Eating seafood can be confusing these days. Which is better - fresh, frozen or canned? Farmed or wild? What about toxic contamination, such as mercury, PCBs or DDT?
Here are some of the guidelines I use to answer these questions and make healthy seafood choices. Before I can begin to make a rational decision about whether to eat a particular seafood, I need to know three things:
1. What does it eat, and how high on the food chain is its food?
2. How long has it been out of the water, and how has it been handled since it was harvested?
3. Is it wild or farmed, and where does it come from?
Let's work through these questions using salmon as an example.
First of all, why do I care what salmon eat? Quite simply, the answer gives me a rough idea of the amount of toxins that might be present in the fish. This varies among salmon species.
Feeding differences appear even while young salmon are still in the freshwater streams where they are born. For example, young coho (silver) salmon like to eat small insects from the surface of the freshwater, while chinook (king) salmon prefer plankton and small crustaceans from the stream bottoms.
When the young salmon return to the ocean, their eating habits change, but species differences remain. Sockeyes and chums continue to prefer zooplankton, with an occasional meal of small fish. Kings and cohos, however, eat larger organisms, such as shrimp, herring, crab and sand lance.
In other words, kings and cohos tend to eat higher up the food chain - they eat organisms which themselves eat zooplankton. Sockeyes and chums eat lower on the food chain, ingesting the zooplankton itself.
This matters because salmon ingest toxins through their food supply. Zooplankton, because they are small, contain only very small amounts of toxins. Fish that feed on zooplankton will gradually develop higher toxin concentrations as they grow older, accumulated from the zooplankton they eat. Fish that feed on other fish that eat zooplankton will probably contain more toxins overall, because their food source holds a more concentrated supply.
In summary, here's the guideline I use: Eat seafood that feeds lower on the food chain and you will likely ingest fewer toxins. I choose sockeye and chum salmon over other salmon species for this reason.
To answer the second question, I can make a strong argument for buying from local fishers. In this case, "local" means the fisher lives in this area, distributes his or her own fish and sells at a farmers market, or off the boat, or some other direct-to-consumer retail method.
If I can't talk with the fisher, it's hard to know for certain how the seafood has been handled. For example, some fish sold as "fresh" has actually been frozen and thawed.
What I want to know about any seafood is how long it has been out of the water without being frozen or canned. As soon as seafood is harvested (i.e., it dies), it begins to decay. I want to know that that process has been halted as quickly as possible. I would much rather eat salmon that has been caught and immediately quick-frozen on the fishing boat itself, than has been transported on ice, perhaps for days, before reaching market.
The method of catch is important, too, for a variety of reasons. I've written previously on that subject, so for now suffice it to say that reefnet fishing provide the highest salmon quality.
So my second guideline is: Buy either freshly caught seafood just out of the water, or seafood frozen immediately after being caught.
Finally, for some seafood such as salmon, it's extremely important to know if it's farmed fish or wild. Salmon are known for being a good source of protein and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids (antioxidants). That nutrition is compromised in farmed salmon, however.
Because farmed fish are raised in contained areas and can't swim freely, their muscles don't develop as much as in the wild. The protein content will be lower as a result. Studies have also shown that farmed fish have a substantially lower omega-3 content and higher saturated fat than their wild counterparts. None of this is good.
Farmed salmon raised in crowded conditions are more prone to disease, so fish farmers use antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals to deal with the problem. The flesh of farmed fish contains residue of those drugs.
Unfortunately, fish-farming operations expose wild fish to these diseases and pollutants, and the environmental effects are devastating. For these reasons alone, avoiding farmed salmon makes good sense.
However, there's more. Farmed fish contain much higher levels of toxins than wild fish, and it's usually because the food they are given contains the toxins. Farmed fish are fed a "chow" made up of ground-up fish and oil - a source higher up the food chain. The result is higher toxicity.
In the grocery store, whenever a label says only "salmon," the package almost certainly contains farmed Atlantic fish, some of the most toxic food fish in U.S. markets. Labels on wild-caught salmon will always say so. Wild-caught Alaska salmon tends to be the least toxic of all.
HERBED BAKED SALMON
2 wild Alaska sockeye salmon fillets, individual portions (Wild Fish Wives, Bellingham)
1 tablespoon hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, softened (homemade with cream from Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Rinse the salmon fillets and pat dry. Rub with hazelnut oil and sprinkle lightly with salt.
Oil a baking dish and place the salmon fillets in it, skin side down.
In a small bowl, mix two tablespoons of butter with the minced rosemary, reserving two tablespoons of butter for later use. Spread half of the butter-rosemary mixture on each fillet.
Bake for 12-15 minutes. When done, the salmon will flake easily.
Put half of the reserved butter on each fillet and serve immediately.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.