I would probably just eat albacore for every meal if I didn't think it would kill me
October 2, 2012 4:57 PM   Subscribe

I eat a lot of fish. Since I took over dinner duties for myself and my SO, I've been thinking about the health risks and environmental impact of the stuff we eat. I need some help figuring out the risks of stuff like mercury and the environmental impact of fishing, particularly as compared to eating chicken and pork, which are our other main meat sources.

We get our fish from Trader Joe's and most of the stuff that we've gotten there has been wild-caught, not factory raised, which I know is generally healthier. I'm a bit worried about mercury poisoning, though. Most of the information I've found on mercury in fish has been in regards to children/pregnant women/women who might get pregnant soon, and since neither of us is any of those things, we're not sure what, exactly, is safe.

As far as environmental impact is concerned, we would probably be substituting chicken for fish if we were to cut back on fish (maybe we'd use tofu or textured vegetable protein stuff about once a week, but most likely no more than that), so it's not a fish vs. no fish question so much as a fish vs. other options question.

I would especially appreciate something like a chart of how much I could eat of each kind of seafood, or comparisons of types-- how many oz of crab I could eat instead of 1 oz of albacore, stuff like that.
posted by NoraReed to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch List for lists of endangered/overfished/harmfully farmed seafood.
posted by cooker girl at 5:00 PM on October 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

The FDA has a list of the mercury content of all sorts of seafood.

In general the lower on the food chain the less mercury. Just as it concentrates mercury in us if we eat a lot of mercury containing fish, it concentrates mercury in, say, swordfish when they eat a lot of mercury containing fish. So when we eat the swordfish we get all that mercury.

You shouldn't eat swordfish anyway, though, because of how overfished it is.

The FDAs chart combined with cooker girl's link should give you all the information you need.
posted by Justinian at 5:08 PM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: That's great! Now I just need mercury info.
posted by NoraReed at 5:08 PM on October 2, 2012

This mercury calculator was linked from this PBS "Now" page.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:11 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

What kind of fish are you eating? From my point of view, environmental impact is a bigger issue than mercury poisoning anyway. For example, your profile says you live in New Mexico, so presumably all of the fish you are eating is part of a massive supply chain. And then there is the entire issue of sustainability. For example, eating sardines is going to be better for the planet than eating tuna.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:14 PM on October 2, 2012

FWIW, if you like Salmon, Alaska wild salmon is both environmentally conscious and extremely low in mercury content. Ditto for oregon shrimp if you like shellfishy things. California lobster is decent on these metrics but Maine lobster less so. Albacore tuna isn't so good but skipjack and yellowtail are better.

(Alaskan) Salmon is the go-to fish if you like it, though.
posted by Justinian at 5:15 PM on October 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Farmed isn't really a bad thing if it's sustainable farming. For example, mussels are very well farmed as are crayfish. Atlantic salmon farming is an example of aquaculture done badly: oceanic feedlots that cause dead zones.

Here's a list of sustainably farmed fish and a less explained list categorizing seafood.
posted by plinth at 5:20 PM on October 2, 2012

Response by poster: The FDA chart doesn't really make sense to me. I don't really get what the measurements mean. If nothing else is available I'll put it in a spreadsheet and poke at it until it makes sense, but if anyone has a link to something similar that makes sense to humans, that'd be cool.

As far as that calculator is concerned-- does anyone know if that one is sound? Because if it is, I'm regularly eating over 4 times the recommended amount of mercury. And I'm going over the recommended amount in a *single meal*. It's enough to make me regard it with skepticism.

I'll see if I can get Alaskan salmon. (I'm sure someone carries it, I just need to check the local stores.) We like salmon a lot.
posted by NoraReed at 5:21 PM on October 2, 2012

For the FDA chart you really only care about one thing; the median level of mercury. Lower is better.
posted by Justinian at 5:39 PM on October 2, 2012

Some farmed is okay. Some wild is okay. Not all farmed is okay. Not all wild is okay.

It's complicated. Here's a question I asked on roughly this topic a couple of years ago. Bottomfeeder was an interesting read and is pretty much what I've been going by. Here's the list I culled from its cheatsheet:

arctic char; barramundi
halibut, pacific: alaska
herring: atlantic
mackerel: spanish/atlantic only
pollock: bering sea
trout: idaho farmed
whiting, blue

tilapia: american only
shrimp: american only
rockfish: hook-and-line from Pacific Northwest
abalone: farm only
catfish: american only
clams: whole, farmed only
cod, pacific: hook-and-line
salmon: wild alaska only
mahi-mahi: hook/line only
octopus: hook/line only (spc hawaii)

I don't remember what the publication date on Bottomfeeder is, and that matters. I've pretty much sworn off shrimp, for instance, because pretty much all the American shrimp is coming from the Gulf and I don't really trust that right now.

Guiding principles:
* smaller is better (in terms of both sustainability and toxicities)
* farmed fish that are fed vegetarian diets are probably fine
* no seafood from Asian countries (little to no environmental or government oversight)
* no seafood that's trawler-caught (too much by-catch)
posted by curious nu at 5:49 PM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like the Blue Ocean Institute guides on seafood sustainability.

I also like the NRDC mercury guide, though it seems far less detailed then what you're looking for.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:52 PM on October 2, 2012

It's entirely possible you are exceeding the recommended levels of mercury by that much. What kind of fish do you eat/input into the calculator? I didn't see that listed above.

The calculator says that if you ate 4oz. of swordfish (1 serving) a week, every week, and you weighed 125 lbs, you would be consuming 278% of the recommended dose of mercury. That does not sound out of line to me, based on what I know about this field (I work with toxicology data, so I know the basic principles, but am not a toxicologist). There are only a few fish with that high of a mercury level though. Salmon is so low you could safely eat it for lunch and dinner every single day.

Still, if it's saying that you are at 400% with one meal's worth of fish, and it's not swordfish or ahi tuna or shark, then something might be wrong. Are you small/skinny (100 lbs or less)? What are your portion sizes?
posted by cabingirl at 6:05 PM on October 2, 2012

If you really love albacore, eat American Tuna. I won't lie: It's expensive. BUT, it's much more sustainable (smaller fish from a well-managed population, no longlines that catch tons of "trash" fish) and lower in mercury (much smaller fish=less accumulation). I had to research them for work; they are legit.

Trader Joe's fish is pretty awful, honestly. The only sustainable options from an environmental perspective are the canned Oregon shrimp (these are also delicious, fyi; great in stir-fry) and their frozen Alaska salmon.
posted by purpleclover at 7:25 PM on October 2, 2012

Response by poster: I phrased that unclearly about the recommended levels. I was over 400% with my regular diet, I was only at about 125% with single meals (which still seemed insane to me); they were ahi and albacore.

It sounds like we're gonna be going with Alaskan salmon, for the most part, supplemented with tilapia, catfish and trout when we can find those from a US source.
posted by NoraReed at 8:27 PM on October 2, 2012

Your other main meat sources, chicken and pork, unless you specifically are buying certain kinds or from special sources, might also be pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and fed a diet of stuff like ground up cow bits. The risks related to these practices are not all known, but include antibiotic-resistant bacteria and hormonal disturbances, and possible exposure to prion diseases like mad cow disease. Depending on your perspective, they're also pretty ethically questionable.

If you are concerned about the health risks of your food, I would recommend you seriously consider buying the slightly-higher-priced meats which Trader Joe's does carry, which have been raised without the drugs and on a vegetarian diet.

And to read the Omnivore's Dilemma and watch Food, Inc.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:24 PM on October 2, 2012

Mefite Zarkonnen (full disclosure, who is also my SO) wrote a webpage just for this: Which Fish? It's designed to be accessed easily on a smartphone so you can use it in a supermarket or restaurant and includes sustainability, seasonality and a note on high mercury levels.
posted by daisyk at 4:01 AM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Whole Foods (I work with them) has a sustainability rating on every fish in their case, and no longer carries the fish that have the worst environmental impact. For mercury, you could look at the recommendations for pregnant women to avoid high mercury fish. Tuna, unfortunately, is one of the worst.
posted by kitarra at 4:40 AM on October 3, 2012

In addition to the references above, I enjoyed reading Barton Seaver's 'For Cod and Country'(NPR review here) which goes into much depth about fish sustainability and acceptable risks to human health, while containing many very delicious recipes. As I recall, the book has at least one handy chart which I photocopied for later reference.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:26 AM on October 3, 2012

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