The Worst Offenders
“Chilean sea bass and orange roughy are the poster children for abused species,” Lovejoy says. In markets recently you may have seen Chilean sea bass labeled as sustainably caught—but these fish come from one small fishery, so you should still avoid the species. “I mean, there’s one healthy population left on the planet,” Lovejoy explains. “We’re going to eat that, too?”
Bluefin tuna are another on the do-not-disturb list. “Eating bluefin tuna is the moral equivalent of hunting for one of the last surviving wild tigers,” he says. “Atlantic cod, grouper, and sharks also make the list.”
Accept (Some) Substitutes
One of the reasons that Chilean sea bass are in trouble is that they are so delicious—mild-flavored, white-fleshed, impossible to overcook. Are there any good substitutes? “Alaskan sablefish, sometimes called black cod, are fabulous and completely sustainable,” Lovejoy says. “They are closely related to Chilean sea bass and have many of the same culinary attributes. [Chef] Ming Tsai, one of my customers, used to feature Chilean sea bass in a signature dish at his restaurant. Several years ago asked me to source something else. He uses sablefish now and the dish is terrific.”
What about substitutes for some of the other off-limits species? “Alaskan—not Atlantic—halibut is a good substitute for any whitefish, including grouper, orange roughy, and Atlantic cod,” Lovejoy says. “Alaskan cod is also good. So is Alaskan pollack.”
How about Atlantic swordfish, which is starting to show up again at fish counters? “Things have improved, but Atlantic swordfish should be avoided—if only because it has a high mercury content,” Lovejoy says.
And forget about that lovely tuna steak seared on the grill, even if you can find a substitute for bluefin. “I avoid fresh tuna steaks—that would be my advice, unfortunately,” Lovejoy says. “Tuna are really getting hammered. There is one good tuna fishery, the U. S. Pacific coast albacore fishery, and most of that is sold canned. With other tuna fisheries, you have problems with by-catch.”
Contamination with Mercury, Pcbs, and Other Chemicals
Ah yes, what about mercury? (As if keeping everything else straight weren’t hard enough.) Luckily there’s a good rule of thumb here: “Most of the fish that are on the ‘avoid’ side of the ledger for being overfished also tend to be the most contaminated,” Lovejoy says. “Chilean sea bass, shark, orange roughy, swordfish, and most tunas definitely have contamination issues.” When in doubt, check your fish against a guide that offers extensive health information—like the one put out by Environmental Defense.
The Best Choice
Is there one fish that has it all—that’s good tasting, easy to cook, readily available, not contaminated with mercury or PCBs, and harvested in a completely sustainable manner?
“If someone wants a blanket statement on what to eat, I say wild Alaska salmon,” Lovejoy says—any species, including chinook, chum, coho, sockeye, king, red, and pink. “They are well managed, very high in Omega 3s, and very low in mercury and PCBs.”