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Monday
Jun242013

Why Wild? A Healthy Fish Primer

As one of the most nutrient dense foods, fish is highly recommended in the Healthy Way of Eating. Although the nutritional profiles vary by species and growing conditions, fish offers ample omega-3 fatty acids, protein, B-vitamins, minerals like selenium and phosphorus, and other nutrients. It’s little surprise that the benefits of adding fish to your diet are so numerous! Studies show it can decrease the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and depression, among other diseases, and can help lower systemic inflammation throughout the body. Much like red meat or poultry, however, where our fish come from and how they’re raised can impact both our health and that of the planet. When you understand more about our seafood supply, however, you can make the best choices to support your healthy lifestyle and the environment.  

The Dilemma of Farm-Raised Fish

You’ve likely seen the label “farm raised” in your grocer’s fish section or restaurant menus. “Farm raised” refers to what is now often called aquaculture, the industry that raises fish for our food supply. The intention of aquaculture is good: it aims to decrease the stress placed on our oceans while meeting the increased consumer demand for fish. Because of the larger supply, you usually pay less for farm-raised fish.

Some farming methods, however, are more sustainable than others, and the potential drawbacks of aquaculture are many. Farmed fish are often treated with vaccines, antibiotics, and pesticides to control disease outbreaks. These treatments can leak into the immediate environment, endangering wild fish and other local animals. Aquafarms can also pollute the surrounding environment with uneaten fish feed, concentrated “waste,” and sea lice swarms. The biodiversity and health of wild fish is also at risk when farmed fish escape and breed with them.  

Currently, nearly half of the fish consumed globally is farmed, and this number will likely continue to climb along with demand. The Monterey Bay Aquarium does a great job of defining the most common methods of fish farming, describing the pros and cons of each. Being aware of these methods can help you make an informed decision if you decide to purchase farmed fish. 

The Difference between Wild Fish and Wild-Caught Fish

In contrast to a farm-raised environment, the label “wild fish” indicates that a fish spent its entire life in the wild--from spawning to catch. “Wild caught,” on the other hand, means that a fish may have been spawned or lived part of its life in a fish farm and was at some point let loose into the wild before being caught. 

What’s the difference for you, the consumer? Fish that are allowed to grow in their natural habitat have been found to be more nutritious. Much like grass-fed, free-range beef, wild fish are lower in unhealthy fats as they spend their lives swimming in vast ocean waters eating natural rather than processed feed. In one FDA study, wild salmon had more protein than farm-raised fish, and they were also found to be higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and lower in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Wild fish also receive no antibiotics or added hormones and aren’t intentionally exposed to the pesticides that farmed fish are. 

From an environmental standpoint, catching fish in the wild still has drawbacks. Overharvesting fish is of great concern. Technological advancements have vastly increased the amount of fish that are able to be harvested. Consequently, some species have become endangered. By-catch is another unintended consequence of fishing: creatures other than those being fished (e.g. sea turtles and marine mammals) can be caught and sometimes killed during the fishing process. Certain methods of fishing can leave extensive damage and destruction to marine habitat. Finally, wild-caught fish generally cost more in order to cover the expenses involved in catching and shipping from the wild. Availability can be inconsistent as well. 

The Reality of Mercury Contamination

Mercury (mostly methylmercury) contamination is another consideration to keep in mind when choosing fish. Mercury has always been present in our environment, but man-made developments in manufacturing and coal burning have caused it to proliferate far beyond healthy amounts. Ingesting too much mercury can critically damage a person’s nervous system and even cardiovascular health. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant are cautioned to be particularly careful, as exposing an unborn child to mercury can seriously impair the fetus’s neurological development and result in serious disabilities.

Studies suggest that the benefits of regularly eating the right (i.e. safer) fish varieties outweigh the possibility of mercury contamination. Fish that eat other fish often have a higher concentration of mercury. Vegetarian-eating fish as well as mollusks and crustaceans generally have much lower mercury contamination. The Natural Resources Defense Council provides a comprehensive list of fish and their estimated levels of mercury. This list can help you vary your seafood sources to make sure you’re not inadvertently consuming a dangerous amount of mercury.  

What’s the Best Catch?

Wild and wild-caught fish appear to provide the most nutritional benefit with the fewest risks. However, it’s still important to be informed when you add fish to your healthy diet. Here are a few tips to help ensure that the seafood you buy is healthier for you and the planet.

  •  Download a sustainable seafood app. Seafood Watch, Safe Seafood, FishPhone and the Good Fish Guide are all apps available for smartphones that can help you make a smart selection when purchasing fish. 
  •  Talk to your fishmonger. When at the grocery store or fish market, talk to the men and women behind the counter to learn more about where their fish comes from and how it’s harvested. They might be able to provide you with more information about the source—as well as tasty recipe ideas.
  •  Talk to the waitstaff or chef. When dining out, don’t be afraid to ask where a restaurant’s seafood comes from. Being an inquisitive and proactive consumer can encourage change and educate other people on the importance of healthier and more sustainable seafood sources. 
  •  Eat a variety of seafood. To minimize the concern of ingesting mercury and other pollutants, it’s a good idea to mix up the seafood you eat. Remember that the larger the fish, the larger the chances of it being contaminated. Variety also helps add different nutrients to our diet while not overly taxing one species of seafood. 
  • Look for the Marine Stewardship Council label. This blue oval indicates fish that come from a fishery certified as sustainable. 

Thanks for reading. How often do you eat fish? When you do, does sustainability play a role in what kind of seafood you purchase? Please share your thoughts and comments below. 

Written by Molly Miller – Copywriter for LifeCafe

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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