We’ve heard that fish, especially salmon, is a great source of anti-inflammatory omega 3s that can reduce your risk for heart disease. But seafood these days is often widely contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs, antibiotics and other toxins. Should you continue to eat fish and other seafood? Here’s what you need to know about fish and shrimp to consume it safely.
Dietary recommendations say to eat more fish, at least once per week, and salmon is one variety that’s particularly low in harmful mercury present in larger predatory fish, like tuna. Demand for fish has increased, and as a result, up to 70 percent of fish species have been depleted. Fish farming, or aquaculture, has stepped up to fill this demand. There are sustainable methods of aquaculture, but many are unregulated, shockingly polluted and even cruel. Aside from the environmental impacts, including water pollution and overuse of chemicals and antibiotics, many farmed fish are crowded in pens and transmit diseases or parasites.
What You Need to Know about Farmed Fish
- In 2006, fish farming accounted for 47% of the world’s fish supply and totaled $60 billion. Large-scale fish farm operations force fish to live in crowded conditions, often less than the size of a bathtub. Living in close proximity increases disease risk and infections that are treated with antibiotics. Packed tightly, fish rub against each other and the sides of their cages, damaging their scales and increasing disease risk. Sea lice is commonly transmitted. The excess fish waste and unconsumed feed is released directly into the waters, polluting the surrounding environment. The overused chemicals and antibiotics end up in the flesh of the fish–meaning you’re eating it– and many chemicals banned in the U.S. are still used in international fish farms. If you’re eating farmed fish or shrimp from Thailand, for example, you can bet you’re ingesting these chemicals that are making their way into the U.S. due to lack of regulation. We import quite a bit of seafood from other countries.
- It generally takes three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. This means the environmental impact of salmon farming is still increasing as global production continues to rise.
- 90 percent of shrimp have been imported, but less than 2 percent of that has been inspected. Contamination is rampant; shrimp packing plants are filthy; and the shrimp contain high levels of antibiotics and other chemicals.
- Animal husbandry practices are not as tightly regulated for aquaculture as they are for CAFO feedlots (and that’s not saying much). Elements in the water such as oxygen and nitrites must be monitored at proper PH levels to minimize stress and the presence of pathogens. Many fish still die prematurely –at rates of up to 30 percent– due to heavy antibiotic use or polluted waters. Some fisheries may be using inhumane methods of slaughter. A 2004 report by the European Food Safety Authority Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare said that, “Many existing commercial killing methods expose fish to substantial suffering over a prolonged period of time. For some species, existing methods, whilst capable of killing fish humanely, are not doing so because operators don’t have the knowledge to evaluate them.” Inhumane methods include asphyxiation; being submerged in freezing water; or bleeding out without first “stunning.”
What You Need to Know about EATING Farmed Fish
- Please be aware that you are what you eat ate. That is to say that you absorb whatever the animal you’re eating was fed. Aside from the antibiotics fish are administered to fight infections from being in such close quarters and contracting communicable disease and infection, farm-raised salmon have been found to have high levels of PCBs, dioxins, and other toxic cancer-causing chemicals. They ingest chemicals to enhance their color.
- In the wild, salmon feed on nutrient and fatty-acid rich krill, which is low in toxins and gives salmon its red color due to the disease-fighting antioxidant astaxanthin. Farmed salmon are fed pellets of chicken feces, GMO corn meal, soy, genetically modified canola oil and other fish containing concentrations of toxins. Low quality, cheap feed. This toxic slop alters their naturally high concentration of anti-inflammatory omega 3 and increases the pro-inflammatory omega 6.
- Eating fish that contains high levels of antibiotics increases antibiotic resistance. Eating more than one meal of farm-raised salmon per month can potentially increase one’s risk of developing cancer.
- Genetically modified salmon may hit your plate as early as 2014, and that could threaten other fish populations, not to mention threaten your own health: it will contain elevated levels of the growth hormone, IGF-1, which is linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers.
What about the Radiation Risk?
April 2011’s disaster with Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant has everyone concerned about eating fish. My personal stance is not to believe the sensationalism: it doesn’t have an impact on fish in the U.S. If you were to eat a fish directly from the Fukushima harbor –and over two pounds at that– you’d be exposed to the same amount of radiation as a chest x-ray. The fish we eat here in the U.S. does not come from the waters around the nuclear disaster site in Japan. There is also a great amount of dilution that occurs between Fukushima and the West Coast.
Bottom Line: the benefits of eating wild caught fish far outweigh any negatives.
How to Choose Healthy & Sustainable Seafood
Seafood offers so many benefits, from healthy fats to minerals (in shellfish), but it pays to choose wisely. I recommend avoiding the larger, predatory fish (shark, mackerel, most tuna, swordfish) due to high mercury levels. Avoid farmed fish. The one exception may be farmed fish available through Whole Foods, which adheres to Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standards, is sustainably farmed, and stocks fish that is not treated with antibiotics. BUT I have seen MSC approved fish at Whole Foods that was still color-enhanced. Here is the seafood I recommend, and I eat a variety once-twice weekly.
- I consume salmon most often. I usually buy wild Coho or King salmon. Be aware that almost all Atlantic salmon is now farmed. Avoid farmed salmon due to environmental and health concerns. The Environmental Defense Fund has issued a health advisory for farmed salmon due to high levels of PCBs. It’s still the wild west out there in terms of regulating fisheries, so you don’t know what you’re getting (but be assured, it’s laced with chemicals, toxins and antibiotics). Choose Coho, King, Chinook, Sockeye, Pink or any labelled wild. I swear, wild salmon just tastes so much better. Many people complain of salmon tasting strong or “fishy,” but fresh wild salmon does not.
- Cod is high in omega 3s and is a nice buttery whitefish, but it has been overfished in certain regions. Choose U.S. true cod or Alaskan cod, but avoid imported.
- I LOVE oysters, and they’re high in zinc, an important immune-boosting antioxidant. Oysters are a low impact on the environment and are typically produced sustainably and healthfully. According to the Seafood Watch guide, “Farmed oysters account for 95 percent of the world’s total oyster consumption. Most oyster farming operations are very well managed and produce a sustainable product.”
- ALWAYS avoid farmed shrimp. Buy freshwater or wild caught. Shrimp is high in iodine and the antioxidant astaxanthin, so it’s a good addition to your diet.
- I generally avoid tuna and recommend the same due to high mercury levels. The Environmental Defense Fund has issued a consumption advisory for longline-caught albacore tuna due to elevated levels of mercury. No consumption advisories are listed for troll- or pole-caught albacore as these methods catch younger tuna with lower mercury levels. Wild Planet albacore tuna is supposedly low mercury, but I would not advise consuming it if pregnant.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.