Fish seems to come in two varieties these days: nearly extinct and terrifyingly toxic. Is there any hope for a good-hearted fish-and-seafood lover? Actually, lots.
(page 1 of 3)Do you know where all the live tilapia for the Hong Kong expat community in Vancouver comes from? Renville, Minnesota—a little town off Highway 212 about halfway between Shakopee and South Dakota, in sugar-beet country. And pretty much all the live tilapia in Toronto and Calgary comes out of Renville, too—hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish. “We ship them in water that stays warm all the way to Vancouver, though there’s only a certain amount of time before the quality of the water changes for fish respiration,” Mel Stocks, one of the founders of MinAqua, the outfit that raises the tilapia, told me. “So we send two drivers.”
MinAqua is actually a co-operative. It’s owned by more than 300 farmers, mostly sugar-beet farmers, who were looking for a way to use the excess heat generated by their beet-processing plant. They figured out they could use that heat as a way to warm ponds, and the rest of it was easy: Tilapia are vegetarians, so the Renville farmers could raise the feed themselves, and the waste the fish generate is a lot cleaner than, say, hog waste, so they use it to fertilize their fields. That’s how a bunch of Minnesota sugar-beet farmers became major tilapia producers—super-green ones at that.
If you’ve followed the bad news about fish lately, information like this is manna from heaven. An Earth-friendly fish, right here, right now? Well, not exactly: Walk into the usual places where green-minded people shop, like co-ops, and you won’t find a single Minnesota-raised tilapia. Every fillet in the store will be from Ecuador. Or Honduras. Or Costa Rica. Why? Labor costs for filleting are cheaper down there. So the most environmentally minded Twin Cities consumers chow down on tilapia flown in from the equator, while Minnesota tilapia races off on trucks to the good people of Vancouver.
Yup. That’s the story of fish in the year 2008.
If you haven’t followed the bad news about fish lately, things are bad: The general prediction is that every single species currently fished will collapse by 2048. Yes, every one. Everything—literally everything—we eat that swims in the ocean will soon reach endangered-species levels, with less than 10 percent of their populations remaining. Until then, everything we eat that lives for a long time and is carnivorous—big tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, and so on—seems to be getting more and more polluted with mercury. Earlier this year, the New York Times made a big splash reporting that five out of 20 New York City sushi bars and groceries were carrying bluefin tuna with such high concentrations of methylmercury that the FDA should have pulled them off the shelves. What the article didn’t note is that only two of the 20 samples would have been deemed safe to eat in Europe.
Worse, any Minnesota fish-eater who looks at the news about big carnivores like tuna will think: You know what else is a carnivore? Walleye. The people who come up with the Minnesota Department of Health’s fish-consumption advisory say that you should treat restaurant walleye the same way you would regard any local lake-caught fish. Men, and women who never plan on becoming pregnant or are past their childbearing years, should consume no more than one six-ounce portion a week. Children, and women in their childbearing years, should consume no more than one six-ounce portion a month. And a six-ounce portion is a heck of a lot less than most restaurants serve.
You want more bad news? Asian, especially Chinese, farmed fish—which until recently accounted for 20 percent of all fish Americans ate—is terrifying: The FDA banned 5 species of Chinese fish earlier this year after imports were consistently found to contain antibiotics, carcinogens, and veterinary drugs. Meanwhile, most farmed salmon—pretty much everything we eat that’s not explicitly labeled “wild-caught”—destroys bays and decimates wild salmon populations through disease.
Are you weeping yet? Are you rending your garments and consigning yourself to a future diet of algae pellets wrapped in kelp? Not so fast. I spent the last month of my life neck-deep in conversations with experts, fisherpeople, vendors, and nonprofit environmental watchdogs, and made myself bleary-eyed and bloodshot reading PDFs of reports from the Blue Ocean Institute, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and more. Why? Because I wanted to assemble the once-and-for-all Gold-Star List of sustainable, nontoxic, happy, healthy, tasty seafood that you could eat guilt-free in Minnesota. It’s a list that reflects the fish that’s available here—because the fish we have here is different than the fish anywhere else on earth. For instance, don’t bother going out this weekend looking for Marine Stewardship Council–approved fish like the Loch Torridon nephrops. You won’t find it. And don’t go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium website looking for the straight dope on Lake Superior herring—they don’t have it. But we do! So without further adieu: delicious fish and seafood—the greenest of the green, cleanest of the clean—that you can eat right here, right now.