Love fish? Hate Mercury? American consumers are becoming increasingly more interested in the toxicity of the seafood they are eating and taking steps to avoid mercury and contaminants.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA), mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can be emitted into the air by human activities, such as manufacturing or burning coal for fuel. When precipitated from the air, mercury can then reach and accumulate in bodies of water as methylmercury.
Nearly all fish and shellfish appear to contain traces of mercury from absorbing methylmercury in the water, yet larger fish like sharks, swordfish, tuna and king mackerel, typically contain more. Eating large amounts of these fish on a regular basis can put individuals at risk for mercury poisoning and low amounts are particularly toxic to the nervous system of unborn babies or young children.
So, which fish are safe for consumers to eat? The answer to this question varies depending on the frequency of consumption and the geographic source of the fish purchased. The routine consumption of any fish that are high in methylmercury can result in its accumulation within the bloodstream over time. The EPA and FDA therefore offer recommendations for limiting the quantity of fish per week. The Turtle Island Restoration Network also offers a Mercury Calculator for estimating exposure based on limited consumption.
In addition to the frequency of consumption, the conditions of the fishes' living environment significantly contributed to the toxic pollutants they absorb. Geographically, wild-caught fish are often preferred to farm-raised fish, depending on the environmental impact of the wild harvest and the source and conditions of the farmed fish. Currently, there are no official USDA Organic standards for fish, however aquaculture is on the cusp of reaching guidelines as proceedings are underway in 2014.
Many environmentally conscious vendors have adopted strict farming standards and are working with environmentalists to ensure sustainable aquaculture. Whole Foods Market is one vendor that has made large efforts to ensure clean farming grounds, free of artificial chemicals and preservatives, and implemented stringent eco-standards.
Check out the following list of Seafood with low mercury levels and the suggested sources for Safe purchase.
USA Sustainably Farmed Shrimp
Ninety-one percent of seafood is imported by the United States, about half of which is farmed from aquaculture, and shrimp is no exception.
According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), shrimp are seafood that absorb and retain the least amount of mercury, although the conditions under which they are grown greatly contribute to their food safety.
Asia and South America are two of the largest shrimp suppliers, however farming standards are not well regulated and consumers are being advised to purchase from US aquaculture or eco-conscious wild shrimp providers.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) website provides a list of the shrimp sources with the lowest mercury and the best eco-friendly rating. Consumers can read about differences in mercury, eco-standards and specifically which sources have a large bycatch.
The food and environmental seafood safety debate heightens with salmon. Environmentally, there are challenges with both wild-caught and farmed salmon. Poorly regulated wild-caught salmon operations can significantly disturb the oceanic environment while farmed salmon puts consumers at risk for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). However, there is a bit more clarity when it comes to mercury levels in salmon. The NRDC's website indicates that levels are among the lowest at close to 0.09 parts per million.
Fresh Ocean Flounder
One potentially overlooked fish with low levels of mercury is fresh flounder.
The NRDC website lists these fish as having the lowest mercury rating, with less than 0.09 parts per million.
Unfortunately, the fishing industry has made flounder one of the most overfished seafood, where species like winter flounder and yellowtail flounder are in danger of being eliminated.
The good news is that careful consumers can select seasonal, sustainably-caught flounder from environmentally protective sources. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch provides a list of recommendations for geographic sources of flounder along with good alternatives to overfished areas.
U.S. Atlantic summer flounder, called fluke, and U.S. Pacific flounder, also known as sanddabs or sole are some recommended good alternatives.
Great news for purveyors and lovers of the pearl of the sea, the oyster!
According to the NRDC Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish, oysters are both very low in mercury and eco-consciously harvested.
With a growing global oyster industry booming, oysters are both wild-caught and farmed with great care.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch reports that several types of oysters are abundant, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. These include American, Blue Points & Common Oyster, or Kaki that are farmed worldwide and American, Blue Points, Common & Eastern Oyster, or Kaki wild-caught from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.
Barred Surf Perch
A lesser known, but equally low in mercury, seafood option is the surf perch.
With many different varieties at hand, surf perch can be both wild caught or farmed in tanks. Similar to salmon in their NDRC mercury rating of less than 0.09 parts per million, they are easier to catch and farm.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends US farmed perch as the best eco-friendly option and Lake, Racoon & Ringed perch, Ned, Yellow Ned Lake Huron, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie perch as good alternatives.
Dry Sea Scallops
One of the most delectable prizes among seafood cuisine is the sea scallop.
To avoid artificial preservatives or chemical salts, consumers should seek out only dry sea scallops for consumption which are shucked directly into a dry container with no water or preservatives.
The NDRC gives sea scallops the lowest mercury rating, but also warns that they are one of the most endangered types of seafood.
For eco-friendly consumers, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends farmed sea scallops as the best option since they do not require external feed and thus have a limited impact on water quality. They also provide a list of many good alternative sources for wild caught scallops.