- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

Seafood has long been praised for its nutritional virtues, particularly for its high levels of protein and omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of saturated fat.

Chefs and home cooks extol its versatility. As a result, Americans are eating seafood at an escalating rate. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates we are consuming about 16 pounds of seafood per person, per year. Yet only recently has it occurred to most of us that bringing large quantities of seafood to our tables can damage the delicate ecosystem of our oceans and seas.

Responding to high demand, many seafood producers are abandoning ecologically friendly fishing practices and adopting methods that destroy the ocean floor, take in too much by-catch (seafood that trawling nets collect by mistake), and deny slow-growing species time to regenerate. The result is that some of our favorite seafood is in danger of extinction.

The Fisheries Service estimates that 92 domestic fish stocks are overfished, but declining wild populations can recover if their breeding habitats are protected and fishing methods are used that prevent overfishing, by-catch and habitat destruction.

Fish farming, also called aquaculture, is one alternative, but it, too, is controversial because of the possible harm it causes by releasing waste into rivers and oceans. There also is concern that farmed fish might escape their habitats and spread disease and destroy wild genetic strains by mating in the wild.

This does not mean that seafood lovers must cut fish from their diets. Informed consumers can exercise responsible buying power, whether they’re eating at home or in restaurants, and choose fish that are plentiful.

If you live near a fresh seafood supplier, get to know the people there and ask questions. Ask how, when and where the fish were caught. If you decide to use only fresh, seasonal and sustainably caught or raised fish, you probably will have to be flexible in deciding what to make for dinner. However, because fish are so versatile, it is unlikely that selecting only sustainable fish will derail meal planning.

Various online guides offer printable wallet cards that can be carried along for reference. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program has an online seafood guide called Seafood Watch. It is searchable by region and also has a printable wallet card at www.seafoodwatch.org.

The Blue Ocean Institute, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, has a similar guide as part of its From Sea to Table program at www.blueoceaninstitute.org/From_Sea_to_Table/25.

Cookbooks, too, sometimes provide details on the state of the oceans and how our eating habits affect the ecosystem. “One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish: The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook” (Smithsonian Books) is one good resource. “The Sustainable Kitchen” (New Society Publishers) is another.

Although guidelines vary, many recommend avoiding wild-caught caviar, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod, imported king crab, monkfish, orange roughy, farmed Atlantic salmon, wild-caught sturgeon, Atlantic swordfish and some varieties of tuna. The problems vary, but these are all fish that have environmental issues associated with their capture.

Caviar comes from sturgeon, a large fish that does not begin to produce eggs until it reaches 20 years of age. Aggressive fishing has not allowed for new generations of sturgeon to mature, so the species has been threatened. Snapper faces similar challenges.

Like sturgeon and snapper, cod takes many years to regenerate. With high demand, the species is in danger of being overfished. Cod is caught primarily by bottom trawling, a method the National Academy of Sciences says has been found to damage the ocean floor, not only altering the natural habitat of cod, but also damaging the habitat where juvenile fishes of other species hide from their predators.

Trawling also can result in by-catch. Monterey Bay Aquarium estimates suggest that for every pound of shrimp caught in a trawl net, an average of 2 to 10 pounds of other marine life is caught and discarded overboard as by-catch.

There are many alternatives to some of the seafood favorites we are being advised to avoid. We do not need to give up caviar. Many delicious and environmentally sustainable alternatives are available domestically, such as farmed white sturgeon, farmed paddlefish, wild Alaska salmon and whitefish.

Pacific salmon is well-managed, according to the Seafood Choices Alliance, a nonprofit ocean conservation group. Look for wild Alaskan, pink, sockeye and chum varieties. Arctic char and rainbow trout are good alternatives when sustainable varieties of salmon are not available.

Many farms, such as those for farm-raised striped bass and catfish, practice sustainable farming by using systems that minimize pollution leakage.

Because Atlantic mackerel matures in a few years, is a fast swimmer and is found throughout the Atlantic Ocean, it has come back after a period of overfishing in the 1970s. It is considered a sustainable option for recipes calling for a grilled or broiled fillet or whole fish.

Although the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute recommend avoiding some varieties of tuna, such as bluefin and some yellowfin caught with a long line, many varieties are fast-growing and prolific breeders.

Pole-caught and troll-caught albacore tuna has less by-catch, so it is considered a good alternative to long-line-caught tuna. Ask your fish vendors what kind of tuna they are selling.

In terms of shellfish, mussels are one of the best bets, according to both Sea to Table and Seafood Watch. Not only do they improve surrounding waters by filtering out algae, but because most farmed mussels are raised on ropes, farming them causes little habitat disruption.

These recipes are easily adaptable to different kinds of fish or seafood.

Fish en papillote

This recipe can be made with a variety of fish, as long as the fillets are basically the same size and thickness. Try Pacific halibut, wild Alaskan salmon or striped bass.

4 fillets of sea bass or other thick-cut whitefish (5 to 6 ounces each), one side with skin

2 small carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch julienne

1 leek (white and light green part only), cut into 1/4-inch rings and washed

1 small fennel bulb, sliced into 1/4-inch julienne

2 teaspoons lemon zest

About 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 fresh thyme sprigs

1/4 cup white wine

Salt and pepper

1 lightly beaten egg white

Oil

Cut a 12-by-15-inch sheet of parchment paper into a heart shape and fold in half to make a crease down the center. Unfold paper and place fillet in center of one section of the heart, skin side facing up. Top with one quarter of carrot, leek, fennel and lemon zest, a few dots of butter, a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Brush edge of heart with egg white, fold paper in half, and press edges together to seal. Brush edges of folded package with egg white. Make a series of short folds along edge. Repeat until a neat, sealed package is formed. With a pastry brush, apply a light layer of oil to the top of the package. Repeat to make three more packages.

Place papillotes on a cookie sheet and bake in preheated 475-degree oven until puffed up, about 7 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness of the fish. Transfer each packet to a warmed plate. Encourage each person to slice open the paper package with a knife and enjoy the aromas that emerge. Caution: There may be a lot of hot steam inside the packet.

Makes 4 servings.

Mussels with garlic, lemon and parsley

1½ pounds mussels, washed and debearded (ask your fish seller to do this)

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

3/4 cup dry white wine

Juice of 1½ lemons

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/3 cup Italian parsley, chopped

Baguette

Put mussels, garlic and wine in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and steam over high heat until the mussels are all open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Discard any unopened mussels.

Remove from pan and keep warm. Over medium heat, reduce remaining liquid by about half, 5 to 8 minutes. Add lemon juice and butter. When butter melts, stir in parsley. Divide mussels into four shallow bowls and pour equal amounts of liquid over each bowl. Serve with torn hunks of fresh baguette. Makes 4 servings.

Ceviche

1 pound albacore tuna loin (or other white-fleshed skinless fish fillets, such as flounder or sole), cut into 1/4- to ½-inch cubes

Salt

1 cup fresh lime juice (about 10 limes)

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 large ripe tomato, cubed

1 or 2 fresh yellow or green chilies, seeded and chopped fine

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

3 scallions, chopped into 1/4-inch rings

Pepper

Crisp lettuce leaves, such as romaine, for serving In a non-reactive bowl, soak the fish in lightly salted water for 1 hour to tenderize. Pour off the salted water. Carefully add the lime juice and garlic, making sure the fish is fully immersed in the lime juice (add more if not). Cover and refrigerate for several hours, until the fish is not raw on the inside. Pour off the juices.

In another bowl, mix together the tomato, chilies to taste, cilantro and scallion. Add the fish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with leaves of lettuce, using the leaves as spoons to pick up and wrap around the ceviche.

Makes 6 servings as an appetizer.

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