So you're standing in the freezer section at the supermarket and you're thinking about buying some fish. The problem is, you have a general sense of environmental issues facing the worldwide fishing industry.
For starters, many ocean-going species are suffering from decades of overfishing. Other species are caught through means that scar the ocean floor or coastal areas, damaging the environment and harming the livelihoods of the people who live there.
Fish farms, presented as a solution to a worldwide protein shortage, come with their own environmental impacts. And then there was that report in February from marine-conservation group Oceana, which used DNA testing to demonstrate about one-third of all fish sold in U.S. groceries and restaurants wasn't what it was billed to be.
For the ordinary consumer, all this doom and gloom can be daunting. While we all want to make good environmental choices, the fact is few of us have the time to research every grocery purchase or restaurant-menu selection. Even fewer of us have the disposable income to only purchase premium groceries.
In Winnipeg, this confusion is compounded by the fact we live so far from any ocean and have little first-hand knowledge of any form of fishing that doesn't involve pickerel, pike and other freshwater species. That means even the two most popular seafood-purchasing guides -- Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise and Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch -- can read like ancient Greek to a Winnipeg consumer.
For example, both guides advise consumers to ask fishmongers about the country of origin of any potential purchase. In Winnipeg, however, a supermarket retail clerk may not be any more knowledgeable about fish and seafood than the average shopper.
To that end, I've compiled advice for Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise through a Winnipegger's lense. Here's a summarized list of what's good, not so great and downright ugly about some of the more popular fish and seafood sold in this landlocked corner of the planet:
- Basa/Catfish: When you buy basa, you're buying river catfish farmed in Asia. Sustainable-seafood advocates consider it an OK choice, despite concerns about effluent from Asian catfish farms. U.S. catfish farms are considered a better choice. So are wild catfish caught in Manitoban rivers, when and where you're allowed to fish for them.
- Clams, mussels and oysters: Bivalves aren't just tasty -- they're excellent for the environment. The vast majority of clams, mussels and oysters are farmed sustainably. Bivalve beds actually improve the marine environment by filtering out organic matter, so eat as many as you like.
- Crab: Most of the crab available for sale in Winnipeg is caught in a relatively sustainable manner, including live Dungeness crab from British Columbia, frozen snow and king crab from Alaskan waters and blue crabs from the U.S. East Coast. One exception is king crab from European waters, where stocks are dwindling. If Russia is the country of origin on a package of frozen king crab, buy something else.
- Halibut: White-fleshed Pacific halibut tends to be pricey, but you're paying for sustainability -- there are strict quotas in place for this large flatfish in Alaskan waters. Avoid halibut from other sources.
- Mahi mahi: Also known as dorado or dolphinfish, the ocean sportfish continues to be plentiful. Buy it if it's from U.S. waters, where fishers don't use the longlines that ensnare other species.
- Lobster: Lobster trapping in the Canadian Maritimes doesn't capture other species, so feel free to eat as much of this very sweet and very expensive creature as you can afford. Spiny lobster -- the kind without claws -- are also OK from Florida or the Caribbean.
- Octopus and squid: Stocks of octopus are being depleted around the world, but they tend to be taken sustainably in U.S. waters. Squid, or calamari, are generally doing better and are OK from just about everywhere.
- Pickerel: The fish officially known as walleye is plentiful in Manitoba waters and is in no danger of being fished out. The long-term threat to the pickerel fishery is environmental: Lake Winnipeg in particular could suffer from the collapse of its food chain, if nutrient-loading continues unabated. But for now, pickerel are plentiful and not just safe to eat, but among the better animal-protein purchases you could make.
- Salmon: Among the most popular fish in North America, salmon poses a quandary for the consumer, both because of the environmental impacts of Atlantic salmon farms -- found on both sides of the continent -- and the relative scarcity of certain wild Pacific stocks. Salmon pens in open water are blamed for encouraging the proliferation of sea lice that kill wild salmon. Salmon farms also litter the ocean floor with waste. What's more troubling is the food required to sustain farmed salmon, as the pellets tend to be made from other fish, including stocks that may be struggling on their own. As a result, wild Pacific salmon is generally considered a better environmental choice. It's certainly tastier and doesn't require any dye to attain its deep, red hue.
- Sardines: Contrary to popular belief, the sardine is not a species, but a name given to a number of small ocean fish, including juvenile herring. Since they exist lower down on the food chain, sardines of all types are not laden with toxic metals and other environmental contaminants that can be concentrated in larger fish. More importantly, most sardine stocks, except those from the Mediterranean, are still in relatively good shape. Look for a Canadian or U.S. label on the can.
- Scallops: While most Canadian scallops are dredged up off the bottom of the Bay of Fundy, the fact is the damage to the ocean floor is already done. Scallops from any source are an OK environmental choice, although other shellfish are even better.
- Shrimp: The toughest news to swallow in Winnipeg is the fact the vast majority of the shrimp sold in our grocery stores and by our restaurants are farmed in a way that's terrible for natural ecosystems. Asian tiger shrimp farms tend to be carved out of coastal areas, where they cause irreparable damage to habitat that serves a wide variety of species. Open shrimp farms also tend to use large quantities of piscicides (substances that are poisonous to fish), including those considered toxic in Canada. Shrimp farmed in closed-containment tanks pose no such problems, but are not easy to find in Winnipeg. Instead, look for wild-caught "white shrimp" or "pink shrimp" from U.S. sources, or if you can, sweet but expensive spot prawns from B.C. That said, even wild-caught shrimp may be caught by trawlers that capture undesirable fish and result in a large bycatch. The bottom line: If you care about the health of the oceans, eat less shrimp.
- Snapper: There are dozens of snapper varieties and many of the stocks are declining. Given the difficulty of discerning one from another in landlocked Winnipeg, it's safer from an environmental standpoint simply to choose another fish.
- Tilapia: When it comes to farmed fish, there aren't many freshwater species that are better for the environment than tilapia, which tend to be vegetarian and thus do not require farmers to use food made from other fish. Commercially bred tilapia are actually chichlids native to rivers in Africa and the Middle East. They're farmed around the world, especially in the U.S., South America and Asia, and are generally fed vegetable and grain products. Closed-containment tilapia farms in the U.S. and Ecuador have little impact on the environment, according to Seafood Watch. Asian tilapia farms have a higher impact, but even Asian tilapia is still a better choice than many other fish.
- Tuna: Buying tuna is among the most problematic decisions facing a consumer, given the variety of species in the ocean and they way they're caught. Tuna stocks are heavily depleted around the world but can be managed sustainably. When you're buying canned albacore or skipjack tuna, look for "troll-caught, "line-caught" or "pole-caught" on the label. If you're buying fresh "ahi" tuna --- marketing name given to yellowfin or bigeye -- make sure it's from U.S. or Canadian waters. Avoid bluefin, which is in danger of extinction.
Sources: Seafood Watch, Ocean Wise