This week the influential Monterey Bay Aquarium is releasing a new set of rankings that identifies fish that are not only fished sustainably but are also rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, a key dietary component in reducing the risk of heart disease.
Many savvy consumers are familiar with the color codes that marine conservationists bestow on fish and shellfish, depending on how they're faring in the environment: red for avoid, yellow for consume sparingly and green for eat without guilt.
Now, super green has arrived.
This week the influential Monterey Bay Aquarium is releasing a new set of rankings that identifies fish that are not only fished sustainably but are also rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, a key dietary component in reducing the risk of heart disease. Farmed mussels and oysters make the list, along with line- or pole-caught albacore tuna, wild-caught Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines.
Julie Packard, the aquarium's executive director, said she and her colleagues have learned that seafood choices are often the easiest way to get Americans thinking about broader ocean-policy questions.
"We need some new tools and new approaches" to managing oceans, Packard said.
The well-publicized risk of mercury contamination, which is higher in top predators such as tuna and swordfish and poses the greatest risk to pregnant women, nursing mothers and children younger than 6, has prompted many consumers to reassess how much fish they should eat.
Monterey Bay's "Super Green" list (at www.seafoodwatch.org/health) does not calculate the relative health benefits and risks of eating a specific type of fish, but features species with high levels of omega-3 acids and relatively low contaminant levels.
Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School who consulted on the new seafood rankings, noted that eating an average of one serving of salmon a week provides enough omega-3 fatty acids to lower the risk of heart disease by 36 percent.
"That's the number-one killer of men and women in the U.S., and in most countries in the world," he said, adding that he is about to embark on a federally funded study examining whether there's a level of contaminants in seafood that would outweigh such health benefits.
Tim Fitzgerald, a fisheries policy specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund (which also provided data for the new rankings), said they would help answer the questions Americans are raising as they scrutinize the fish they eat. "Now more than ever, consumers are concerned with the health and environmental impacts of their seafood choices," Fitzgerald said.
The list is not the first consumer-oriented ranking to include human and ocean health in a single category. The nonprofit SeaWeb publishes a KidSafe Seafood guide that applies similar criteria and includes northern U.S. and Canadian shrimp and fresh tilapia (www.kidsafeseafood.org/bestchoices.php).
"More often than not, old sayings have a ring of truth to them. So you can believe it when you hear that 'you are what you eat,' " said SeaWeb's president, Dawn M. Martin. "The toxins — such as mercury and PCBs — which find their way into our oceans can come back to haunt us. When we eat seafood, we are also ingesting those pollutants."
Although the average consumer might assume that it's better for the environment to buy wild-caught fish than their cultivated counterparts, that's not always the case. Farmed rainbow trout scored high on the list, along with farmed Arctic char and bay scallops. Shellfish farmed in the ocean actually filter plankton from seawater for food, leaving the ocean cleaner as a result, and unlike species such as salmon, they don't consume other fish. Both oysters and mussels are low in fat, and oysters are high in zinc.
The aquarium's list is part of a broader report, "Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood," which chronicles how threats such as overfishing and climate change threaten the sea. But it also says there is a growing consensus on how best to manage fisheries, and it suggests that pressure from consumers, major seafood buyers and the seafood industry to improve that management could reverse the ocean's decline.
More than two dozen chefs and prominent culinary industry leaders are also launching a "Save Our Seafood" campaign this week in which they will pledge not to serve fish that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has ranked as "red" on its Seafood Watch list. The participants include Food Network host and "Iron Chef America" commentator Alton Brown, Rick Bayless of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas.
"I value healthy oceans, oceans that have cared well for mankind through the ages," said Brown, who often travels with a can of sardines and explains to his fellow travelers why they're an environmentally friendly choice. "It's high time we took better care of our seas and the bounty they produce."