Ahoy there, fellow poop-deckers! I hope the fair seas have treated ye well since me last arrrr-ticle. This one, dear mateys, will focus on grub — that’s food to you landlubbers — specifically seafood. There’s been much to-do lately on mercury advisories and the safety of sushi, so how’s a seadog to know what’s safe to eat, what’s caught (or farmed) sustainably, and what’s not?

But before I delve into the murky waters of seafood safety, I’ve a message for any bilge-suckers planning to comment on this post about how “un-environmental” I am for suggesting that seafood is an acceptable food source: I’ll swab the deck with you, I will. Don’t tempt me. That said, let’s weigh anchor.

This post was inspired by a story in The New York Times several weeks ago entitled, “Advisories on Fish and the Pitfalls of Good Intent.” As the article points out, there’s much confusion over the issue because there are several groups of voices shouting at consumers about what to eat. NYT points out two: “those scientists who think it is important to eat tuna and farmed salmon for their omega-3 fatty acids, despite the contaminants they contain, and those who think consumers should consider contaminants when deciding which fish to eat.” And to further complicate the issue, one of those voices — can you guess which? — is coming primarily from the tuna industry in disguise. Websites like tunafacts.com, maintained by the United States Tuna Foundation, and the Center for Consumer Freedom’s fishscam.com, which comes complete with a “mercury calculator,” claim that the contaminant warnings are bogus. The former is even fighting a California lawsuit against tuna canners for not warning consumers about the mercury in their product.

Unfortunately, mercury content isn’t the only worry when it comes to seafood. Other complicating (but important) factors include how the fish is caught (or farmed) and where it comes from. These are linked to the health of various fish stocks and the well-being of nearby organisms — turtles, marine mammals, coral reefs, and other fish. Commercial fishing these days isn’t about sitting on a dinghy, beer in hand, waiting for dinner to take the bait. There are a number of different methods used by fisherfolk, and some, like harpooning and trolling, are environmentally responsible because they catch only the targeted species and allow for quick release of unintentional catch, or bycatch. Other methods, however, can result in damaged habitat (dredging, trawling/dragging) and large amounts bycatch (purse seining, gillnetting). And this is to say nothing of fish farming, which can be devastating to a coastline (shrimp farming), result in water polluted with feces and antibiotics (net-pen farming), or even be beneficial to an environment (farmed shellfish), depending on the species and circumstances involved.

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So what’s a hungry pirate to do? Pay attention to labels and signs at your grocery store. Do a close reading of your restaurant menu, or ask a waiter for more information about where the fish of the day comes from and how it was caught. International governments and U.S. governing bodies like NOAA are doing their part to keep an eye on the issues. But it’s really up to consumers to make their concerns known. Public outcry and massive boycotts resulted in dolphin-safe tuna labels and other regulatory efforts. Companies will listen to our demands if we shout louder than they do. Already, some are making efforts to offer low-mercury branding and more palatable fish-farming methods. Perhaps the easiest way to ensure you’re making choices for healthy oceans is to consult one of the many fish lists out there. My personal favorite is the Seafood Watch program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They monitor many different species of fish for fishing/farming methods and mercury content, and they even break it down by region. Print out a handy pocket guide and whip it out at your favorite fishy haunt. It’ll impress your friends. Really.

As will the pirate-speak, me hearties! Until next time, sail ho!

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