Sunday, April 8, 2012


I'm currently working on Marion Nestle's book What to Eat, and just got done reading the section about fish. Despite the fact that fish are incredibly healthy for you (remember Michael Pollan's rule of thumb: The Less Legs, The Better?), there are some serious problems in the fishing industry that are often overlooked.

First, there's the obvious issue of overfishing. There are many species of fish that are being caught faster than they can reproduce, thus diminishing their numbers at a rapid pace. Popular fish like salmon, cod, and tuna; and delicacies like shark and octopus create a high demand...higher than what the Earth can sustain, and so their numbers are dwindling. reports that 90 percent of large predatory fish are gone from the ocean.

One way the fish industry is addressing this problem is fish farming, which, while helpful when done appropriately, comes with its own set of issues, most notably fish feed. Carnivorous fish, like salmon, require pounds upon pounds of feeder fish for every pound of farmed fish, thus requiring even more fishing and ocean depletion. What's worse, is that many fish that don't typically eat much fish are being fed fish-based feed rather than a vegetarian feed. Further, fish from fish farms are sometimes genetically modified to allow for production in areas that wouldn't normally support this type of fish. When these farms are in open water systems (and they often are), these genetically modified fish can sometimes escape and then breed with wild fish. These "super fish" can also enter ecosystems that wouldn't normally sustain their breed, ultimately decimating feeder fish populations and starving larger predatory fish. Farmed fish are also frequently treated with antibiotics, and some fish (such as salmon) do not have the proper color because of the difference in diet, so the color is added artificially. Despite these issues, fish farming has its merits and can be a good alternative to overfishing when done right, and there are several certification programs to assess farming practices (the ASC just started certifying farmed tilapia; however, no other certification program has been officially approved by the US government).

Another big issue is methylmercury. Inorganic mercury has been released into the environment in rather large quantities, thanks in a large part to the burning of fossil fuels, but also to volcanoes, forest fires, etc. This mercury then makes its way to water systems, where it is converted to methylmercury. Methylmercury is then absorbed by oceanic wildlife and increases in concentration as you go up the food chain. As such, larger, carnivorous fish like shark and swordfish contain extremely high doses of mercury, which can cause a whole host of health problems, such as neurological damage, cardiovascular problems, and autoimmune disorders. These problems are particularly relevant for children and fetuses, who can show effects from much smaller doses.

PCBs are also a huge problem. Many of the Earth's watered are severely contaminated with PCBs originating from coolant fluids, plasticizers, paints, and a whole host of other things. Again, fish are contaminated with them and then the concentration grows and you climb the food chain. PCBs cause problems like skin conditions, liver damage, and cancer, and those issues are amplified in children, breastfeeding infants, and fetuses.

Clearly, there are serious issues with the fishing industry. What's worse, is that there is very little regulation in place to address them, and just as little done to identify problematic fishing practices to consumers. Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) went into effect in 2005 for all wild-caught fish, farmed fish, and shellfish (with exceptions for all "processed" fish). COOL is one way to determine the safety of fish, based on the water contamination in that country. Fish are also labeled as either "wild-caught" or "farmed," giving consumers another clue in their fish puzzle. Despite these labeling requirements, the labels are often incorrect, and even when they are correct, a consumer must be incredibly knowledgeable to be able to discern any meaning from these labels.

Some grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, label their fish using guides such as the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch or the Blue Ocean Institute Seafood Guide, which provide easy-to-understand ratings, such as "Best Choice," "Good Alternative," or "Avoid" for each type of fish they sell. Even more impressive, Whole Foods just announced that they will no longer sell wild-caught seafood with a Red/Avoid rating. And for those stores that don't display such informative labeling, these guides are also available as smartphone apps (which can also be used in restaurants, where labeling is not required). In spite of these efforts, the fishing industry has fought back ferociously. Many fisheries are disputing the credibility of these guides, rather than making an effort to change their practices.

In an effort to be more conscientious of my fish choices, I downloaded the MBA Seafood Guide app. Probably my biggest problem area so far has been sushi. Because I love spicy sushi and almost every spicy sushi roll has either tuna or salmon in it. Also, sushi restaurants don't typically include COOL (which makes it more difficult to determine the rating), so I would have to ask, and as I've mentioned before, I'm a wimp when it comes to asking about my food. But I went out for sushi the other day and got some spicy crawfish, that was super delicious.

I also bought some farmed Mediterranean Seabass today on the recommendation of another customer at Whole Foods. I didn't check the rating until after I'd purchased it, so it wasn't the best fish I could have picked, but not the worst either, at least. To add to my stupidity, here was my conversation with the guy behind the fish counter:

Me: "Could I get one of the smaller seabass? And could you skin it for me?"
Fish Guy: "...Skin it?"
Me: "Yeah. Skin it."
Fish Guy: "Do you mean 'scale' it? You want to keep the skin on, don't you?"
Me: "...Yeah. Well... you know what I mean."

So my snarky, know-it-all fish guy 'scaled' the fish for me and then offered to take the guts out as well. So I took my fish home and a few hours later, I opened up the package to find a fish that looked pretty much identical to the fish I saw in the display, except for the giant gash in the belly, where he probably took the guts out. It still had skin (although there weren't any scales to speak of). It still had bones. It still had fins. It still had a head.

This was a problem.

I wasn't feeling particularly well today and seriously considered putting the fish back in the fridge and dealing with it later, but I mustered up the energy to figure out what the heck to do with this fish in order to turn it into something I knew how to cook.

I figured it couldn't be that different from deboning a chicken, and I feel like I've seen someone just grab the head and pull all the bones out in one fell swoop, but I couldn't figure it out. So I ended up cutting the belly open all the way down to the back fin, where I managed to sort of lift out the bottom half of the spine... until it broke. Then I cut down either side of the remaining spine and just pulled it out. Then I had to go back for the little bitty rib bones or whatever you call them and pull them out individually with my fingers. Then I cut off the head and tail and fins and voilĂ ! Two slightly ugly but totally cookable fish fillets! For reference, this seems like a much better way of doing it.

I put the fillets in an aluminum foil pouch, along with some butter, "minced" garlic, sea salt, and pepper. I also added some asparagus that I wrapped in bacon, and then sealed up the pouches. Then I cooked them at 400°F for about 20 minutes. And they were delicious! Since I wasn't feeling up to par, I didn't document the experience, but I'll likely do it again soon (preferably with a better fish) and I'll snap some pictures then. Hopefully I'll have perfected my fish deboning skills so you will all be impressed with my handy work... but that's pretty unlikely.

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