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Which Are the Healthiest and Most Sustainable Fish to Eat? Here Are Three Ways to Find Out

It used to be so easy to choose your fish, based on taste, availability and price. Not anymore.

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Food and Water Watch took a different approach to the lack of available information consumers have access to about the seafood they eat. Their guide includes a list of questions to ask, like "Where is it from?" and "How is it caught (or farmed)?" For each question, the guide tells what to look for in an answer and what answers should let you know that the fish is a bad choice. "The more people that ask questions, the clearer it will become to vendors that consumers care about the origin and the production of their seafood," said Cufone. "Personally, if a vendor is unable to tell me where a fish is from and how it was caught, I shop elsewhere."

Given the differences between the guides in structure and criteria, do they provide conflicting recommendations for seafood consumption? To compare them, let's look at the top three most popular types of seafood in America: shrimp, canned tuna and salmon.

Shrimp: All three guides say to avoid imported shrimp (both wild and farmed). Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide seems the easiest to understand, with a simple table format listing the many different kinds of shrimp available on the market and their rankings (all forms of domestic wild and farmed shrimp are rated either green or yellow). Monterey Bay Aquarium gives its green ratings to U.S. farmed freshwater prawns, wild-caught pink shrimp from Oregon; U.S. shrimp farmed in closed, inland ponds; and wild-caught spot prawns from British Columbia. Blue Ocean Institute also gives a green light for pink shrimp, but only gives U.S. farmed shrimp a yellow-green rating, noting that "U.S. farm-raised shrimp are a better alternative to imported farm-raised shrimp and to trawl-caught shrimp." They give wild-caught shrimp from the southeastern United States a yellow rating due to the habitat destruction and large amount of bycatch (fish other than the target species caught by accident and tossed overboard, dead and dying) associated with the method of fishing used. Food and Water Watch's guide was difficult to use when searching alphabetically by fish, but their downloadable card recommends "U.S. wild-caught shrimp, especially South Atlantic white, Pacific ("Oregon") pinks and Florida ("Key West" or "Tortugas") pinks; U.S.-farmed shrimp."

Canned Tuna: The guides diverge quite a bit on the canned tuna question. Most canned tuna is albacore (sold as "chunk white") or skipjack ("chunk light"), and both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute have specific sections for "canned tuna." If you use the Food and Water Watch guide, you'll need to know which species you are eating. Monterey Bay Aquarium gives canned tuna a red rating unless you can ascertain it was troll or pole caught. They give green ratings to troll- or pole-caught skipjack ("chunk light") from anywhere in the world and Pacific albacore from the U.S. or Canada.

Blue Ocean Institute gives canned tuna a rating derived by averaging the ratings of the many fish and fishing methods that may show up in the store as canned tuna. Overall the category rates yellow-green but within that the ratings range from yellow (any tuna that is longline caught) to green (any tuna that is pole or troll caught). One has to actually click on the albacore tuna page to see that it is "heavily fished in the north Atlantic" and that "management for Albacore Tuna is weak overall." Both Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute mention that tuna contains mercury (much more prominently for Blue Ocean Institute than Monterey Bay Aquarium).

Food and Water Watch recommends Atlantic skipjack and Pacific albacore tuna, but not Atlantic albacore tuna. They note the mercury issue first in their description of each fish and point out that skipjack has less mercury than other types of tuna. They also add that both Atlantic skipjack and Pacific albacore tuna are not usually caught with longlines ("known to threaten endangered birds and marine mammals"), whereas Atlantic albacore is. Also, Atlantic albacore populations are low due to overfishing whereas the other two types of tuna are not. The only problem with taking their advice is that both Atlantic and Pacific albacore are sold in cans labeled "chunk white."