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Fish is often recommended as a healthy alternative to meat. It’s also an exceptionally rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are key to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, seafood isn’t as healthy as it used to be. Sure, it still has most of its nutrients but, these days, most fish are also chock full of contaminants.

Restaurants often market their fish as wild-caught, because it’s thought to be a healthier and more sustainable option to farmed fish. But the truth is that both options have their issues.

That said, there are ways to find healthier and more sustainable options in both wild-caught and farmed fish. We’ll quickly cover the challenges both alternatives face, as well as how to choose the healthiest fish to eat.

In this article

The safest wild-caught fish to eat

Industrial factories notoriously pollute our oceans and waterways with mercury and other manufacturing toxins. These toxins are taken up by small water organisms and plant life — and these smaller organisms are then eaten by larger fish.

The mercury biologically accumulates as it moves higher and higher up the food chain. As a result, larger species of fish have a higher risk of contamination and should be avoided. Instead, choose smaller fish that are lower on the food chain.

Avoid larger species of fish

  • Bluefish
  • Cod
  • Halibut
  • Mackerel
  • Orange Roughy
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish
  • Tuna

Choose smaller species of fish

Larger fish are more commonly contaminated with mercury and other environmental toxins. Choose smaller fish that tend to have a lower risk of contamination.

Sustainably-caught wild fish

A second issue with wild fish is that their populations are diminishing quickly. Wild-caught fish are in such high demand that we are eating them (and over-fishing them) to the point of extinction. Difficult as it may be to refrain, we have to eat fish responsibly if we want them to stick around.

  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a free Seafood Watch app as a helpful tool you can bring with you to the market or out to eat. The app does not comment on the risk of mercury toxicity in fish, but it does help you to choose responsibly.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a quick seafood search. You can also use their seafood pocket guides in the U.S.
  • Similarly, The Marine Conservation Society has a seasonal guide and Good Fish Guide in the UK.

Avoid wild-caught fish that tend to be a less sustainable option

  • Barramundi (unless from Australia)
  • Caviar (Mississippi River)
  • Chilean sea bass (unless MSC-certified)
  • Cod (unless MSC-certified)
  • Crab (Asia, Russia, US Atlantic)
  • Eel (worldwide)
  • Atlantic Flatfish (flounder, sole, halibut)
  • Atlantic Salmon (Chile, Scotland, Norway)
  • Pacific Salmon (Canada)
  • Sardines (Atlantic, Mediterranean)
  • Squid (Asia)

Choose wild-caught fish that tend to be a more responsible alternative

As of this writing, various conservation organizations say the below fish typically fit into the above categories. The list may change over time.

Are farmed fish are the more sustainable alternative?

Farmed fish were supposed to ease the burden of over-fishing the wild populations. But it turns out that most fish farms do more harm than good. That’s because industrially farmed fish are often packed into tanks that don’t give them much room to swim. This leads to a host of issues that are bad for the fish… and ultimately bad for those who eat them.

For starters, the cramped conditions in most farmed fish tanks are similar to the conditions that most industrially-farmed livestock endure. And as a result, the fish suffer many of the same issues. For example, the fish have very little (as in, barely any) space to swim around.

Just like cows and chickens, when fish are not able to express their natural behaviors, they become extremely frustrated. Cows and chickens will often fight each other — fish in extremely tight spaces do the same. While fish can’t kick each other (as cows do), they do bite and those wounds are not quick to heal in their unnatural environments. As such, they often become infected.

And yet, like cows and chickens, the fish are still sold to market — infected wounds and all.

Unnatural diets

These crowded tanks are also a haven for bacteria and disease. To keep their fish “healthy” farmers add antibiotics to their food. These antibiotics have been found to endure in the fish meat, which means we end up eating them too.

And speaking of food, most farmed fish are fed an unnatural diet of genetically modified corn and other land-based foods. Nature never intended for water-based creatures to eat land-based food, so their bodies aren’t biologically able to digest them or to absorb all the nutrients. Again… antibiotics.

If the unnatural diet and pharmaceuticals weren’t bad enough, farmed fish are usually pumped with growth hormones as well. When fish grow faster, they can be harvested and sold much sooner. Obviously, this fast growth is also unnatural. And however that affects their bodies, affects their meat… that we eat.

Healthier farmed fish options

Before you swear off all farmed fish, you’ll be happy to know that not all fish farms are inhumane and unhealthy.  Some do raise their fish in a healthy and sustainable environment. Check the label to make sure it says the fish were raised sustainably without added hormones or antibiotics.

It may also state that the fish were fed natural diets and were raised in low-density tanks (meaning they had room to swim). That said, the fact that they don’t use antibiotics is usually a decent indication that they were not forced to live in cramped and unhealthy conditions.

Check out this fun and informative Ted Talk, which describes what a healthy, sustainable fish farm should look like. (It’s one of my favorite Ted Talks of all time — and I don’t even eat fish!)

Avoid farmed fish that tend to be raised less sustainably

  • Barramundi (South Pacific, except Australia)
  • Catfish (Imported)
  • Eel (Worldwide)
  • Flatfish (flounder, sole, halibut)
  • Shrimp (Imported)

Choose farmed fish that tend to be raised more sustainably

  • Barramundi (US & Australia)
  • Bass
  • Catfish (US)
  • Caviar (US & Canada)
  • Char (Atlantic)
  • Mussels (Worldwide)
  • Oysters (Worldwide)
  • Rainbow trout
  • Sturgeon (US, Canadian Pacific)
  • Tilapia (Canada, Ecuador, US)

Fish that are farmed more sustainably, tend to also be healthier. And vice versa.

Also read: Cage Free, Free Range, Pasture Raised… Here’s What the Labels Mean for Your Health and the Animal’s.

Choosing the right fish to eat

Ultimately, finding fish that are healthier and responsibly raised or caught is a challenge. But there are a few quick tips and smart tools that can help.

When choosing wild-caught fish:

  • Stick to fish lower on the food chain (small species fish) to avoid contamination from mercury and other environmental toxins.
  • Also, choose fish that have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to ensure the fish were caught responsibly.

When choosing farmed fish, the label should indicate that:

  • The fish were raised without antibiotics or hormones.
  • They were farmed in low-density (meaning “not cramped“) pens or tanks.
  • The fish tanks or pens were not treated with synthetic herbicides.
  • The fish were fed a more natural diet that does not include genetically-modified plants or land-based foods.

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