Seafood is usually a win-win in our book. It's both delicious and nutritious, as fish are a source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids that benefit your heart and brain. They also provide necessary minerals and vitamins, such as zinc, iron, and B vitamins. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends you eat seafood twice a week for a balanced diet.
However, you might be concerned about sustainability or have heard warnings about fish with high levels of mercury, a toxic metal that can lead to neurological and kidney damage. Mercury exposure is especially dangerous to pregnant women and developing children, as it can cause birth defects. As a general rule, larger fish have higher levels of mercury, since more time has allowed for the chemical to accumulate in their bodies. Unfortunately, cleaning or cooking methods will not remove mercury from fish. Sometimes making healthy choices for both yourself and the planet isn't simple, but there are plenty of resources out there to help.
Seafood Watch, a program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has combed through data from health organizations and environmental groups to come up with easy-to-understand recommendations for seafood harvested all over the globe. Look for their "Best Choices" labeled in green on the site. They even have an app, so you can pull out your phone and research easily when you're at a restaurant or in the seafood section of the grocery store.
Another easy way to identify good picks is to look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council label when you're shopping—it identifies certified sustainable seafood. The Safina Center, an ecology-focused non-profit organization, also offers a listing of sustainability ratings and detailed information on specific fish, while the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) provides up-to-date mercury notices. And what if you eat fish caught by family or friends or that you've caught yourself? Look for fish advisories put out by local health or fish and game departments.
For the best (and healthiest) seafood on the planet, look no further than this list. You can use it as a cheat sheet to reference common types of fish that you can feel good about eating. We've also provided some examples of fish that are best kept off your plate.
6 Fish to Enjoy
1. Albacore and Skipjack Tuna
Albacore tuna is a safe choice as long as it is troll- or pole-caught in the Atlantic or Pacific. The smaller skipjack tuna is a "Best Choice" when it is troll- or pole-caught in the East Pacific. Know your labels: The EDF says that adults can safely eat canned "white" or "albacore" tuna up to three times per month due to moderate mercury levels. Canned "light" tuna, made with skipjack, is OK to eat more often—once a week—but keep in mind that many catch methods for this fish are not as environmentally friendly. Avoid imported albacore tuna caught using other methods, as these typically have high bycatch (accidentally catching other types of fish or marine life) of vulnerable species.
Try it in our Tuna and Fruit Salsa
2. Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon
Generally, salmon are resilient to overfishing given their short reproductive cycle. However, they are vulnerable to habitat loss. Given Alaska's largely untouched natural resources, all species of salmon thrive there, according to seafood sustainability experts. Biologists use sonar and underwater video technology to count the numbers of wild fish returning to spawn. If the numbers begin to dwindle, the fishery is closed before it reaches its limits. This close monitoring, along with strict quotas and careful management of water quality, means wild-caught Alaskan salmon are both healthier and more sustainable than just about any other salmon fishery. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has up-to-the-minute information on wild salmon supply.
Try it in our Roasted Salmon with Tomatoes and Corn
3. Farmed Oysters
The health benefits of oysters are many: One serving can contain anywhere from 500 to 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s and over 40 percent of the recommended daily values of iron, according to the National Institutes of Health. Oysters feed off the natural nutrients and algae in the water, which improves water quality. They can also act as natural reefs, attracting and providing food for other fish. One important health note: Be cautious when eating raw oysters, especially those from warmer waters, as they may contain bacteria that can cause serious illnesses. People with diabetes, cancer, liver disease, or weakened immune systems are at higher risk. If you're unsure, talk to your doctor—or simply enjoy them fully cooked.
Try it in our Baja-Style Oysters
4. Salmon Farmed in Closed Tank Systems
Improvements in salmon farming have made closed tanks for common species—Atlantic, Coho, and Chinook—a better option than farms that use net pens. (One notable exception is Chinook salmon farmed in New Zealand net pens.) Closed tanks produce less runoff waste and pose a lower risk of disease and escape into wild populations. And the fact that they're farm-raised salmon doesn't impact the health benefits—they'll still pack just as much omega-3s per 3-ounce serving. Be cautious of the type of salmon you're buying: Almost all Atlantic salmon is now farmed, but only a very small percentage is actually raised in closed tanks. Look for labels that say "land-based" or "tank-based."
Try it in our Coffee-Rubbed Salmon Sandwiches
5. Farmed Rainbow Trout
Nearly all the trout you will find at your nearest supermarket is farmed rainbow trout. In the U.S., rainbow trout are farmed primarily in freshwater ponds and concrete raceways, intended to imitate a flowing river. Trout farming in the U.S. is strictly regulated, which limits the amount of chemicals and wild fish that can be used. Since these farms are contained, they are more protected from contaminants than wild species—making mercury levels low for this fish. The EDF says people of all ages can eat rainbow trout four times per month, if desired.
Try it in our Lemon and Herb Grilled Trout Sandwiches
Sometimes called black cod (even though it is not a type of cod), the sablefish is rated a "Best Choice" by both the EDF and Seafood Watch. Innovative fishery management has ensured that sablefish harvesting does not accidentally capture vulnerable species. Several sablefish fisheries carry the blue MSC label, so keep an eye out. Sablefish is oily and thus a good source of vitamins A and D. Mercury levels are moderate, so children 12 years and under should only eat two servings per month, while adults can have four or more.
Swap sablefish for halibut in our Fish with Eggplant Pepperonata
6 Fish to Skip
1. Bluefin and Bigeye Tuna
The large bluefin tuna is strongly in the "best to avoid" category. It's an endangered species, alongside tigers, rhinos, and blue whales, the World Widlife Fund says. Demand for this valuable type of tuna—one fish has sold for over $700,000—has led to extreme overfishing and illegal fishing. Despite their status as a delicacy, bluefin tuna have high levels of mercury and PCBs, so they should be avoided. Bigeye tuna is becoming a concern, too, as populations are overfished in many areas. Many of the methods used to catch them hook bluefin as bycatch, in addition to other endangered species such as turtles and sharks.
2. Chilean Sea Bass (AKA Patagonian Toothfish)
Buttery Chilean sea bass has been fished to near depletion in its native cold Antarctic waters. Some populations are healthy, but the methods used to catch them often hook other species, including threatened species of albatross and other seabirds. If you do purchase this fish, look for one that is MSC-certified. The EDF has issued a consumption advisory about sea bass nutrition due to high mercury levels: Adults should eat no more than two servings per month and children ages 12 and younger should eat it no more than once a month.
High mercury levels in these large fish have caused the EDF to issue a consumption advisory. Groupers can live many years but reproduce slowly, making them vulnerable to overfishing. Their unusual mating patterns don't help—they come together in large schools, which makes them an easy target. Bycatch is also a problem for grouper fisheries. The good news: New management plans aim to rebuild grouper populations.
4. Marlin and Swordfish
Marlins are easily distinguishable by their pointed fins and long, sharp bills. They are often caught unintentionally in the harvesting of other types of fish. The swordfish, another common billfish, faces problems as well. Although catching swordfish with harpoons or handlines is an ecologically sound method, most other catch tactics are not. Due to their very high mercury levels, the EDF recommends that women (especially pregnant women) and children steer clear of both marlin and swordfish consumption.
5. Orange Roughy
Like grouper, this New Zealand fish lives a long life (up to 120 years!) but it is slow to reproduce, making this species vulnerable to overfishing. Also of concern is the impact bottom trawling for this fish has on sensitive deep-sea corals. Its long lifetime means it has high levels of mercury, causing the EDF to issue a health advisory.
Although sardines are low in mercury and reproduce quickly, they are subject to population swings. The U.S. Pacific sardine fishery has been closed for the past three years to allow low population levels to rebuild. Keep an eye out for updates on when the sardine stock is healthy again, as these tiny fish are health powerhouses. In the meantime, avoid Atlantic sardines from the Mediterranean as well, as they are being depleted due to overfishing.
Catch of the Day: Our Favorite Fish Recipes
Put the healthiest fish to good use in these delicious seafood suppers: