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Good Fish, Bad Fish: A Consumer Guide

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

CHADWICK: Got fish?

BRAND: Yeah, but does it have Omega 3 fatty acids?

CHADWICK: Huh?

BRAND: You know, that's the good stuff. Makes your heart healthy. But you know, a lot of fish also has mercury - not so good.

CHADWICK: Okay, well now there's an updated list of the good, the bad, and the scaly - compiled by scientists at the Oceans Alive project of Environmental Defense, and NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, reporting:

What's good for the environment and good for your health, may not always excite your taste buds. Take for instance, oily, strong-flavored fish such as Atlantic Mackerel.

TIM FITZGERALD (Environmental Defense): I think it's fairly available if you're looking for it. I just don't think that, right now, many people are big on mackerel.

AUBREY: That's Tim Fitzgerald of the group, Environmental Defense. He says it's too bad that mackerel and other fishy fish, such as sardines and anchovies are not more popular because his group ranks them as best choices. Not only are they high in heart-healthy, Omega 3 fatty acids, they also have low levels of mercury. As a general rule of thumb, Fitzgerald says that the seafood that makes the best choices list, are typically small in size.

Mr. FITZGERALD: So if it's something like a shark or a marlin or a swordfish, anything with big teeth, is going to have many levels of quote unquote “food chain below it.” And so every time you go up a level in the food chain you're accumulating the level of mercury in the fish.

AUBREY: Beyond metal contamination, Fitzgerald's team also considers basic fish biology. Species that reproduce young and grow quickly, are good candidates. One fish new to the best choices list this year, is canned wild Alaskan salmon.

FITZGERALD: We felt that a lot of consumers weren't really aware of that fact that canned salmon was not only a good environmental choice, but it's also very high in Omega 3's and low in contaminants. So it's one of what we like to call our super fish.

AUBREY: Environmental Defense prints its full list of the best and worst choices on a wallet size card. Listed among the worst are marlin, Chilean sea bass, monkfish and orange roughy. There definitely are instances where fish are high in Omega 3's and likely to have health benefits, but turn up on the worst list due to over-fishing concerns. Blue fin tuna is a good example. Fitzgerald says it's in very high demand in Asia.

Mr. FITZGERALD: Which drives very irresponsible fishing in both major oceans, and there's reports of the Atlantic Ocean blue fin population being commercially extinct in a number of years, if the management of it isn't changed.

AUBREY: Most consumers don't pay too much attention to the politics of over-fishing, so environmental groups like Fitzgerald's are hoping to gain the public's attention with the seafood selection lists by focusing on the nutrition side as well. The message they'd like consumers to hear, is:

Mr. FITZGERALD: You can find fish that are good for the environment and good for you.

AUBREY: The environmentalist's best and worst seafood lists are not without detractors. The U.S. Tuna Foundation is not a big fan. President Anne Forristall Luke, argues that Blue fin tuna does not deserve its place on the worst list. And she says canned tuna, despite not showing up at all, remains a good option.

Ms. ANNE FORRISTALL LUKE (President, U.S. Tuna Foundation): Canned tuna belongs on everybody's best list. It is a very high quality, low calorie protein source, rich in vitamins and minerals. Especially Omega 3 fatty acids, which are very heart healthy.

AUBREY: For seafood lovers looking to try something different, Tim Fitzgerald says one fish that makes the best choices list, is Alaskan Sable Fish. Which shows up on restaurant menus as black cod. Environmentalists are working with seafood purchasers to adopt standards that promote more of these best choices. Industry leaders include, the Wegman's Grocery chain and Bon Apetit, which operates corporate and university cafeterias. As for making fishy-fish, such as sardines, more palatable, Tim Fitzgerald recommends grilling them. In his opinion, it adds a nice smoky flavor. Allison Aubrey NPR News, Washington.

CHADWICK: And online alert, you can find a link to the Oceans Alive list of good and bad fish choices, and a guide to just how much mercury is in tuna. That's at our website, NPR dot org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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