October 2018 Issue
Discover Local Fish
By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD
Vol. 20, No. 10, P. 26
Choosing local, less common fish varieties is good for health and the environment.
Fish and seafood are good for health, but most people don't meet the recommended intake for a variety of reasons. When people do eat fish, they often stick to popular species, which may not have sustainable populations. However, some environmentally minded people who enjoy fish shy away because of concerns about overfishing. The good news is that exploring less common—and local—seafood species helps make it possible to reap the benefits of fish now, and years from now.
Intake Recommendations and Realities
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating more fish, especially low-mercury fish, in place of some meat and poultry servings.1 The Environmental Protection Agency and FDA recommend that women and children eat two to three servings (8 to 12 oz total for adults and children over the age of 10, smaller amounts for younger children) of a variety of fish and shellfish each week because of the benefits for brain growth and development.2
In 2014, average seafood consumption in this country was 2.7 oz per week—about one-third of the recommended intake,3 and an estimated 80% to 90% of Americans don't meet recommendations.4 When people do eat fish, their choices tend to be limited. Although 300 to 500 different species of fish and shellfish are sold annually, about 90% of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from just 10 species,5 with the top five—shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, tilapia, and Alaska pollock—accounting for about 75%.3
Conflict With Sustainability?
The seas and oceans were considered to be a limitless bounty of food for centuries, but unsustainable fishing practices have led to overfishing, harming numerous wildlife species, destroying aquatic ecosystems, and hurting coastal economies. Overfishing is when more fish are being caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. For long-lived species, overfishing starts well before the stock drops below a prescribed threshold and becomes overfished.6,7
Overfishing not only endangers the target species, but it also destroys ecosystems and kills other fish and animals. Overfishing of a predator species can lead to sharp increases in their prey species—which has its own ramifications. For example, overfishing common sharks off the southeastern US coast led to a spike in cownose rays, which in turn nearly destroyed the bay scallop population. Specific fishing methods that contribute to overfishing also create collateral damage. Seafloor dredging and trawling destroy habitats for many species—even making some waters uninhabitable. Trawling, gillnets, and longline fishing—which uses miles of lines that contain thousands of baited hooks each—catch and kill many nontarget species, known as bycatch, including sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks, and albatross.8
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, sustainable seafood is fish and shellfish caught by fishermen operating under sustainable fishery management systems—required for all US seafood—that conserve fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them.9 Today, federally managed US fisheries are improving. A fishery comprises the fishers in a region, who are fishing for the same or similar species of fish with the same or similar type of fishing gear, and the fish themselves.6 By the end of 2017, 30 fish stocks remained on the overfishing list, while the number on the overfished list dropped to 35, the lowest number since these figures were collected. Since 2000, 44 US federally managed fisheries have been declared rebuilt.10,11 In 2000, the US Pacific groundfish fishery, which includes about 90 species, was on the verge of collapse, and the federal government declared it a disaster. Today, it provides enough certified sustainable seafood to satisfy 17 million Americans for an entire year.12
Shortening the fishing season as a strategy for preventing overfishing often leads to a frantic "catch all you can while you can" mentality that creates more problems. Today, more fisheries use Individual Fishing Quotas, which set a total, sustainable catch limit for the entire fishery. Members of the commercial fishery are allotted a portion of that limit, which they can harvest whenever they want, even spreading it over the entire year.12
Going Local and Off the Beaten Path
Because more than three-fourths of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported from other countries,5 and the FDA only inspects about 2% of these imports, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) recommends choosing species that are caught closer to home. One way to know exactly where your fish comes from, who caught it, and how, is to join a community-supported fishery. According to the NRDC, small-scale, sustainable fishermen often employ lower-impact catch methods such as hook and line, or laying pots and traps, and programs like community-supported fisheries help support regional fishing economies.13
The species listed here are recommended by the Environmental Defense Fund's EatTheseFish.com and rated "Best Choice" or "Good Alternative" by Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.12,14
• Lingcod. Found only on the West Coast, lingcod—which isn't the same as cod—is now thriving thanks to smart management.
• Longnose skate. Although US West Coast populations have declined since the 1900s, better management has brought stock levels above targets.
• Yellowtail rockfish. This is found all along the West Coast, but stick to those caught off the coast of Northern California, Oregon, or Washington state. While the species is vulnerable to fishing pressure, better management is keeping populations healthy.
• Chilipepper rockfish. This species can be found from Baja California to British Columbia, but only fish caught by the California Groundfish Collective, primarily along the central coast of California, are a "Best Choice."15
• Red snapper. Now one of the Gulf's healthiest fisheries, it was near total collapse less than 15 years ago. A whole new management system means more predictability for fishermen and seafood businesses, better availability for customers, and, most importantly, a path to sustainability. Avoid red snapper from the US South Atlantic.
• Red grouper. Some say that grouper is to the Florida Gulf Coast what lobster is to Maine, but its longstanding popularity—and outdated regulations—nearly knocked the species out before better management revived it.
• Acadian redfish (aka ocean perch). Numbers hit an all-time low in the mid-1980s, but the population in the US northwest Atlantic has rebounded under better management. Since returning to abundance, consumer demand has been slow to rebound, so fishermen are catching less than one-half of the 15 million lbs they're allowed to sustainably harvest.
• Atlantic pollock. In New England, the pollock fishery, once decimated by overfishing, is now managed sustainably and the population is healthy. This species is different from Alaska pollock—but both are sustainable choices. The resurgence of Atlantic pollock is considered a major ecological success, but consumers haven't caught on, and in 2014, only 26% of the potential harvest was actually caught.
• Monkfish. After being declared overfished in 1999, fisheries managers adopted several conservation measures that led to monkfish, also called anglerfish, being rebuilt in 2013. Once called "the poor man's lobster," monkfish is primarily harvested for its sweet tail meat. In recent years, new marketing campaigns have promoted it as an "underappreciated" fish, and fishermen in the Northeast are trying to develop new markets.
• Whiting. Small whiting, known as silver hake, is a sustainable alternative to Atlantic cod, a close relative. Whiting are vital to the Gulf of Maine ecosystem because they serve as both predator and prey species. In the Northwest Atlantic, silver hake can be found from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.
The Aquaculture Option
Globally, production from wild fisheries plateaued in the mid-1980s, and even with improved management, it's unlikely to significantly increase. Meanwhile, global consumer demand for seafood has risen significantly. To meet this increased demand, worldwide aquaculture production has grown annually by 8.3% since 1970 and currently supplies about one-half of the world's seafood.16 Some aquaculture is both local and sustainable, as with Colorado hybrid striped bass, produced by the family-owned fish farm Colorado Catch.17 Nearly one-half of these bass are consumed in the state of Colorado.18
Strategies and Tips for Dietitians
• Become familiar with less common, more sustainable species in your local area, and provide recipes or general cooking tips for less adventurous clients.
• Visit LocalCatch.org to find a community-supported fishery in your area.
• Some seafood comes with helpful labels that take the guesswork out of buying sustainably. The Marine Stewardship Council is one of the leading certification and labeling programs in the world. The Global Aquaculture Alliance also administers a Best Aquaculture Practices certification.
• Familiarize yourself with the Seafood Watch app and website from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the website FishWatch.gov, and show them to clients.
— Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times, owner of Nutrition By Carrie, and author of Healthy For Your Life: A Holistic Approach to Optimal Wellness.
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. 2017 EPA-FDA advice about eating fish and shellfish. Environmental Protection Agency website. https://www.epa.gov/fish-tech/2017-epa-fda-advice-about-eating-fish-and-shellfish
3. Kantor L. Americans' seafood consumption below recommendations. US 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.
4. Bliss RM. Consumers missing out on seafood benefits. US Department of Agriculture, AgResearch Magazine website. https://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2015/aug/seafood/. Published August 2015.
5. Overview of the U.S. seafood supply. Seafood Health Facts: Making Smart Choices website. https://www.seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood-choices/overview-us-seafood-supply
6. Blackhart K, Stanton DG, Shimada AM; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA fisheries glossary. https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/st4/documents/FishGlossary.pdf. Updated June 2006.
7. Glossary. Fishwatch U.S. Seafood Facts website. https://www.fishwatch.gov/glossary
8. Hill J. Environmental consequences of fishing practices. EnvironmentalScience.org website. https://www.environmentalscience.org/environmental-consequences-fishing-practices
9. Wild-caught FAQs. Fishwatch U.S. Seafood Facts website. https://www.fishwatch.gov/sustainable-seafood/faqs
10. U.S. fisheries by the numbers. Fishwatch U.S. Seafood Facts website. https://www.fishwatch.gov/sustainable-seafood/by-the-numbers
11. Status of stocks 2017. NOAA Fisheries website. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/status-stocks-2017. Published May 14, 2018.
12. Eat These Fish website. http://eatthesefish.com/
13. Greenfield N. The smart seafood buying guide. National Resource Defense Council website. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/smart-seafood-buying-guide. Published August 26, 2015.
14. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website. http://www.seafoodwatch.org/
15. The Nature Conservancy, California Groundfish Collective website. http://www.cagroundfish.org/
16. Global wild fisheries. Fishwatch U.S. Seafood Facts website. https://www.fishwatch.gov/sustainable-seafood/the-global-picture
17. Colorado Catch LLC website. http://coloradocatchllc.com/
18. Seattle Fish Co. Product guide: Colorado hybrid striped bass. http://www.seattlefish.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/colorado-hybrid-striped-bass.pdf