It is not easy eating seafood these days. There are a number of health concerns, mercury being the number-one issue that has been in the news lately. Beyond that, you also have to worry about PCBs, pollutants and chemicals in your seafood. And if you care at all about the environment, there are a host of other worries: overfished species; fishing practices that harm other marine life; and pollution associated with fish farming. It’s enough to make you order a grass-fed, humanely slaughtered steak or organic, free-range chicken breast instead.
Still, I like seafood, and I want to keep on eating it. But I don’t want to carry a book with me every time I go to the grocery store or restaurant just so I know what fish is best to buy. There are no straightforward rules. Sometimes it’s best to choose wild, and sometimes you should choose farmed. Sometimes Atlantic species are out, but Pacific are OK. U.S. farms are often better than international sources, but not always, and the store often doesn’t tell you where the seafood is from, anyway. To make it more confusing, some species are regularly labeled as another type of fish; for instance rockfish might be sold as red snapper or sea bass.
To help cut through the confusion and make fish-buying simple, I have created a very short list of fish that I know is OK and that I want to keep on eating. If it’s not on my list, I don’t get it. This may prevent me from eating a lot of fish that is just fine, but it also keeps me from going crazy and giving up seafood altogether.
- clams and mussels — Farmed is the best choice (and usually the only choice).
- crab – Dungeness and stone are the best choices, but crab is so expensive that it is an occasional treat anyway.
- farmed Arctic char – The taste reminds me of salmon, but it’s often hard to find in the store.
- farmed U.S. catfish — Surprisingly clean, this is a good choice for fish fries.
- farmed rainbow trout — Another good fillet option, if you can find it in the store.
- Pacific cod — A good all-purpose fish; note that Atlantic cod is a no-no.
- Alaskan wild salmon — Avoid farmed and Atlantic salmon.
- U.S. yellowfin (ahi) tuna sparingly – Yes, tuna has mercury, but this is the best choice, and I love tuna, so I eat it only once in a while.
- canned light tuna, also sparingly — Because I still need an occasional tuna fish sandwich.
Remember, when you buy fish, keep it on ice for no more than one day or buy it frozen. Fish that has been flash-frozen at sea is often fresher than fresh fish, which has likely been frozen and then thawed.
Fish I no longer buy
- halibut, mackerel, mahi mahi, shark and swordfish – Even though some species may be safe, I eliminated all of these due to mercury or PCB content.
- flounder and sole – These contain PCBs, are overfished, and the fishing practices damage the habitat.
- grouper, rockfish, sea bass and snapper — Some choices are fine, but many are severely overfished and may contain pollutants; since these species are often mislabeled, it’s hard to know what you’re getting, so I avoid them all.
- monkfish – Also overfished and harmful fishing practices.
- tilapia – A good choice, actually, but I don’t like the muddy, bland taste; also, you need to be sure of your sources and avoid tilapia farmed in China or Taiwan.
My general rule is: If it’s not on my short list, I don’t buy it.
What about shrimp?
I love shrimp, although I rarely buy it anyway, since my husband is allergic. Then I read an article in Gourmet that completely put me off eating shrimp. The shrimp that comes from international farmed sources — in other words, most shrimp — is highly polluted and full of chemicals that are banned in the U.S. Sometimes I wonder if my husband isn’t allergic to the shrimp, just highly susceptible to the chemicals in them. Also, I’ve noticed more and more that shrimp tastes muddy, mushy and just plain bad, which I also attribute to the pollution.
However, I will order shrimp in a restaurant if it is clearly labeled as wild-caught Carolina shrimp or U.S. farmed shrimp (primarily from Florida). U.S. lobster is generally fine, as well.
What about scallops?
Some scallops are OK, some are not. I don’t want to keep track of which is which, and I’m not a huge fan anyway. I might order them in a really nice restaurant where I trust the chef to source them appropriately. The other reason I don’t buy scallops is that they are often treated with chemical phosphate to extend their shelf life and make them look better, which I think affects their taste and texture, and not in a good way.
What about oysters?
To tell you the truth, I don’t prepare oysters much at home. Oysters are something I’d much rather eat from a good restaurant that knows how to treat them right. Many farmed oysters are good choices, but again, it’s too much trouble for me to remember which ones are the best, since I hardly ever buy them. Wild oysters may contain PCBs but are OK to eat occasionally.