When you shop for fish, what are you looking for?
I’d venture that freshness heads the list for most people, and price can quickly enter into the equation.
But fish stocks around the world are being devastated by overfishing and devastating practices, and certain fish might have undesirable levels of mercury or PCBs. To an increasing number of people, this also matters — enough so that the major supermarket chains are changing their practices.
In Davis, “sustainable” matters to a lot of people. But how on Earth can you know what is sustainable and what isn’t with seafood? The ratings are very complex.
Here’s an example. Perhaps you already know that the cod population in the North Atlantic has again collapsed. New cutbacks on fishing will be imposed. Yet at your supermarket you see cod, clearly labeled, for sale. Is this an “avoid” species, as listed on FishWise.org, which is issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the recognized arbiter on sustainable fisheries?
Maybe, maybe not.
Pacific cod caught on a bottom long line, or with jig and trap, is a “best” choice on FishWise, as is Atlantic cod caught on hook and line from Iceland and the Northeast Arctic. Buy lots of it. A FishWise “good alternative” is cod caught in other ways from Iceland and the Arctic, or Pacific cod caught in a U.S. trawler. The cod that’s a FishWise no-no is either caught by a trawler from Canadian or North Atlantic waters or it’s imported Pacific cod.
Got that? Already your eyes are probably as glazed as those of a day-old fish in the sun.
Halibut, too, falls in all three categories, depending on origin and method. Few shoppers want to study all that.
And what about black cod, true cod, salt cod? But enough torture.
Happily, it’s pretty easy to know if the seafood you purchase has been harvested sustainably. Let’s shop around Davis a bit.
* The Davis Food Co-op used to put labels on its seafood offerings, indicating sustainability. Those days are past. Now the Co-op only buys seafood that is a “best choice” or “good alternative” on FishWise. No “avoid” fish is there, and I was told you can’t special-order an “avoid” item either.
* Nugget Markets leaves the choice to its shoppers. Nugget uses color labels to indicate the FishWise sustainability categories. Black cod has a green banner; it’s a “best choice.” Orange roughy sports a red banner, meaning the “avoid” list — shoppers are urged by FishWise not to buy it.
* For the second year in a row, Safeway won Greenpeace’s top award in 2012 among the 20 largest grocers in the United States for the sustainability of its seafood practices. Safeway dropped some items from the “avoid” category that it once carried. At year’s end, the Safeway brand chunk light tuna will be converted to earn a sustainable rating, and the chain is making other initiatives.
* Target has made a commitment to having only sustainable and traceable seafood offerings in all of its stores by 2015. Trader Joe’s has vowed to have only sustainable fish, even in its canned products, starting at the end of 2012.
* Wal-Mart has made big strides in this area, and now requires any unsustainable providers to be actively moving toward sustainable practices. Costco is on the same route, having vowed this year no longer to carry 12 fish that are endangered for one reason or another, such as Greenland halibut, swordfish and Atlantic cod.
* Whole Foods, coming soon, no longer has any “avoid” items according to the FishWise list, a step taken earlier this year.
* Mission Fresh Fish, the only fish vendor at the Davis Farmers’ Market, doesn’t make a thing about the sustainability of its offerings. However, over the years I’ve not noticed anything from the “avoid” category. This San Leandro company is as close as we get to having local fish.
You can get your own handy listing of FishWise categories for the West Coast by picking up a little card on top of the counters at the Davis Food Co-op or Nugget Market. Or, simply download and print it from www.fishwise.org.
But again, this can be tricky business. For example, Costco says it won’t carry swordfish. Yet swordfish caught with hand lines or harpoons, drift gillnets or long line, from Hawaii to the West Cost is just fine, says FishWise; or if it’s from U.S. waters in the North Atlantic. Imported swordfish is the choice to “avoid.” I bring it up to illustrate how you might legitimately see swordfish in a store abiding by the FishWise guidelines. (But one is advised by FishWise to limit consumption of swordfish due to potential high levels of mercury.)
Chilean sea bass, which actually is toothfish, ranks up there with monkfish as about the two ugliest fishes in the sea. Yet its flesh is enticingly sweet. If you see Chilean sea bass in a restaurant or fish market, or if you see farmed salmon that is from coastal waters somewhere, rather than a tank system … now you’re in the red zone, according to the wholesale buyer’s guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This wholesale list has literally hundreds of rankings, so much of it determined by how the fish are caught or farmed.
There’s also dishonesty in the sourcing at times. Fish caught in a certain manner 5,000 miles away — by hook and line, say — may fetch $2 more per pound than that same fish caught in the same waters by a trawler that devastates the bottom. Quite often there’s no verification when the fish arrives stateside. So it gets mislabeled at the source to line someone’s pockets, according to a friend in the wholesale fish business. That’s why the big grocers also trumpet their efforts to drill into their distribution chains and achieve transparency.
And what about tilapia, that inexpensive and wildly popular farmed fish? FishWise calls it a “best choice” if from the U.S., a “good alternative” if from elsewhere in the Americas, and to be avoided from China and Taiwan. Is there no end to this complexity if one simply wants to buy sustainable seafood?
Introducing local to the equation usually means higher prices — much higher. Farmed Texas striped bass is nearly half the cost of striped bass farmed in California. Local catfish costs 60 percent more than catfish from the South.
Get the FishWise list. Talk to the person behind the counter once or twice if their seafood offerings aren’t clearly delineated on that list one way or the other. Know what you’re buying, just as you would when buying local produce or seeking organic alternatives.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org