When you’re looking for lean and healthful protein, seafood is always a good choice, but choosing fish is complicated by questions of conscience. Because of overfishing, many species are not sustainable and the more we eat of some fish — bluefin tuna, Atlantic halibut, and Chilean sea bass for example — the less certain their futures.
While the oceans are vast, they’re not inexhaustible, says Elizabeth Fitzsimons, outreach manager for the New England Aquarium’s sustainable seafood programs. According to the World Bank Sustainable Development Network, approximately 85 percent of the world’s ocean fisheries are categorized as fully exploited, over-exploited, or depleted.
One reason for at-risk fish is consumer preference for tastes that are already familiar. In this country, says Fitzsimons, “We eat so little of what actually is available.” Three varieties — shrimp, tuna (mostly canned), and salmon — make up 55 percent of the seafood Americans eat. The top 10, which also includes tilapia, Alaska pollock, catfish, crab, and cod, add up to 88 percent. Of those, only wild salmon and pollock are caught in any significant quantity off coastlines in the United States; the majority of the others are imported.
We’re fortunate in this region to have numerous wild species to choose from. But when was the last time you ate redfish (also called ocean perch), hake, scup (porgy), or mackerel? More familiar are cod, haddock, grey sole, and halibut, the most popular four at Wulf’s Fish Market in Brookline. “We try to buy local as much as possible,” says assistant buyer and manager Peter Ryan. Summer’s striped bass, bluefish, and sea scallops appeal to some buyers, but lesser known species are harder to sell. “Most people who come to the store know what they want,” he says.
All locally caught fish are considered sustainable because they’re subject to quotas and fishing regulations, explains Donna Marshall, director of Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a Gloucester-based Community Supported Fishery. In the summer months, CSF shareholders receive wild catches of redfish, hake, monkfish, pollock, whiting, yellowtail flounder, and bluefish. “We need to give these other species a chance,” says Marshall. If the demand is there, fishermen will be more interested in catching underutilized species. And compared to salmon, swordfish, and halibut, she says, “a lot of these fish are less expensive.”
The world of seafood can be confusing, with multiple names for the same species, widespread mislabeling, and even fraud (the Globe Spotlight team reported on this in 2011 and 2012). In many cases, the lack of traceability makes it impossible to know where certain fish are from.
Take cod. “Local cod stocks are extremely low now,” says Fitzsimons. But when people see fish labeled “Atlantic cod,” which often comes from Norway and Iceland, she says, “they assume our cod stocks are healthy.”
Another hurdle takes place in the kitchen. As a beef-eating nation, many folks don’t know how to cook fish and because it’s perceived as expensive (and most nonlocal wild varieties are), they fear ruining it. Data shows that Americans continue to eat most of their seafood in restaurants. “What we have to learn is to fillet a fish,” says Marshall.
But people are squeamish when it comes to whole fish, with head and tail intact, and heaven forbid, bones.
For some, it’s the odor. “Fresh fish doesn’t smell,” says Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, established in Gloucester 40 years ago. Cooking methods such as baking (instead of pan-frying and sauteing), grilling outside, and adding cut-up chunks to a savory, tomato-based or creamy broth for fish stew will cut down on unwanted aromas.
When it comes to some of the lesser known white fish, says Sanfilippo, “People think just because they’re different fish they have to be cooked differently.” The Sicilian native has a simple, foolproof recipe for cooking almost any fish fillet by poaching it in garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh herbs.
With global demand growing for all kinds of seafood, fish farming takes pressure off wild species and boosts international supply. About half of the seafood eaten worldwide is farm-raised. Aquaculture, dominated by China, is not without its downside, including the environmental impact on wild fisheries and local ecosystems from the high costs of feeding carnivorous fish such as salmon, excessive farm waste, and disease transfer. In New England, oysters, clams, mussels, bay scallops, seaweed (kelp), and barramundi (Asian seabass) are farmed sustainably, says Fitzsimons.
As consumers, if you want to support local and sustainable fisheries, you have to ask questions, gather information, and be adventurous. Pepper your fish purveyor or waiter with questions on where and how the seafood was caught, and if it’s wild or farmed. Experts say that vendors will be more motivated to carry local, sustainably caught or raised seafood if they know consumers and customers are asking questions.
Several websites have lists of ocean-friendly seafood, including the New England Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And finally, you have to be willing to jump in and try something new. When we increase the variety of seafood we eat, it spreads out demand. As Fitzsimons says, consumers are curious about the origin of their meat, chicken, eggs, and vegetables. Now they have to apply all that to seafood.
Ask about the salmon, she advises. But order the local clams.
New England Aquarium sustainable seafood list is at www.neaq.org/seafood; Monterey Bay Aquarium sustainable seafood list is at www.seafoodwatch.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sustainable seafood list is at www.fishwatch.gov.