To fish or not to fish

  • Posted on 30 June 2004
  • By Sherry Ross

You've sworn off red meat long ago and need a break from the winged flesh that's becoming oh-so boring regardless of the way it's cooked. Your disdain of factory farming reinforces your abandoning domesticated animals for food. You're not quite ready for lacto-ovo-vegetarianism or veganism, so you turn to fish as a possible last resort for a source of animal protein.

Illustration by Jennifer Ando

But what fish is OK to eat? You've read about overfishing and depletion of some commercial fish. Are there still issues with contamination in some fish and shellfish, or can I catch my own seafood and still be safe and on environmentally sound ground? Let's look at a few of the more popular, commercially available fish destined for restaurants and grocery stores. We'll also investigate non-retail options to procuring your seafood.

Orange roughy According to a recent World Wildlife Fund report, U.S. consumption of this white-fleshed fish amounts to over 19 million pounds annually, almost 90 percent of commercial catches worldwide. Overfishing of this species could lead to 'commercial extinction' unless regulatory safeguards are put into place immediately. Surprisingly, this was once considered an inedible 'trash fish' three decades ago.

Salmon Is this filet on my plate wild or farm raised? Hatcheries have supplemented wild salmon runs since the 1930s, when public works projects included massive hydroelectric dams. Most returning salmon are now hatchery-raised, and runs over the past several years have been robust because of the high numbers of hatchery fish. The jury is still out on hatchery salmon's reproductive success.

A National Marine Fisheries Service policy announced in May of this year will evaluate the health of salmon runs based on both hatchery and wild populations. It will potentially remove federal protection for up to 25 west coast runs of salmon and steelhead. The only run exempt under this policy is the Southern California steelhead.

Swordfish, shark, marlin A 2003 issue of Nature magazine contained disturbing statistics by two biologists: Ninety percent of the large predatory fish populations have been fished out-including some shark species and large billfish and finfish such as marlin and swordfish .

So if I'm unsure of the status of commercially caught fish, why can't I catch my own fish? Sure you can, but take care of the legal, health-based, and philosophical issues first. Get a fishing license and familiarize yourself with the state fishing regulations regarding seasons, allowable species, size and take limits. Catch only what you intend to eat within a reasonable period of time. Fish maintain their quality for only two to three months in the freezer, a year or more if pressure-canned.

Be aware of the water and sediment quality where you intend to fish. For example, bottom fish in an enclosed bay near an urban center (like L.A. or San Francisco) or bass caught downstream from an 1870s gold mine tailings pile that still leaches mercury into the river are unhealthy choices. Look into health warnings on consuming certain types of fish caught in suspect waters.

A comprehensive list of fish that are commercially eco-safe or in eco-jeopardy can be found at

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