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.
Don’t look for these on any international or national lists. These are the super-secret, sustainable, super-tasty fish from Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Star Prairie Trout
Provenance: Western Wisconsin
A lot of U.S. trout farms are polluting hives of sick, antibiotic treated fish. Not Star Prairie! Why? Good, cold Wisconsin water. Star Prairie, located just north of Hudson, is essentially 30 ponds fed by a 49-degree natural spring. Factory trout farming is done in water that’s a lot warmer, and factory trout grow a lot quicker. But good news for you, the rainbow trout that emerge from Star Prairie’s chilly waters are sweeter and more complex than their domestic cousins, and because the spring water flows so swiftly, they are nonpolluting and never need antibiotics. Star Prairie fish can be found at Twin Cities restaurants, co-ops, and farmers’ markets. (Unless you drive out there and catch them yourself—which is fun. If you go, they’ll even provide the fishing pole.) Availability: direct from Star Prairie; Coastal Seafoods; local co-ops, such as the Wedge; farmers’ markets.
Provenance: Central Minnesota
Any and all live tilapia in the Twin Cities will have come from MinAqua or another Minnesota tilapia farm located in Lonsdale. Tilapia fillets are both loved and hated because they’re essentially a blank canvas: They just taste like whatever has been done to them. Not so for on-the-bone tilapia, which tends to have a meatier, more perch-like taste. One word of warning: Whole frozen tilapia in the Twin Cities usually comes from Asia, and can have a muddy taste. Availability: Any place you see a live tilapia tank, mainly Asian restaurants and grocery stores.
Provenance: Lake Superior
Lake Superior lake herring is a clean-tasting, brisk, sweet, lively little fish that’s popping up more and more in Twin Cities restaurants and local specialty shops such as Coastal Seafoods. It’s also a mainstay of North Shore restaurants like the Angry Trout and markets like Dockside. If you see any lake herring—on the menu or at the market—order with joy. These swimmers are planktivores, meaning that they subsist almost entirely on a diet of teeny-tiny crustaceans, which makes them very sweet and a good choice when you want to avoid mercury and PCBs. Availability: Restaurants and markets along the North Shore; increasingly available at Twin Cities restaurants; Coastal Seafoods from April to November.
THE GOOD GULF
Hooray for American ingenuity and the Environmental Protection Agency! Most fish farmed in the American South are as green as it gets: sustainable, nonpolluting, and nontoxic.
Provenance: Southeast United States
Nearly 600 million pounds of catfish are raised every year in big, shallow ponds in places like Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. The catfish are raised on a diet of mostly soy, and very little of their waste makes it out of their ponds and into wild habitat. The ponds even serve as peaceful wintering grounds for migrating ducks and birds. Availability: many local restaurants; Lunds and Byerly’s.
Provenance: Louisiana, Oregon
Crayfish are ecological super-stars, as they’re raised without any feed at all. To grow crayfish, you basically flood a field and make a swamp; the microscopic critters that accompany the field’s degradation provides the crayfish’s food. Scoop up the crayfish, drain the field, let it dry, and you’re ready for another crayfish season. The flooded fields also provide habitat for wading birds, like egrets and herons, whose numbers have been helped by crayfish farms. Availability: specialty markets such as Coastal Seafoods; via websites such as lacrawfish.com; Kowalski’s (special order); Lunds and Byerly’s.
Mussels, Clams, Oysters
Provenance: United States, Canada
Oysters, clams, and mussels from the United States and Canada aren’t just tasty, they actually improve the oceans and bays where they’re farmed. They’re “filter feeders,” meaning they eat the algae they sift out of ocean water. Nowadays, there tends to be too much algae because of all the fertilizer runoff, but oysters, mussels, and clams do what they can to eat our problem for us—while turning themselves into adorable appetizers. If you’re wondering how to distinguish between farmed and wild clams, oysters, and mussels, don’t sweat it: Wild-caught versions of those three are almost never seen in Minnesota. Availability: local restaurants; Coastal Seafoods; Kowalski’s; Lunds and Byerly’s.
Provenance: United States
Except for the absolute cheapest imported Asian king crab (oh, those tempting buffets!), pretty much all of the crabs you’ll find in Minnesota—dungeness, U.S. king, stone, and blue—come from sustainable fisheries in the United States. Also: Imitation crab, sometimes called surimi, and found in things like California rolls, gets the green light. Availability: Local restaurants; Coastal Seafoods; Kowalski’s; Whole Foods.
These fish are most often seen on the menus of Minnesota restaurants.
Wild Halibut & Salmon
Provenance: Alaska, Pacific Northwest
The salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, and especially in Oregon and Alaska, are considered to be among the world’s best-managed. The fishers there are conservation-minded in a first-world way; they’re protecting their investments—and their livelihood. Ditto for those who fish wild-caught halibut. Atlantic halibut is overfished, but it’s rare to see it in the Twin Cities, so don’t worry about it. Availability: local restaurants; Kowalski’s; Lunds and Byerly’s; Whole Foods.
Provenance: Atlantic Coast
Essentially the salmon of the East, striped bass are big, migrating fish that spawn in rivers and live out their lives in the ocean. Here in the Twin Cities, you’ll find two varieties: wild-caught, mainly from the Atlantic, and farmed, from inland pens. Both are considered sustainable and as green as fish gets, though wild-caught can have elevated mercury levels. Chefs prize bass because the skin cooks up crisp while the flesh stays dewy and tender. Availability: Local restaurants; Coastal Seafoods; via special order at Lunds and Byerly’s.
Provenance: Iceland, Canada, Scandinavia
As its name suggests, arctic char is native to polar regions. Is the Nordic connection the reason it’s so prevalent in the Twin Cities? I have no idea, but I do know it’s considered an exotic and obscure fish in the rest of the country, but it’s everywhere here. To raise arctic char, farms use a minimal amount of meal. Moreover, I’ve always really like it; it’s buttery and clean tasting. Availability: local restaurants; Coastal Seafoods.
Provenance: United States
Barramundi is an Australian species of which you’ll be seeing more and more, because, like tilapia, it can be farmed easily, and, like tilapia, it eats a largely vegetarian diet. However, unlike tilapia, barramundi grow up to be really fat, big, tender fish, the kind that chefs get excited about cooking. All the barramundi you’ll see in Minnesota is farmed. Availability: local restaurants; Coastal Seafoods; Kowalski’s (special order).
JARRED & CANNED
Did you know Minnesota lake herring caviar is so prized that almost none of it stays in the U.S.? It’s true, it’s all harvested and immediately flown off to Scandinavia. The Scandinavians also take pretty much all of Lake Superior’s whitefish roe, and the Greeks take all our carp roe. But just because Europeans have snatched up our precious treasure doesn’t mean things have to continue that way. Rise up, Twin Cities residents, and demand that our local treasures stay in town!
That said, feel free to eat as much domestic caviar, sardines, anchovies, wild Alaskan salmon, kippers, and herring as you like. The tuna maze is daunting. It’s nearly impossible to tell what’s in those cans, or how it was caught. The canned tuna with the lowest mercury levels is “canned light,” because it’s usually made with skipjack, the smallest, least mercury-saturated tuna, though “canned light” can be made with yellowtail. A good rule of thumb is to look for the cheapest “dolphin-safe” tuna on the shelf, because inside is skipjack.
The rest of the story:
There are lots of other species that fall into vaguely greenish areas. If you really want to eat lobster, swordfish, or yellowtail (ahi) tuna, do your own research and consult your own moral compass. The issues involving those fish are too thorny for me to feel comfortable giving advice. But I’ll be eating easier with this list, and I hope you will, too.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.