February 2018 Issue

Dispelling Fish Tales
By Jessica Levings, MS, RDN
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 20, No. 2, P. 38

Help allay clients' fears and confusion around this nutritious food group.

Of all the nutrition topics that cause confusion, seafood myths and misconceptions may be at the top of the list. Whether it's concern about mercury content or bewilderment over wild-caught vs farmed-raised options, consumers and the media are swimming in misinformation about seafood. Amazon's 2017 announcement, after acquiring Whole Foods, that the company would be lowering the price of organic responsibly farmed salmon, when there's no such thing as organic seafood in the United States, shows the extent of the confusion surrounding seafood. Because seafood is a nutrient-dense contributor to the protein food category, while also providing the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, it's important that this confusion be cleared up so consumers can choose healthful, sustainable, and responsibly raised seafood options for themselves and their families.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend eating 8 oz or more per week of seafood, including fish and shellfish.1 According to the DGA, research has shown that eating patterns including seafood are associated with a reduced risk of CVD, and diets containing seafood also could be associated with a lowered risk of obesity. Seafood also is low in saturated fat and an important source of other nutrients including selenium, zinc, iodine, iron, and many B vitamins. Oily fish also can provide vitamins A and D.

Given that only about one in 10 Americans report eating seafood regularly, it's no surprise that seafood is one of the least consumed foods in the protein category, contributing only about 2.7 oz per person per week.2 This is compared with poultry, the most commonly consumed protein food, consumed at 17.1 oz-equivalents per week. People also are choosing a limited variety of seafood, and, according to the USDA, just five foods—shrimp, salmon, tilapia, canned tuna, and Alaska pollock (primarily used in fast-food fish sandwiches, frozen fish sticks, and imitation crab meat)—contribute the majority of seafood intake in the United States.2 Less commonly consumed varieties of seafood include swai (a variety of Vietnamese catfish), cod, catfish, crab, and clams. Even though seafood intake is low on average, much of the seafood Americans eat is imported. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America's aquaculture industry (both freshwater and marine) supplies only 5% to 7% of seafood consumed in the United States.3

Dispelling myths about seafood could help increase intake of this important food group. Read on to see how seafood experts respond to the most common questions and top seafood myths so dietitians can better counsel clients.

What's the difference between wild-caught and farm-raised fish?

Wild-caught fish are caught with the use of nets, hand-lines, divers, or traps. Farm-raised fish are raised in tanks or enclosures.

Q: What is aquaculture?
A: According to NOAA, aquaculture is the "breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fish, shellfish, plants, algae, and other organisms in all types of water environments." As such, farm-raised fish encompass only one area of aquaculture. Aquaculture helps produce food while restoring habitats, replenishing wild stocks, and rebuilding populations of threatened and endangered species. The two main types of aquaculture include marine and freshwater. Marine aquaculture refers to farming species that live in the ocean. In the United States, marine aquaculture produces species such as oysters, clams, mussels, and shrimp, and fish such as salmon, black sea bass, sablefish, and yellowtail; freshwater aquaculture produces species such as catfish and trout. According to NOAA, marine fish farming typically is done in net pens in the water or in tanks on land, and freshwater aquaculture primarily takes place in ponds or other manmade systems.4

Q: Can wild-caught fish come from a "fishery"?
A: Yes. Fisheries are fishing areas where wild fish and shellfish are caught and/or harvested, or where fish and shellfish are farm raised, according to Linda Cornish, MBA, president of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, an organization working to increase seafood consumption and raise awareness about its nutritional benefits. In other words, a fishery simply refers to an area where fish are caught, including both wild-caught and farm-raised environments. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, fisheries are defined by factors such as people involved, species or type of fish, area of water or seabed, method of fishing, class of boats, and purpose of the activities. For example, per this definition, wild-caught fish are caught in a lake, ocean, or river, while farm-raised fish are reared in tanks or enclosures.

Q: Is fish farming detrimental to the environment and species involved?
A: No. The environmental impact of fish farming varies widely, depending on the methods used for farming, the species being farmed, and the farm location. About 50% of seafood consumed in the United States is farmed, and farmed fish can come with a host of issues if responsible farming practices aren't used. Waste products can be concentrated in the enclosure where the fish are harvested, which can pollute the plants and animals. When net pens are located near migration routes of wild fish, disease confined to the farm could potentially be spread to wild fish swimming by. Pesticides and antibiotics used for farmed fish also can be released into the environment and affect local species. Lastly, the amount of feed needed to produce farmed fish can vary by species.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, when good practices are used, seafood can be farmed with minimal impact on the environment, including limited habitat damage, disease, escape of farmed fish, and the use of wild fish as feed. According to Dirk and Terry Fucik, fishmongers and co-owners of Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop in Chicago, fish farms in the United States follow FDA regulations, have HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) programs in place, and are also subject to government inspection. The Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification applies to seafood processing plants, farms, hatcheries, and feed mills, and encompasses the farm's practices for everything from environmental impact to community relations. Consumers purchasing seafood bearing this label can be assured it has been raised and harvested in a responsible way.

Q: Why is the organic label not allowed on seafood in the United States?
A: While the USDA National Organic Program is in the process of developing standards for organic aquaculture, including farm-raised fish, there's currently no US certification for the practice.5 However, according to Cornish, an organic seafood standard would apply only to farm-raised seafood, as it would be extremely difficult to determine the food consumed by fish in the wild. The Fuciks add that wild fish can't be considered "organic" because it's unclear where they've been or what they've been eating, and the organic certification process must have full traceability from start to finish.

Q: How do you choose sustainable seafood options?
A: "Sustainable seafood" refers to seafood caught in a way that causes less impact on the long-term vitality of the species being caught and those in the ocean, as well as the livelihoods of communities dependent on fisheries. It primarily addresses harmful fishing methods such as bottom trawling or dredging, and takes into account the impact of bycatch and overfishing on seafood species. Bottom trawling is a commercial fishing method that drags weighted nets along the sea floor, which can rake up or crush whatever is in their way. Many species, including coral and other marine life at risk of extinction, are caught and then thrown back, often times already dead. Bottom trawling also destroys fish habitats where fish find food and shelter. Bycatch refers to seafood and marine life caught unintentionally during the catching of other fish. Bycatch can include the wrong size species, other fish that aren't eaten, and those that are banned or endangered. Most of this bycatch is discarded because of space constraints on the fishing boat, the boat can't take them to land, or because the captain doesn't want the species.

However, these sustainability issues generally apply to only wild-caught seafood from fisheries, since sustainability means that a wild fishery will be productive for future generations, according to Cornish. When referring to farm-raised fish, the more appropriate term is "responsible aquaculture" or "responsibly raised," she contends. To help choose responsibly raised fish, Cornish recommends consumers look for the BAP symbol on seafood packages. As mentioned above, the BAP certification applies to seafood processing plants, farms, hatcheries, and feed mills, and considers the farm's practices for everything from environmental impact to community relations. The BAP program is administered by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, and the certification includes pages of requirements for different seafood species and the seafood harvesting process, including finfish and crustacean farms; mollusk farms; salmon farms; finfish, crustacean, and mollusk hatcheries and nurseries; feed mills; and seafood processing and repacking plants. When seeking sustainable wild-caught options, consumers can look for the Marine Stewardship Council's symbol on packages indicating wild-caught seafood from sustainable fisheries. Cornish notes most US grocery retailers and foodservice operators also have sustainable sourcing policies in place per the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions.

Because some seafood varieties may be sustainable or responsibly raised but may not contain a label indicating such, the Fuciks suggest consumers use the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch list, NOAA's fisheries page, and FishBase.org. By purchasing from suppliers of sustainable products and using these resources, the Fuciks can source and sell sustainable and responsibly raised seafood in their shop.

Q: Recommendations state that bivalves and mollusks are sustainable choices because they're filter feeders. But if they're filtering the ocean's nutrients, isn't it better to leave them in the ocean?
A: Yes, and this is why bivalves and mollusks are excellent responsibly farm-raised choices. In fact, they're some of the most commonly produced farmed seafood or aquaculture, and they're highlighted as a success story in aquaculture, Cornish says. Bivalves and mollusks can be farmed without the need to feed them, as they take in nutrients from the waters where they're raised. This creates a cleaner environment for other aquatic life to thrive and creates a more balanced ecosystem.

Q: Should I avoid imported seafood?
A: It depends. Nearly 80% of seafood in the United States is imported, primarily from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador. Much of the imported seafood is caught by American fishermen, exported overseas for processing, and then reimported to the United States. NOAA estimates that about one-half of all imported seafood was produced via aquaculture, but regulation of aquaculture operations varies greatly by species, farming system, and country. While NOAA and the FDA work together to ensure seafood imports are safe for US consumers, only a small amount of overall imports are inspected, and it's not always clear what farming and feed practices are used in other countries.6

Q: Does fish labeled "fresh" mean it has never been frozen?
A: Fish labeled "fresh" in the store has either never been frozen or has been frozen and defrosted. According to Cornish, fresh fish shouldn't contain "fishy" odors, should be firm and elastic, and should spring back when touched. (You can ask the fishmonger to touch it while you're selecting to test the elasticity.) When buying fresh shellfish, Cornish suggests ensuring the shells are tightly closed and aren't cracked or broken. If purchasing live shellfish, be sure they're alive by tapping on the shell to make sure it closes.

Q: When buying fresh seafood, how long can it remain in a client's home refrigerator before going bad?
A: Cornish suggests using fresh fish within one to two days after purchase and keeping fresh seafood in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Fucik adds that sushi, shellfish, and crustaceans are best if eaten the same day. Fresh fish that previously hasn't been frozen and is properly wrapped can be kept in the freezer. Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna can be frozen for two to three months and as long as six months for leaner fish including cod and catfish. Frozen fish should be thawed in the refrigerator overnight or in a container with cold water (refreshing the water frequently), Cornish says. For reference, she adds that a serving of frozen shrimp can be thawed in about five minutes, but a filet of fish may take up to 10 minutes.

Q: Should pregnant and breast-feeding women avoid eating seafood due to its mercury content?
A: No. A recent joint study by the World Health Organization and FAO found the health benefits of eating seafood outweigh the risks among women of childbearing age, and that maternal fish intake reduces the risk of suboptimal neurodevelopment in their offspring.7 The DGA recommend pregnant or breast-feeding women eat 8 to 12 oz of seafood per week from varieties lower in methyl mercury and higher in EPA and DHA, such as salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific (not King) mackerel.1 Fish that pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid include tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish, shark, orange roughy, marlin, big-eye tuna, and king mackerel, due to their high mercury content.8 Of note, canned tuna contains albacore and skipjack tuna species, both of which are low in mercury and safe for pregnant women to eat.8

Q: Why are there so many edible and delicious fish options in the ocean but so few choices in grocery stores and markets?
A: This can be attributed to factors including a lack of awareness about the health benefits of seafood and concerns about mislabeling of imported seafood products.2 However, Cornish and the Fuciks agree that most retailers, restaurants, and foodservice operators simply supply what their consumers want. Americans love shrimp, salmon, and tuna, so these species usually are available. Shoppers also frequently seek out salmon, tuna, grouper, snapper, tilapia, and sometimes bass at the fish counter. For consumers wanting other options, Cornish suggests talking with grocers and restaurateurs about new sustainable and responsibly raised species they'd be interested in trying, such as anchovies, arctic char, barramundi, mackerel, mussels, oysters, porgy, sable fish, sardines, and trout.

Fish varieties also can vary by region, which can add to consumers' options. In Florida, consumers often see the invasive lionfish on restaurant menus and in local fish markets. Alternatively, the Chicago-based Fuciks say, "We have the Great Lakes in our backyard, so popular fish here are lake whitefish, lake trout, lake perch, chubs, smelts, etc. You won't find fish like this at a fish counter on the East or West coast!"

Q: How should consumers navigate seafood options in supermarkets and restaurants?
A: The Fuciks and Cornish suggest asking questions such as the following: Is the seafood from the United States or was it imported? Is it from a sustainable fishery? Is it farm raised or wild caught? When did it come in? Where was it processed? As a tip, the Fuciks maintain that you shouldn't have to ask, "Is it fresh?" because fish should always look good enough to eat. Another word to the wise per Dirk Fucik: Be cautious of premarinated fish, as fish should only marinate for 30 to 45 minutes (except for a miso marinade, which can be used as long as overnight). Buying whole fish, as the Fuciks do, will ensure there aren't any false substitutions. When choosing whole fish, the Fuciks recommend looking for bright, clear eyes; reddish pink gills; and bright, shiny scales.

According to Cornish, mislabeling of seafood is more prevalent with unpackaged seafood, such as at restaurants. Packaged seafood, usually frozen, will list the type of fish or shellfish and where it's from. At fresh seafood counters in major grocery chains, seafood will be labeled with its name, where it's from, and whether it was previously frozen. She also reminds consumers to always buy seafood from a reputable market or restaurant where the employees can answer questions.

— Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, is a freelance writer and owns Balanced Pantry, a nutrition communications business helping consumers "Home in on Health." Learn more at www.balancedpantry.com, Twitter @balancedpantry, and Facebook.com/BalancedPantry1.

1. US Department of Health & Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020: Eighth Edition. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Published January 7, 2016.

2. Kantor L. Americans' seafood consumption below recommendations. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service website. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2016/october/americans-seafood-consumption-below-recommendations/. Published October 3, 2016.

3. Marine aquaculture. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries website. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/aquaculture

4. What is aquaculture? National Ocean Service website. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/aquaculture.html. Updated October 10, 2017.

5. Organic aquaculture. United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library website. https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/organic-aquaculture

6. Global wild fisheries. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, FishWatch website. https://www.fishwatch.gov/sustainable-seafood/the-global-picture

7. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; World Health Organization. Report of the joint FAO/WHO expert consultation on the risks and benefits of fish consumption. http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/ba0136e/ba0136e00.pdf. Published 2011.

8. US Food and Drug Administration; US Environmental Protection Agency. Eating fish: what pregnant women and parents should know. https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/UCM537120.pdf. Published January 2017.