Up until the age of 16, I thought I hated fish. Then I spent a weekend at a friend's cottage on Black Lake in the finger-tip region of Michigan and discovered that I had not, in actuality, tasted fish. When I took my first bite of fresh Lake Trout, caught, cleaned and grilled by my friend's dad an hour earlier, I realized that basing my opinion of fish on breaded sticks from a freezer box was like claiming to hate tomatoes having only eaten ketchup. That day, a love affair began. The first elaborate meal I prepared for friends was an extravagant sea bass with mango salsa. In college, a boyfriend introduced me to sushi, opening a universe of raw, exotic possibilities to my suburban taste buds. To this day, I wonder how much mercury I'll carry to the grave from that luxurious swordfish steak I had on my 19th birthday.
Here I am, a decade later, reading about the world's fish supply and finding the topic only slightly less depressing than the world's oil supply: coastal waters poisoned by industrial waste, Atlantic cod fished to near extinction, mountains of antibiotic-laden fish feces smothering life on sea floors beneath salmon farms, the at least four-to-one ratio of bycatch (unwanted marine life) destroyed whilst trawling for shrimp. To fully enjoy a seafood dinner, the conscious pescaphile has to be well-educated and willing to ask a lot of questions about the origins, treatment and harvesting of her meal.
What the savvy diner should inquire about depends on the fish. For instance, farmed salmon is a health and environmental shipwreck for more reasons than the aforementioned poop blanket. In addition to being sickly from confinement (hence the anti-bs), farmed salmon feed on other wild marine life collected from surrounding waters. Farmed salmon also have a way of escaping and infecting wild populations with diseases cultivated on the farm, and causing general mayhem with their genetically modified behavior. On the other hand, wild salmon from the coast of Alaska is fished responsibly. In fact, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has one of the strictest set of standards in the world; you can pretty much count on any fish caught off Alaska—pollock, cod—to be healthy in both body and number.
Now this doesn't mean all farmed fish is bad. Vegetarian species, like catfish, tilapia and shellfish, are often farmed while creating minimal impact on habitats, particularly on U.S. farms. When buying for your big Friday night fish fry, you can look for the logo of the Marine Stewardship Council, the only globally recognized certifier of sustainable seafood. However, fishery certification is voluntary, so just because you don't see the MSC label doesn't necessarily mean the fish wreaked ecological havoc on its way to the grocer.
All these stipulations are complicated and more than any one person can memorize. Fortunately, the Shedd Aquarium sponsors the Right Bite program (along with a slew of other ocean conservation initiatives) to raise public awareness of sustainable seafood choices. By working with researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Northwestern University, the Shedd has compiled a wallet-sized seafood guide that takes into account location, fishing methods and potential mercury and PCB content of certain fish; the card includes Great Lakes fish, too. Michelle Jost, the Conservation Programs Manager at the Shedd, highly recommends Yellow Perch from Lake Erie: delicious and sustainable. Several high-end restaurants participate in the Right Bite program, so you can really impress your date by ordering the Great Lakes whitefish at Naha or Shaw's Crab House.
I keep the seafood guide in my wallet and a list of questions ready when going out for the occasional sushi indulgence. And luckily, finding certified, environmentally friendly fish is getting easier. Whole Foods stocks an array of options from the "Best Choices" category, along with the only non-pirated Chilean Sea Bass on the market. Even corporate monstrosities like Wal-Mart have started carrying wild Alaskan Salmon—an encouraging sign for the industry at large.
To search for restaurants and retailers serving sustainable seafood, visit the Seafood Choices Alliance. For those who prefer info via satellite, get text messages on sustainable fish with Blue Ocean Institute's FishPhone service.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.