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Can Eating Fish Sustainably Be Done?

Consumers shopping for sustainable selections will encounter a series of complicated considerations that go way beyond price per pound and freshness.

The following is an excerpt from the Chelsea Green Guide to Sustainable Foodby Elise McDonough. It has been adapted for the web.

For most Americans, fish and seafood represent the only wild foods found in their diet. Consequently, mindful consumers shopping for sustainable selections will encounter a series of complicated considerations that go way beyond price per pound and freshness. Venture over to the fish and seafood counter in your supermarket, or even visit a local fish merchant or seafood restaurant, and your purchasing decisions will have dramatic effects on both your own health and the well-being of the planet.

Making informed decisions starts with learning all you can about different species, including their biology and reproductive cycles, geographic range, and place in the oceanic food chain -- not to mention where they came from, whether they were fresh or frozen, "wild caught" or "farm raised." Trying to be ethical, economical, and epicurean all at once can be overwhelming enough to make you shrug and reach for the canned tuna, but take heart: We'll cover the basics here, and groups like the Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org) can provide you with more detailed information on tasty, affordable, guilt-free fish and seafood options.

General Fish Tips

When shopping for fish at market, always select the freshest possible. Fresh fish shouldn't have an odor of excessive "fishiness," or ammonia. The flesh should be firm, and bounce back when pressed by a finger. Fish on display should always be on ice, but not buried in ice, and the ice shouldn't be melted.

Fresh fish is preferable to frozen, and while canned fish is convenient, the canning process is very energy-intensive. By weight, canned fish may also be more expensive than fresh fish. Smoked and dried fish are preferable to canned, and there are excellent varieties of tuna "jerky" on the market today.

Environmental Issues: Overfishing, Loss of Habitat, and Species Depletion

Despite the vastness of the oceans, the fish and seafood harvested from them are far from limitless. Alarmed by the worldwide collapse of fisheries, environmental activists estimate that 90 percent of the large, predatory species in the sea now teeter on the brink of extinction. And the commercial fishing industry's shortsighted, industrial perspective on utilizing oceanic ecosystems means that vessels from different countries continue to compete for the same fish in the same areas, many using increasingly destructive and sophisticated technology to pull greater harvests from an ever-diminishing supply.

Instead of partnering with environmental groups to implement strict regulations necessary to protect and conserve fish species, thus preserving this precious food supply (not to mention the fishing trade itself) for future generations, most commercial fishing operations instead focus solely on harvesting as many fish as possible from the oceans before they're all gone. Meanwhile, a lack of political action at all levels of government means that, despite the environmental risks, you will continue to find increasingly rare species in markets and on menus, including bluefin tuna, red snapper, grouper, orange roughy, and Chilean sea bass (also called Patagonian toothfish). We must all act now to reverse this dangerous trend, or else, one day, these and many other species will disappear, never to be seen or eaten again.

The consumer movement for dolphin-safe tuna provides a successful model that can be replicated to protect other at-risk species. We all deserve sustainable oceans, and safe, healthy fish and seafood.

Fish Farms: Good or Bad?

Farm-raised fish and seafood presents a dilemma for eco-conscious consumers. When it comes to buying the products of aquaculture, the environmental impact of your purchase could be benign or could be disastrous, depending on the species of fish, the location of the farm, and the methods employed in raising, harvesting, and transporting your next dinner. And so it's important to educate yourself before things get fishy.

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