Fish: 5 Choices Healthy for You and the Environment

Wednesday Aug 21 | BY |
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We love our tuna, but we’re eating too many of them. It’s time to try other options.

According to a 2009 study by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists, total mercury levels in the North Pacific Ocean water have risen about 30 percent over the last 20 years. The scientists attributed the rise to increases in global mercury atmospheric emission rates, particularly from Asia.

They estimated a 50 percent increase in Pacific Ocean mercury levels by the year 2050.

Meanwhile, consumption of ocean fish and shellfish account for over 90 percent of human methylmercury exposure in the U.S., and tuna harvested in the Pacific Ocean account for 40 percent of this total exposure.

In May 2013, Allison Luengen, assistant professor of environmental science/management at the University of San Francisco, found 11 percent of the fish sampled in her lab exceeded the FDA’s recommended limit of one milligram of methylmercury per kilogram—some by more than 1.76 times.

It’s not only mercury exposure we have to think about when consuming fish, however. Eco-conscious consumers are also concerned about the fact that we’re overfishing 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.

There’s no doubt that fish make good eating. They’re one of the few foods rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and they’re a great source of low-fat, high quality protein. If you’re a fish lover but also concerned about mercury exposure and sustainable practices, here are some tips for consumption that protects your health and the health of the oceans.

1. Avoid High-Mercury Fish

As a general rule, the higher up the food chain the fish, the more mercury. Predator fish consume other fish, which means that over time, they accumulate more of whatever pollutants and contaminants are in the ocean.

Mercury is bad news for human health. Side effects of high exposure can include:

  • Impaired neurological development in children
  • Memory and attention problems
  • Vision impairment
  • Pins and needles in the hands, feet, and mouth
  • Speech impairment
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Muscle weakness

Human data on mercury and cancer are limited, but animal studies have linked high levels of the metal to several types of tumors in rats and mice.

  • Action: Limit intake of swordfish, big eye tuna, Chilean sea bass, grouper, orange roughy, shark, and albacore tuna, which are high in mercury. Fish with the least mercury include Atlantic haddock, Atlantic salmon, and Pacific cod.

2. Broaden Your Taste Buds

One of the main problems with overfishing is that consumers are focused on eating only a very few species. According to Barton Seaver, director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, about 30-40 percent of all that is captured in the oceans is unwanted by-catch, and is tossed overboard dead.

“In America,” Seaver says, “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.”

The answer is to simply take better advantage of what the ocean has to offer. Our waters are teeming with Pollock, cusk, whitefish, dogfish, monkfish, wolfish, and more, but so far, fishermen are having a harder time selling these other fish for a profitable amount.

  • Action: When you go to buy fish, instead of saying, “I want cod” or “I want salmon,” ask for whatever is freshest. You’ll get a better piece of fish and contribute to more sustainable practices. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

3. Eat Lower on the Food Chain

The ocean contains a lot more sardines, herring, and anchovies than salmon and shark. Yet humans eat mostly the less plentiful fish, and throw away the more plentiful ones. A better option would be to find more ways to eat the smaller fish.

  • Action: Expand your horizons to choose anchovies, sardines, oysters, mussels, scallops, tilapia, and herring. The lower on the food chain you eat, the less impact you have on the ocean. Even trout, sole, and catfish are more plentiful than swordfish, tuna, and mahi mahi.

4. Enjoy Frozen Fish

It used to be that fish were frozen only after they didn’t sell fresh, which meant they were already close to spoiling at the point of freezing. But that’s changed. Now, the technology involved in freezing fish has evolved to where it’s comparable to, if not better than, fresh fish.

  • Action: Enjoy frozen fish of all types with the knowledge that it’s most likely fresh and healthy. You can also choose previously frozen fish, but realize that thawing it out starts the process of spoilage, and gives you less storage time.

5. Be Choosy with Farmed Fish

Farm-raised fish have gotten a bad rap lately because they have been found to contain antibiotics, pesticides, and lower levels of nutrients than wild fish. The Environmental Working Group found that farm-raised salmon contained 16 times the cancer causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than wild salmon. A study by the University of New York also found higher concentrations of contaminants in farmed salmon, including cancer-causing PCBs and dioxins.

Seaver notes, however, that globally, farm-raised seafood now accounts for about half of production and consumption. In some cases, farms are beneficial. Farm-raised clams, mussels, and oysters help remove excess nutrients that get into water systems from agricultural runoff and pollution. Farming also allows families to continue to prosper in waterfront communities.

  • Action: Avoid farm-raised salmon, but stay open to farm-raised smaller fish. Farmed shellfish, for example, are good options, as they obtain their food by sifting through the same seawater that wild shellfish do. Farmers don’t provide them with food or antibiotics, etc. Shellfish have repeatedly shown in tests to be some of the safest, least contaminated farmed seafood. Farmed rainbow trout is also a good option, as tests have shown the omega-3 fats and nutrients to be about the same as wild trout, and farmed trout is low in contaminants.

How do you make smart choices about the fish you eat? Please share your tips.

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Sunderland, E.M., Krabbenhoft, D.P., Moreau, J.W., Strode, S.A., and Landing, W.M., 2009, Mercury sources, distribution and bioavailability in the North Pacific Ocean–Insights from data and models: Global Biogeochemical Cycles, doi:10.1029/2008GB003425 (Advanced Web release).

“A New Source of Methylmercury Entering the Pacific Ocean,” USGS,

“Mercury Rising: A Bad Sign if You Eat Fish,” University of San Francisco, May 16, 2013,

“SOS Save Our Seafood,” Nutrition Action, July/August 2013.

“Mercury: Health Effects,” EPA,

“First Global Study Reveals Health Risks of Widely Eaten Farm Raised Salmon,” Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany,

“Farmed Seafood: What’s Safe and Nutritious,” Mark’s Daily Apple,

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.

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