texture and moisture superior to farm-raised cousin.
Environmental impact: Population low but stable.
Health issues: The "mustard" holds mercury and PCB's
Flavor: Unsurpassed; for some locals, that tangy mustard is the best part.
Environmental impact: Wild salmon get an "A" from Seafood Watch; farmed salmon flunks. Salmon farmers say they are cleaning up their operations.
Health issues: A Florida State University researcher says it packs more beneficial omega-3s and less damaging mercury than any fish.
Flavor: Wild is magnificent, but seasonal and expensive. Farmed is affordable but sometimes mushy. Canned, wil salmon is touted as a canned tuna replacement.,
Environmental impact: Gets a thumbs-down from advocacy groups for the methods used to capture it. Government says fishery is rebounding and the catch is managed.
Health issues: Safe to eat twice a week, according to World Health Organization guideline.
Flavor: Roasted, it tastes like lobster tail.