It can sometimes feel like hooking your own fish would be easier than navigating the ever-growing list of seafood dos and don'ts. But chef and author Barton Seaver says you can eat fish that's good for you and good for the planet -- it's just a matter of choosing your catch.
Time was, we'd visit the fishmonger (or the fish counter at our local grocery store) and buy whatever was freshest and most affordable, usually from a selection of about three. "We didn't expect salmon or tuna steaks or striped bass to always be there," says Barton Seaver, a National Geographic Fellow and the author of the acclaimed cookbook "For Cod and Country." But in the same way that consumers' desire to eat strawberries in the dead of winter has resulted in the fruit's being available year-round, so has the public's growing taste for new kinds of seafood led to a fishing industry that fills the void -- to the serious detriment of our seas.
"The oceans have been depleted to the point where we need to sustain the green list," Seaver says of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's roster of "Best Choices" -- fish species that can be eaten without threatening populations or harming ecosystems. "We also need to change the fate of the yellow and red species." (Fish tagged red have been caught or farmed using methods that negatively impact the ecosystem; yellow species have raised slightly less serious concerns.) "Right now, there isn't enough sustainable seafood to fill the case." As regulations increase, though, and more stores enforce strict sourcing and labeling standards, that could change. Ultimately, we'll all need to think harder about how often we eat seafood (or beef or pork or chicken), but in the meantime we can read labels and talk to our fishmongers about the least-bad options. Seaver's quintet is a great place to start.
Yes, the list changes often. But for now, you can choose from these five picks and feel good about it.
Eco Cred: Strict monitoring by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has fostered a robust, resilient population.
Shopping Tip: Pacific Northwest wild-caught salmon is the next-best alternative. Farmed salmon is notoriously wasteful and hazardous to ecosystems; the fish harvested in contained farms on land is a better bet.
Look for: Fresh around May through September; frozen year-round
Eco Cred: Most of these bottom-dwelling flatfish are caught in Alaska with fishing lines that float just above the ocean bottom, causing little damage or bycatch. Annual population assessments and catch limits make for an abundance of the fish.
Shopping Tip: Skip Atlantic (it's overfished) and California (it has high levels of mercury).
Look for: Fresh March through October; frozen year-round
Eco Cred: Seaver jokes that eating these mollusks is a "patriotic duty": They're farmed suspended in the water, causing no damage to the ocean floor. What's more, the shellfish filter water through their bodies, removing tiny bits of nutrients and helping to keep nearby waters clean.
Shopping Tip: Look for varieties farmed in high tidal-flow areas, such as Maine or Prince Edward Island. Skip "on-bottom" farmed mussels -- the dredging can damage the seafloor.
Look for: Fresh year-round
Eco Cred: Barramundi farmers in the United States tend to use a recirculating aquaculture system, which generates zero wastewater and eliminates the risk of disease and pollution. The fish is new to the market; look for it in your local Chinatown.
Shopping Tip: If you can only find imported barramundi, that's a safe tradeoff; the fish most likely will have come from a U.S.-controlled farm in Vietnam, where it's raised in a recirculating system to eliminate bycatch.
Look for: Frozen year-round
Eco Cred: Their life span is short, so they accumulate fewer toxins, and their reproduction is rapid. Plus, sardine fisheries usually employ safe methods.
Shopping Tip: Say no to most Atlantic varieties, which come from the Mediterranean and face declining populations due to overfishing. Canned sardines are an affordable pantry staple.
Look for: Fresh in summer; canned and jarred year-round
Barramundi with Pecan-Raisin Salsa Over Broccoli
Baked barramundi goes dinner-party fancy with a salsa of raisins and toasted pecans. And that creamy-looking broccoli bed it's sitting on? A virtuous 100 percent dairy-free.
A meal in Provence: Swapping out the salt cod for sardines turns this classic into a sea-friendly starter. Pair with a crisp rose to ensure Frenchie cred.
Broiled Halibut with Shaved Spring Vegetable Salad
Paper-thin slivers of radish and fennel tumble among ribbons of carrot in this colorful celebration of spring. Parsely, cilantro, and lemon add brightness, while nutmeg adds a twist all its own.
Baked Wild Salmon with Almond-Lime Sauce
Almond-studded yogurt lends Mediterranean flair to baked salmon fillets. Showered with shallots and fresh mint, chervil, and parsley, this dish is like a party on a plate.
Mussels with Red Wine and Roasted Garlic
Mussels take on a lusty new accent when steamed in fruity red wine infused with roasted garlic and thyme. A green salad and hunks of crusty bread complete this postcard from summer.
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