I’ll be the first to admit it: Ever since I wrote Bottomfeeder, a n exposé of the parlous state of the global fisheries and the sketchiness of much of the aquaculture industry, a trip to the seafood counter has been an occasion fraught with anxiety.
That sushi-grade toro? Tempting — but it was cut from the belly of a bluefin tuna, a species driven to the brink of collapse by overfishing. Those farmed salmon fillets? They owe their pleasingly pinkish hue to chemical colorants and are raised in net-pens that contaminate the ocean floor and pass sea lice on to the remaining stocks of wild salmon. Marlin and swordfish steaks? Thick, meaty, overfished — and so laden with mercury that you might as well be sucking on a cracked thermometer. And don’t get me started on the barbecue-ready farmed shrimp. I’ve visited India and seen the antibiotic-spiked ponds they’re raised in.
Yet, in spite of all I’ve learned, I always come back to the virtues of protein plucked from our rivers, lakes and oceans. Sea fish are nature’s richest source of omega-3 fatty acids, shellfish brim with brain-boosting minerals and there’s nothing as satisfyingly delicious as trout or whitefish that you’ve pulled out of fresh water and prepared over a grill of your own stoking. The catch, for an ecologically minded host, is sorting out what kind of fish makes for a dinner that is as decent as it is delicious.
It can be hard enough choosing among the 350-plus species of fish and seafood available in North America, let alone remembering to ask your fishmonger whether his scallops are diver-gathered rather than dragged. Fortunately, there’s more guidance available than ever for the befuddled piscivore. Greenpeace has worked hard to convince major Canadian retailers to pull red listed seafood like Chilean seabass, orange roughy and shark off shelves, and stores in the Loblaw and Overwaitea chains have made great strides in switching to sustainably sourced species (though they still have a long way to go when it comes to salmon farmed in net-pens (which can’t contain disease), antibiotic-laden farmed tropical shrimp and overfished Atlantic groundfish such as sole and halibut. Retailers that adhere to Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, which rates sustainable seafood, can be found in most major cities, and high-profile restaurateurs, among them Jason Bangerter of Toronto’s Luma, Robert Clark of Vancouver’s C Restaurant and Paul Rogalski of Calgary’s Rouge, have committed to keeping overfished species off their menus. And if you’re lucky enough to live near an ethical fishmonger, like Toronto’s Hooked or Vancouver’s The Daily Catch, shopping becomes a no-brainer: Everything on the board is sustainable.
So, what should a fish-lover who’s planning a summer feast be looking for at the market? First, look for fish that’s low on the food chain — the closer you are to oysters, sardines and herring and the farther you are from endangered (and mercury-heavy) tuna, swordfish and shark species, the better. (If only a premium, centre-of-the-plate protein will do, rosy-fleshed farmed Arctic char and wild-caught pink salmon, available in burger form for grilling in many supermarkets, are currently good choices.)
Also pay attention to the way your fish is caught: Traps and pots (for lobsters, crabs), and purse seines (for sardines, anchovies and herring) are tried-and-true low-tech methods with little bycatch of non-targeted species, while bottom-raking trawls (often used to catch Atlantic sole, cod and halibut) are the oceans’ weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, it’s always best to buy as locally possible. Some of the heaviest environmental impacts of the fisheries come from the fossil fuels burned in shipping them from distant bodies of water. This summer, Ontarians should be looking for lake whitefish from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, as well as yellow perch and pickerel from Lake Erie, while Quebeckers and Atlantic Canadians should be snapping up trap-caught northern shrimp and purse-seined capelin and mackerel. Farmed oysters, mussels and clams — the ultimate examples of maritime terroir — are an excellent choice wherever you happen to be.