Fishing for Clarity

All autumn long, seafood lovers have been subjected to a tug of war that won't quit. While one side is praising its health benefits and putting your fork to your mouth, another is pulling the other way, warning about contaminants and environmental impact.

In mid-October, two prominent reports were released, focusing on weighing the health benefits and risks of eating seafood. On one hand, there are the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids to consider; on the other, there are the toxins, particularly mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Depending on the source, advice for seafood lovers has been all over the map, creating mass confusion over what to eat, how much or to even eat it at all.

In fact, both reports -- one from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the other released by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) -- acknowledge the confusion and the need to help consumers at the seafood counter.

In the introductory chapter of its 200-plus-page report, the IOM states: "Considering the recommendations and suggestions to increase seafood intake to promote cardiovascular health, and the somewhat conflicting messages to avoid certain fish, consumers and health professionals may feel confused regarding the healthfulness of consuming seafood."

The JAMA report also states in its abstract: "Fish may have health benefits and also contain contaminants, resulting in confusion over the role of fish consumption in a healthy diet."

Overall, the IOM report is more reserved in its conclusions, asking for more research in several areas as well as coordination among federal agencies in communicating a unified message to consumers. It acknowledges research gaps, such as inconsistencies on advice in relation to portion sizes. "For example, the FDA/US EPA fish advisory uses a 6-ounce serving size whereas nutritional advice from some government agencies uses a 3-ounce serving size," the report states.

Conversely, the JAMA report is more numerical, stating that "modest consumption of fish (1-2 servings per week) reduces risk of coronary death by 36 percent." In the abstract, the report specifies fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, not all fish in general, as key to the aforementioned percentage. However, in its conclusion, the report is less specific, stating that "the benefits of modest fish consumption (1-2 servings/wk) outweigh the risks among adults."

So, pretty simple, right? Eat more fish and you'll help your heart. Don't worry about mercury, because the risk is much lower than the benefits.

Reaction to both reports has been mixed, with concerns over environmental impact, contaminants other than mercury and a so-called green-light message being sent to consumers. Below, comments from several organizations focusing on marine conservation and seafood sustainability.

Environmental Impact

According to Gerry Leape, vice president for marine conservation at the National Environment Trust, the IOM report "ignores the environmental impacts on wild and farmed fish resulting from increased consumption of seafood."

"This is a real disappointment," continues Leape, "given that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sponsored the report, is also the federal agency charged with managing the country's marine fisheries."

The IOM report, says George Leonard, science manager for the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, "shortchanges the public's ability to deal with complex issues."

"Our experience has been that there's a large body of the population that is saying, 'give me the facts, give me the details.' They're willing to learn about the costs and benefits of eating seafood. But to turn this message into 'just eat seafood' is to oversimplify it."

Leonard did some calculations on the impact that eating seafood -- as recommended by the IOM -- would have on the global seafood supply.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. annual per capita consumption of seafood in 2004 was 16.6 pounds per person, up from 14.8 pounds per person in 2001.

Leonard calculated that two 3-ounce portions per week (as recommended by the IOM report), multiplied by 52 weeks equals 312 ounces per person per year -- which translates into 19.5 pounds per person. That figure is shy of three additional pounds per person per year or a 17.5 percent increase of seafood consumption.

Becky Goldburg, senior scientist at Environmental Defense, argues that "If we don't think of the sustainability of our seafood purchases, we may not have any fish to speak of."

Just two weeks after the release of the IOM and JAMA reports, the "no more fish to speak of" is the theme of yet another paper, published in the journal Science. The gist: At the going rate of overfishing, pollution and consumption, the world fish supply may run out by 2048.

Okay, so what now? Should we pay heed to this very pessimistic news and have our last shrimp cocktail while we still can? Or is this just a scare tactic by the environmentalists?

The situation is undoubtedly dire, says Brian Halweil, a senior reseacher at Worldwatch Institute, but not insurmountable.

"We've known this for a long time," says Halweil, of the threat of fish extinction. "This collapse will occur if we continue as we are now. But, he argued, "we don't have to give up seafood to save fish in the oceans."

Days after the release of the Science paper, Halweil published a paper entitled "Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans." The key for consumers, he writes, is not "to eat less fish but to eat less of certain kinds of fish, and more of others."

Translated, that means holding off from the top three seafood favorites in this country -- shrimp, tuna and salmon -- and exploring less popular species such as mussels, oysters, clams, squid, sardines, anchovies, tilapia, catfish and carp.

The reason for diversifying the seafood buffet? Check tomorrow's blog for more from my interview with Halweil, plus the lowdown on contaminants, the deal with canned tuna and strategies for staying informed.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 28, 2006; 1:09 PM ET Food Politics , Seafood
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

What a great and informative piece! Thanks for making this easier to understand. I love all seafood, but I'll be more occasional in my consumption of shrimp, tuna, and salmon from here on out.

Posted by: Rita | November 28, 2006 2:44 PM

Kim, I thought that eating canned salmon is OK, although I don't understand why it would be different from other salmon. I eat fish six or eight times a month. I'll switch to sardine pitas instead of tuna for lunches, and I'll eat more tilapia in the evenings. I think I'll avoid anchovies because of salt content, but I'll give catfish and carp, neither of which I've ever tasted, a try ... IF you'll blog some really fast recipes!!

Posted by: Sharon | November 28, 2006 4:56 PM

I think humanity's stubborn state of denial regarding our carnivorous, voracious, insatiable appetite for meat has blinded us of even the most obvious warning signs, like mercury poisoning in our food. Maybe we are just more interested in K-fed and Brittany's scandelous divorce than we are with facing our addictions. But we are almost at the point where we can't ignore the consequences of our actions, because sooner than later, there won't be any more fish to speak of.

Posted by: M. C. Barnes | November 29, 2006 6:52 PM

Thank you for valuable information.

Posted by: Italiak1 | October 21, 2008 1:19 PM

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