In nearly all traditional foods diets, like those studied by Dr. Weston A. Price, animals and plants from the sea were extremely important food sources. Most of the people that Dr. Price studied ate a balance of foods from both land and sea, and he found that those who ate the most sea foods seemed to have the best overall health, including dental and reproductive health. Today, we are still told how good fish is for us, especially salmon, even in the mainstream health world. Unfortunately there is still a lot of confusion around which types of fish to eat, why to eat them, and whether or not they are safe. I am hoping to clear this up and emphasize the importance of wild-caught seafood.
Farmed Fish Fraud
First, I'll touch on the difference between wild caught and farmed fish. When I say "farmed," I am essentially talking about factory-farmed fish. The vast majority of fish found in supermarkets and restaurants comes from these farms. If you buy fish and it does not say "wild-caught" then it is almost certainly factory-farmed. In the media and conventional nutrition teachings, it is made to seem like fish is fish and it is all good for you, but that is not the truth.
Fish raised with these large-scale farming methods are grown in huge quantities, and much like chickens or cows, they do not have a lot of room to move around. This over-crowding leads to a lot of diseased fish, with various bacteria, viruses and pesticides that are not natural to the fish. Then, they are given antibiotics and pesticides--and all of that is going into the fish that will be eaten. Like feedlot livestock, they are fed genetically modified (GMO) feed, usually including corn. Obviously, corn is not a natural food to fish, so this eventually leads to other illnesses that need to be treated with antibiotics.
The high amount of pollution created by these huge fish farms is spreading to the surrounding natural waters and causing pollution problems for the wild fish and other life there. Also, their GMO feed is getting out of the nets and being eaten by the wild fish. Even scarier, GMO salmon now exist. Not only is this a problem for the consumer because these fish are not being labeled as genetically-modified on the shelves, but these fish can get out of their nets, breeding with the wild population, so even wild-caught fish may be compromised with GMO's. For farmed salmon, the majority of farmers are in Chile, Scotland, Norway and British Columbia, Canada and many are labeled "Atlantic Salmon," and may not necessarily be labeled as "farm-raised. " There is a common misconception that "Atlantic" means caught wild in the Atlantic ocean; however, this is almost always the opposite. Unless labeled "wild-caught," you should assume it is farmed. Clearly, being an informed consumer and food labeling advocate is important now more than ever.
These practices are not sustainable for the environment, nor are they good for the fish or the humans that eat them. This translates to a food that will not provide the nutrition that you are looking for when you go to buy fish that you've been told is "good for you." The pink color that wild salmon naturally have, which signifies their astaxanthin content, is added by dyes in factory fish. As the consumer, you would not be getting the benefit of this antioxidant, nor would you be getting the omega 3 fatty acids found in wild fish.
There are exceptions to this farming rule, however. Sustainable and organic aquaculture is emerging, which has the potential to create a larger supply of fish--which is needed for the health of our huge population--without creating such harm in the environment. This is meant to be a supplement, not a replacement for wild-caught fish, but it could help to get more people eating the fish they need without harming the planet.
What about wild caught?
Responsibly-managed fisheries are the key to keeping wild-caught fish sustainable. Biologists and other scientists manage and oversee operations, including wild salmon runs, to ensure that over-fishing is not happening. Not all fisheries are responsible in this way, however, and it is important to know where your fish is coming from before you purchase it, just like with all of your other food. There are many organizations that monitor and rate fisheries for their sustainability practices, including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Because of fisheries following these practices, the industry is actually improving in many areas and fish populations are increasing when well-managed fisheries are doing their jobs. As consumer demand for sustainably-caught fish increases, the fisheries are stepping up their game to meet this growing need.
When fish are allowed to live in their natural habitat, they are going to be healthier, and therefore provide more nutrition to you when you eat them. This is win-win for everyone, including the fisheries that are doing things right.
It is becoming more widely known that fish is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available. But this is not just any fish; as I have tried to emphasize, wild-caught fish are the source of all this incredible nutrition, or fish from sustainable, organic aquaculture operations when available. The famous omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA, are best found in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. These fats have been linked to numerous health benefits, including better joints, mental health, and even healthy pregnancies. They are crucial for brain development, so wild-caught fish is an essential for pregnant women so their babies have healthy brains.
Wild-caught salmon and shrimp are also a sources of astaxanthin, an powerful antioxidant that has been shown to support eye, skin and heart health. You can see this phytochemical in the pink pigment of their flesh. The omega 3 content of seafoods provide anti-inflammatory benefits, which has shown to contribute to better digestive health and overall disease prevention.
Fish are also a source of the fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamin D. Tribes, such as the Inuit, that lived at an extremely high latitude without much sun exposure ate a huge amount of fish, and therefore were not vitamin D deficient. This is why cod liver oil is such an important supplement to those in Northern latitude during the colder months. When sunshine doesn't provide you with vitamin D, cod liver oil and vitamin D-rich seafoods take its place in meeting your needs.
Salt-water fish, shellfish and crustaceans are, of course, also great sources of many minerals. Iodine, selenium, choline, iron, zinc and calcium are all rich in wild seafoods. Oysters are one of the richest sources of zinc available. An especially good source of calcium is in the fish bones. When you have canned salmon or sardines where the bones are left in, they are edible and are a great way to get your calcium in! This calcium content, along with the trace minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, are crucial in good dental health, as well as having healthy pregnancies and nourishing growing children. Fish skin and bones can also be made into a broth that is rich in collagen, gelatin and glycine, as well as these other minerals. Fish that are wild-caught from fresh water, not from the sea, are also extremely nutrient-dense. So, if you are concerned with eating locally and don't live anywhere near the ocean, like myself, choosing fresh water fish such as walleye, smelt or trout can be a nutritious and sustainable option for you as well. To obtain as many of the nutritional benefits as possible from fish and other seafoods, eating a variety of different fish, balanced with shellfish like oysters, crustaceans like shrimp, and including the skin and bones when possible is the best strategy.
What about mercury? Pollution?
All foods from the sea contain at least trace amounts of mercury. This varies in the species and age of the fish, and increases as you get higher in the food chain. But it is in all of them in some amounts, and always has been. Some studies that have sampled mercury contents of the ocean have shown that it has not really changed over the last 100 years, when pollution has obviously skyrocketed. Most of the mercury found in fish is in the form of methyl mercury, which is coming from the volcanic soil in the sea, that has been there since the seas were formed. This article from Science Daily does a pretty good job of explaining where most of the ocean's mercury has come from.
So, the Inuit, Aborigines and all of the other tribes that relied heavily on fish and sea foods for their health were consuming at least some amount of methyl mercury. Why am I not overly alarmed about this?
The main reason that I don't believe the amount of mercury in fish is cause for much alarm is because of the incredible nutrition in the fish itself. Selenium, a mineral abundant in wild fish, helps to protect your body from mercury, by binding with it and then helping the body to excrete it in waste. Nature created a perfect food in fish--if it had to be grown in water that had mercury from previous volcanic activity, then it would be rich in a nutrient that would protect us against that mercury. I love when nature does that.
Mercury from pollution and environmental contaminants is a problem for everyone, not just for people eating wild fish. Even lake fish, because of pollution, are shown to have high mercury levels in some areas. Wild fish is not the only concern. It seems that by consuming fish and other foods rich in selenium, such as Brazil nuts, you are protecting yourself not only from potential methyl mercury from the sea, but also other forms of mercury all over the planet. If mercury is a big concern for you, you would do well to check on the mercury in your mouth (amalgam fillings) and other sources such as air pollution and municipal water, to help you and your family avoid large amounts of mercury. These are much bigger concerns that require attention, and are a bigger threat to health than wild-caught fish. The Food and Water Watch published this article about the connection between farmed fish and mercury--obviously farmed fish is not the solution, it is the nutrition of the wild-caught fish.
As far as pollution is concerned, this is another area where it is important to know where the fish is coming from. Much of the pollution in coastal waters is actually from factory fish farms, which are on the coast, and are putting their pollution into the water. Fish that is caught in deeper waters is much safer and has less chance of being polluted by this source. If you are still wanting to eat fish but avoid large amounts of pollutants in your food, you are much better off to eat wild-caught fish or fish grown at an organic fishery. You will be exposed to fewer toxins in wild-caught fish than most factory farmed fish because of the way in which they are raised. Also, choosing smaller fish that are lower down the food chain can help minimize the amount of mercury and other toxins consumed from wild-caught fish. Larger fish that are higher up the chain such as swordfish and some kinds of tuna will store, and therefore contain, more mercury and other pollutants than smaller fish like sardines or anchovies.
Radiation is a big concern for people eating wild-caught fish, more than probably any other pollutant. There is no doubt that some wild fish have at least a small level of radiation in them, from a variety of different irresponsible companies that pollute the ocean, including the incident in Fukushima. The best news here is that fish, as well as seaweed, are extremely rich in iodine. Iodine has been shown to protect the body against the effects of radiation--another situation where fish is kind of a miracle food. The amount of radiation and pollutants in seafood is likely no higher than in many other foods in our industrialized food system, including drinking water. Eating fish a few times per week and seaweed about once a week for their iodine contents may actually offer protection not only from potential contaminants in the fish itself, but also other environmental and food contaminants as well. I, too, worry about this more than any other issue of contamination in the water. However, similar to mercury and other pollution concerns, I feel that the health benefits are important enough to a nutrient-diet that they are worth including, and outweighs concern. If this is a barrier for you, though, you could simply limit your intake of foods from the sea, especially the Pacific Ocean, and make most of your fish intake come from freshwater sources. Again, checking with the Marine Stewardship Council before selecting your fish can be a good place to start and give you peace of mind.
Overall, it is clear that wild-caught fish are nutritionally superior and when done responsibly, are better for the environment as well. The risks of possible contaminants when eating wild sea foods are greatly outweighed by the benefits. As a consumer, knowing where your seafood--and all food--is your responsibility. Read labels, and check for certifications from organizations like the MSC, and even fish for your own food. Fisheries like Vital Choice Seafood and Sitka Salmon are doing it right, and even have a huge amount of information about the safety and nutrition of their products on their websites. They will even ship to you, saving a trip to the store. If we increase the demand for sustainable, healthy seafood it will become more widely available and the fishers who are taking care to work in a sustainable way will be compensated. Maybe someday, your choice will be just between wild-caught and organically farmed, not factory farmed at all, but I am not optimistic yet.
For further reading on the importance of fish in our diet, check out The Queen of Fats by Susan Allport, The Omega 3 Effect by Dr. William Sears, M.D., Four Fish by Paul Greenberg, Know Your Fats by Dr. Mary Enig, PhD, and of course, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon Morrell. There is much to be learned, and many fish to be eaten.
So just how much seafood do we need? I recommend at least 2 servings of fish or other animals from the sea per week. A can of sardines or oysters can be the protein source in a quick and easy lunch, or enjoy some smoked salmon for a delicious snack. Also, supplementing with cod liver oil during the colder months can also be beneficial for getting adequate vitamin D when the sun seems to be a stranger. Along with CLO, starting with 2 servings a week is a great way to begin to meet your nutrient needs, including vitamin D, minerals like iodine and zinc, protein, omega 3 fats, antioxidants and, in some cases, collagen. Below are some examples of some of my favorite, and nutrient-dense, fish and seafood choices. Pick from these lists when planning your meals, consume a wide variety, and start to enjoy the many benefits of wild-caught fish--including incredible flavor and the possibility of new meal ideas.
Wild Fish from the Sea
Sardines--I love canned sardines for a quick protein option at lunch
Shellfish, Crustaceans, etc.
Oysters--raw or smoked and canned, these are such a treat
Fresh Water Fish
Toasted Nori--I eat these about once a week as seaweed snacks, and they are so good
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.