Thursday, June 7, 2012

Can I eat this fish?

I struggle with seafood. I know it's good for you (lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and so forth) IF it's not chock-full of mercury or other heavy metals, in which case don't eat it all if you are pregnant, nursing, or a young child and only moderately if you are anyone else. I also know that current seafood consumption patterns have the potential to wipe out fish and seafood stocks all across the planet. (Here's a graphic from The Washington Post that illustrates some of the overfishing issues that we currently face.) And I know most of the fish I get is flown or shipped in from somewhere halfway around the world--not a great thought when you aim to live in a way that supports local community and reduces fuel consumption. And then there's the question of farmed or wild? What's better? And perhaps by what yardstick? With seafood, you definitely have to weigh a lot of different factors.

Let's consider some of these factors, starting with sustainability. This topic actually makes me want to chew nails. For one thing, the fish species you thought were sustainable last year, last month, or even last week may not be sustainable today. This week you may be committing an atrocity on fishdom if you buy and eat that kind of fish. It can make you crazy. 

But there are resources to help you stay up to date on what's OK to eat now. In "A Consumer's Guide to Buying Sustainable Fish," Denise Santoro Lincoln notes that your best option is to find a good fishmonger who is passionate about selling sustainable fish and works to keep up with continual changes. She also notes that this isn't really practical for most of us and provides a great list of resources, including Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. World Wildlife Fund also has a list of excellent resources, including some country-specific seafood guides. All this information, however, requires that we as consumers put effort into ensuring we are making good choices. And because the state of a fishery can change so drastically from year to year, it's something we have to check into regularly. (Unfortunately, it's not enough to trust that your grocery store is going to do that work for you.) 

Another factor to consider is farmed versus wild. Some of the problems with eating wild-caught fish are of course depletion of wild fish stocks and the problem of bycatch. However, when done poorly, farmed fish can wreak environmental havoc, including habitat damage, pollution and disease, and escapes, possibly of "Frankenfish." So once again, we have to do our research to find out what's a "Best Choice" and what isn't. I have generally avoided all farmed seafood, but it turns out some farmed species are Best Choices after all (oh boy, I can go back to buying and eating mussels; I love mussels).

For some great tips on choosing seafood that's as sustainable and as healthful as possible, check out Lettuce Eat Kale. Just as fruits and vegetables have seasons, so does seafood and it pays to know when those seasons are.

[Update] And it turns out the cod I had for dinner tonight was from a company that sells Certified Sustainable Seafood (thank you, MOM's Organic Market for looking out for me) and pretty tasty as well. If you happen to have a few cod fillets, here's a really simple recipe.

Cornmeal-Crusted Cod Fillets


  • 2-3 cod fillets (if frozen, defrosted), rinsed, patted dry
  • salt
  • ground white pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal (more or less)
  • lemon wedges

  1. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium-high heat. 
  2. Salt and pepper the cod fillets.
  3. Beat the egg with a fork in a bowl (just enough to incorporate the white and the yolk). Put the cornmeal on a plate.
  4. Coat each fillet in egg. Dip the fillets in cornmeal. 
  5. When the butter is foaming and slightly brown, add the fish fillets to the pan. Fry on each side for about 2 minutes per side. (The cornmeal should be golden brown. If it isn't, give it another minute in the pan.)
  6. Remove the cod fillets to a plate and let them rest about five minutes before devouring. Serve with lemon wedges. Great accompaniments (especially in spring/summer) are boiled new potatoes with butter and a sprinkling of chives and a simple salad of lettuce leaves with some oil and vinegar.


  1. Thank you for this important reminder to use caution and sense in determining the content of our diet -- fish and everything else. A little research goes a long way, and these days it's fairly simple to become a well-informed consumer.

    As a person who loves fresh seafood and lives in an area that depends on it, seasonality is always a major factor in what we eat!

    1. Head Chef, thanks for your comment. In so many areas, you can do your research and change your health and eating habits and once you've managed to do that once, you pretty much know what you are doing. This is not the case with seafood: what's sustainable today can be seriously at risk tomorrow. So it's probably good to remind people to check into it on a regular basis. Thankfully there are reliable sources and resources out there, but you do have to know where to look.