In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

Hello Grist,

The food worry that keeps me up at night is how best to buy fish. Should I buy “wild caught,” with the world’s fishing fleets using giant nets that scoop up all sorts of sea wildlife in one fell swoop, drowning the fish they wanted to collect along with many varieties that they will just dump back in the water dead? Or “farm raised,” with the many antibiotics that are required to keep the fish alive in close quarters, other injections, the waste that is often times released (either on purpose or accidentally) into the waterways, polluting them so the wild fish and other wildlife do not survive?

Any advice on which is better would be appreciated.

Thank you for starting a column just focusing on food, as this is a big issue for sustainability.

Karen Bograd
Raleigh, N.C.

school of fish

Dear Karen:

The next time you are up at night fretting, please know that you are in good company! At about 3 a.m., you are likely to find me staring at the ceiling, worrying about upcoming presidential elections, my sump pump, or if I’m getting enough fatty acids — and how the heck acids can be fatty in the first place. (Tell me honestly now: Does this acid make me look fatty?)

In all seriousness, questions around eating fish are a legitimate source of angst. Not only are our oceans in peril from pollution and irresponsible harvesting (according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, more than 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully fished or over-fished), but you also could endanger your health by choosing the wrong sea critter. And I hate to tell you this, but the cheap popcorn shrimp and Cajun-grilled Atlantic salmon that we all love to order when we eat out? Ixnay on those.

In scientific terms, Karen, your question is known as a “tuffy.” The problem with fish-harvesting methods are many, including their definitions.

“Wild-caught” casts a wide net and can mean that your fish were caught using highly destructive (read: downright demonic) fishing methods such as dynamiting reefs, high-seas bottom-trawling, and drift nets. But the term wild-caught can also encompass more desirable lower-impact techniques, such as hand-lines, divers, or the use of pots or traps.

Farmed fish (the product of aquaculture), as you have pointed out, also have their fair share of problems. As most of us now know, certain kinds of farmed salmon can, quite literally, be a lousy option. But aquaculture products are hard to avoid, given that nearly half of all the fish we eat now comes from farms. Though the farmed stuff should be avoided in some instances, you don’t have to eschew it entirely. Certain kinds, especially herbivorous species, raised domestically in well-contained ponds, can be a healthy and eco-conscious option.

So rather than choosing between farmed and wild-caught fish, I propose that you choose sustainable fish. What does that mean? For Cindy Walter, co-owner of the Pacific Grove, Calif.-based sustainable seafood restaurant Passionfish, it means this: “We purchase only fish that are harvested or farmed in a way that doesn’t impact the environment, other species, or their habitats.”

How do you identify and get your hands on such fish? The first step is to get a “watch list” of sustainable seafood choices that you can tuck into your wallet (I also keep one on the fridge and one in the car). The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers regional pocket guides that you can download, and guides that can be accessed from a mobile device. Their website is also a great to place to educate yourself about the various types of fish-harvesting and farming methods. If texting is your thing, also try the Blue Ocean Institute’s FishPhone. Simply text 30644 with the message “fish” and the name of the fish in question, and you’ll get a text back with an environmental assessment. (Standard text messaging rates apply.)

Whether you are techie or not, curl up with a good book to learn more. I highly recommend Bottom Feeder: How to Eat Ethically in World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe. It’s a riveting exposé on seafood from hook to table. Is it disturbing? Yes, but its also brainy, funny, and ultimately heartening. Grescoe eats lots of sustainable seafood, feels great, and offers plenty of solutions for saving the seas. Cindy Walter, who works to educate all of the customers at Passionfish about sustainable seafood, also recommends Song for the Blue Ocean by Blue Ocean Institute founder Dr. Carl Safina. “You should see my copy,” she says. “It’s so tattered. I recommend it to everyone. “

But Karen, no matter what you read or who you call, bear in mind the following tips and you’ll have an easier time choosing sustainable fish:

* Eat as locally as possible. Fish that have traveled far are not only less likely to be fresh and tasty; getting them to your plate has meant burning a lot of fossil fuels. Also, imported fish may come from places such as China that have less stringent safety and environmental standards. If you catch your own fish, good for you, but check out the EPA’s fish advisories for your state to make sure that your haul is free of pollutants.

* Ask questions. At the fishmonger’s, do as you would at the farmers market and start a conversation. Is the fish wild-caught? How was it harvested? Where was it caught? (Which ocean? Atlantic cod stocks are in terrible shape; Pacific cod are a bit better.) If it is farmed, is it imported?

* Read labels. At present, there are no federal organic standards for fish, even farmed fish. But one label I look for is the Marine Stewardship Council‘s “eco-label” for wild-caught fish from sustainable fisheries. If you can’t discern anything about the fish from the label, take a pass. Don’t hesitate to call the phone numbers posted on labels or contact a company through its website if you have further questions.

* Choose wisely at restaurants. Almost 70 percent of all of the seafood we consume comes from restaurants, so be choosy when you eat out and ask your server the same questions you would ask your fishmonger. “If they can’t answer the questions, don’t buy the fish,” says Passionfish’s Walter, noting that asking such questions and creating pressure for the restaurant to serve sustainable fish is the most important thing you can do. Oh, and be sure to send your regards, or disregards, to the chef! Chefs have enormous power to influence public tastes when it comes to fish. Walter, whose husband Ted is the chef at Passionfish, says chefs are the “guardians of the oceans.”

* Eat lower on the food chain. “We eat the wrong fish,” Grescoe explained to me. “We tend to eat predators and they contain toxins in their flesh — dioxins, PCBs, and mercury.”

After Grescoe traveled the world to research his book, he became a “bottomfeeder” and discovered that eating fish lower on the food chain was better for the health of the oceans and our bodies. Among his favorites are mackerel, herring, and sardines, which are chock-full of brain-nourishing omega-3 fatty acids. When it comes to farmed fish, Grescoe suggests eating lower on the food chain by opting for herbivorous species such as catfish, rather than predators. To find out what Grescoe will and won’t eat, go here. Personally, I adore canned smoked oysters in olive oil and eat embarrassing amounts of them.

* Have standbys. Before you head out the door to the store, fish market, or restaurant, have a few tried-and-true sustainable favorites. “Pick out a few of your favorite fish that are in great shape and stick with them,” advises Grescoe, who looks for sablefish and arctic char when he eats out. At restaurants, I eat a lot of calamari.

* Be careful with the Big Two. “The two big species of concern are shrimp and salmon,” says Grescoe. “Be careful of those two.” Shrimp and farmed salmon, two predators that are popular seafood choices, have lots of problems that make them unsustainable and unhealthy for you. Choose wild Alaskan salmon and sustainable shrimp. Better yet, give our oceans a break and try a sustainable fish that’s new to you. I recently discovered barramundi and love it.

Phew! Karen, I know this is a lot to digest, but I hope it helps from you casting about when it comes to choosing sustainable fish. Thank you for sending this terrific question. If you can’t sleep, try warm milk, Sudoku, or send me an email. I’ll be up, checking my sump pump and reading the Wiki on fatty acids.

Kindest regards,
Lou