Eco-Friendly Fish Choices

Most Vitality readers are familiar with the concept of ‘Sustainable Living’, but what about ‘Sustainable Seafood’? Nowadays, buying and eating eco-friendly fish is a choice we can no longer swim around.

It is common knowledge that fish is a good source of protein, is low in saturated fat, and offers a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. On the flip side, fish can be toxic and contain high mercury levels. Dioxins and PCB’s are chemicals formed by unwanted by-products from burning fossil fuels and garbage, pulp and paper processes and even dental offices. Fish accumulate these toxins primarily by eating other fish or fish feed. Even though PCB’s have officially been banned since the 1970’s, they continue to persist in the environment. Mercury levels are estimated to have increased three to five times in the environment in the past century due to such industrial processes. In fish specifically, mercury can be very damaging to the nervous system.

According to Dr. Joey Shulman, author of The Natural Makeover Diet, effects of heavy metal poisoning can range from learning disorders and developmental delays to headaches, migraines, muscle aches, depression, memory loss, skin rashes and seizure. And, “Pregnant to nursing mothers should be extra cautious due to the dangerous neurological effects mercury can have on a fetus or infant,” writes Shulman.

So which fish should you avoid and which should you indulge in? What is the difference between farmed and wild salmon and is there such a thing as organic, antibiotic-free fish? Before attempting to answer these questions, we must first understand how our fish are caught.


According to, a web site launched by Sustainable Seafood Canada, a national coalition of leading environmental organizations working together to raise awareness for sustainable fisheries, more than 120 million people are dependent on fish for all or part of their incomes, particularly in developing countries. In addition, they provide a vital part of marine ecosystems, with many animals relying on them for food. In Canada, the commercial fishing industry is worth more than $5 billion a year and employs over 130,000 people across Atlantic, Pacific and freshwater regions, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Over the last century, commercial fisheries have drastically reduced fish populations and altered these delicate ecosystems. We have now encountered a supply and demand problem — what we take out of the ocean is greater than what the ocean can sustainably provide, thus destroying food chains. Even undesirable fish that are lower on the food chain are being “trawled”, which is a method that catches unintended fish by pulling large nets along the ocean floor. This practice not only strips the seabed of species, but also destroys coral reefs and kills almost everything in their path.

Furthermore, many commercial fleets, including illegal ones, are now moving to unexploited areas and dredging the ocean floors for new species — thereby destroying habitat for many species. The end result? These fish are marketed to consumers and served in restaurants for your dining pleasure.

According to Canada’s Seafood Guide, some of the best choices, defined as “species currently fished or harvested sustainably” are: albacore, bigeye and skipjack tuna, farmed rainbow trout, sardines, and farmed mussels and oysters, to name a few. This goes hand in hand with what nutritionists claim — that eating smaller fish is better for us because they have accumulated less mercury in their short lives. The guide indicates that seafood that is of concern includes atlantic and pacific halibut, and king and snow crab, to name a few. However, fish to avoid all together because “regular consumption poses a health threat from mercury or from PCB, dioxins or pesticides,” include Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, bluefin tuna, swordfish, atlantic farmed salmon, atlantic halibut, flounder/sole and shark. (For a complete list of all three categories, go to the web site and print off the card-sized chart.) Health Canada has issued advisories to limit or avoid larger fish (including grouper, mackerel and marlin) during pregnancy.

It wasn’t too long ago when many hip restaurants in Toronto served Chilean sea bass and orange roughy as an exotic alternative to regular ol’ fish. However, now that these two fish are on the brink of extinction, it would certainly be socially and politically irresponsible for any chef to serve them — no matter how delectable they may taste. In fact, according to Endangered Fish Alliance (EFA), a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization aimed at educating the public about the dangers of endangered species, Chilean sea bass and orange roughy rank as one of their top four endangered species (the other two are swordfish and caviar). All four fish have been “overfished, oversold and overeaten. Now they are almost extinct.” For tasty alternatives, the website gives suggestions, i.e. instead of Chilean sea bass, try mahi mahi; instead of orange roughy, try tilapia. If you really must eat caviar, then try eco-friendly caviar from farmed sturgeon.


Also known as fish farming, aquaculture has been practiced for centuries and has been in operation on both coasts since the 1970’s. If practiced sustainably, the Suzuki Foundation sees it as a viable alternative to harvesting wild stocks, however current practices on the BC coast have caused pollution to the environment. Salmon is the most common farmed seafood, followed by shellfish like oysters, clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp. If created sustainably, shellfish farming can improve water quality because of they clear the water of excess plankton.

According to the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, over 70 species of fish and shellfish are cultured commercially or are being developed for their potential as aquaculture species in Canada alone. Salmon farmers have received a lot of negative press over the last decade or so and with good reason. Their fish are kept in cages (and forced to swim in their own feces), they are loaded with artificial colours (that nice salmon-pink consumers always look for), and are fed antibiotics to make them bigger which ends up seeping into nearby waters. “In a large-scale study reported in 2004, the average dioxin level in farm-raised salmon was 11 times higher than in wild salmon,” writes Shulman.

Furthermore, since these fish live so close to shore they have a higher exposer to PCB’s and toxins and can pass them onto the wild salmon in the nearby oceans (farmed fish are known to “escape” to freedom resulting in interbreeding with their wild cousins).

The wild Pacific salmon fisheries are a big money-making industry and is an important part of the economy for many coastal communities but it also has it’s roots in aboriginal folklore. First Nations people had a custom of returning all the bones of the first salmon caught to the river out of respect for the Salmon Spirit. This would ensure abundance of food and the fish’s perpetual return.

The debate between farmed and wild salmon still rages on, so the alternative, one would presume, is to buy organic, farmed fish; however, many consumers get turned off by the grayish, drab colour and fatty veins that certain organic fish have. Many insist that some types of organic fish do not cook properly (falls apart) and ends up tasting bland. Not to mention, that it is hard to give up the taste of a nice piece of wild BC salmon cooked on a cedar plank!

Studies have shown that compared to the production methods of other types of organic food, there isn’t a huge amount of difference between regular old farmed methods and organic farmed methods; organic fish are also kept in cages, albeit with less fish per cage compared to the regular farmed fish, but it still works out to about a bath full of water per fish, not really the “freedom” one would expect a wild fish gets out in the vast, wide ocean.

Staunch environmentalists would even argue that an organic fish farm can not be remotely compared to an organic chicken farm — the term “organic” is a bit misleading. Most people believe it means the elimination of any pesticides and additives, but organic fish farmers still must feed them vitamins and minerals and antibiotics. For example, both organic and regular farmed salmon pollute the sea by forming a layer of undigested feed and feces under the cages. Shellfish, such as oysters, scallops and mussels, which grow under the cages, end up getting fattened up as a result. Do most shellfish-lovers know this? Perhaps not, or maybe they just don’t care since Canadian studies have indicated that that mussels grown using salmon-farm waste were preferred in taste tests because their meat had a richer quality. Studies also show that these shellfish are high in protein, and have a rich source of iron and zinc. The Guide shows that farmed mussels and oysters are a “best choice” too.

The pro-farmed fish research doesn’t stop there. Harvard researchers released a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, titled “Fish Intake, Contaminants, and Human Health: Evaluating the Risks and the Benefits” and came up with some interesting findings The study indicated that infants could obtain the benefit of omega-3’s from pregnant or nursing mothers who consumed fish, therefore, pregnant and lactating women should eat seafood on a regular basis.

“Unfortunately, the media and others have…greatly exaggerated the unsubstantiated claim of a health risk from fish. These results from over two decades of research clearly show there is a great health risk if adults fail to eat fish,” wrote Dr. Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health in Medical News Today.

The researchers also found no definite evidence that low-level mercury exposure from seafood consumption had harmful effects on health in adults. Furthermore, they found that the benefits of eating fish far outweighed the potential risks of PCB’s and dioxins because the levels are low (similar to beef, chicken, pork and eggs). According to Dr. Mozaffarian from the Harvard School of Public Health, “The cardiovascular benefits of eating omega-3 rich seafood — like farmed salmon — are greater than the PCB’s/dioxin risks by a factor of at least 300:1. Seafood is likely the single most important food one can consume for good health.”

So while the debates rage on, what can we do as individuals? For starters, you can ask your fish store about their seafood. If you can eat locally caught fresh seafood, then all the better. Next time you frequent a fish market (I recommend City Fish Market, 2929 Dufferin St. and St. Lawrence Market, 95 Front St. E) bring your Sea Food Guide in your wallet and try to refer to it whenever you are not sure, but also use common sense. Sometimes it’s better to pay a little more for the sake of your health. Wild salmon may be more expensive but it is safer, tastes better and is lower in toxins than farmed salmon. Or, experiment a little and try the cheaper, oily fish, which are more plentiful in the wild. As for organic farmed salmon, I still think it beats regular farmed salmon, but not by much so only you can decide if it’s worth the price, health and taste difference.


For those of you who can’t stomach fish but want the health benefits, try fish oil supplements. According to Sam Graci, author of The Bone-Building Solution, recent studies have shown that a daily dosage of fish oil helps combat osteoarthritis. Fish oil also increases calcium absorption, reduces system-wide inflammation, and gives a bone-building advantage to your bones. Just make sure you look for fish oils that are distilled molecularly for purity and derived from smaller fish because new molecular distillation techniques allow fish oils to be gently purified, removing the heavy metals like mercury, PCB’s and dioxins.

Greens +, by Genuine Health makes two very tasty, naturally flavoured ones in liquid format (I can attest that they don’t fishy at all!). One is o3mega + glow which promotes skin health and the other is o3mega + joy, which promotes good mood. Both contain EPA, an omega-3 fat derivative.

In the end, it all comes down to making smarter choices about the food we fuel our bodies with since our future generations will be the ones to pay. We need government regulation and cooperation from fisherman, businesses, chefs and individual consumers in order to create change. We can support environmental groups such as Sustainable Seafood Canada, to help put an end to the bad fisheries. Simultaneously, we must put pressure on fish farmers to design new, cleaner methods so that healthy, risk-free fish can be produced. Eventually, the fish farmers would flourish in profits due to consumer demand for cleaner and safer fish options.

Perhaps most importantly, eating sustainable seafood will bring us back to the more simple time of our ancestry — when “hook, line and sinker” wasn’t just an expression, but a true way of living.

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