The Earth’s oceans have become a treasure trove for everything from new antibiotics and potential anti-cancer drugs to wrinkle-plumping peptides and marine-based exfoliants. You can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper without reading about the virtues of eating fish. The ocean, it appears, is Mother Nature’s organic pharmacy.
Ironically, we seem to be caught between wanting our oceans to remain pristine ecosystems yet calls from experts to increase fish consumption are steadily growing louder. To learn more about how the industry is balancing global supply issues with ecological responsibility, I flew to Norway – one of the world’s largest suppliers of both wild and farmed fish – to learn more.
A grey, rainy Monday found me on the shores of Bergen, Norway where my research began. I had many questions and, fortunately, a host of credentialed researchers to help me sort the facts. These experts included Dr. Dariush Mozafarian, MD, PhD, Co-Director, Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health; Livar Froyland, PhD, National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research, and Harald Sveier, PhD, Technical Manager, Lerøy Seafood Group.
In recent years, technology has rapidly advanced in the area of aquaculture, and I wanted to find out if the media, consumer advocacy groups and “thought leaders” have been basing their comments about farmed fish on outdated science and unverified sources. Following are highlights from my interviews and discussions with my esteemed colleagues.
Issue: Many grocery stores across the U.S. are taking farmed fish off the shelves. Is this truly substantiated or a response based on inaccurate, negative perceptions?
Findings: All farmed fish are not created equal. Cage design, site selection, selective breeding, veterinary care and feed content vary from country to country; however, according to the World Wildlife Fund, Norway is ranked number one, based on its compliance with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) code of conduct for responsible fishing. In Norway, both large producers and the smallest family-run farms meet strict environmental standards. Notably, the FAO hopes global aquaculture yields will double in 15 years to help meet human food needs.
Findings: In Norway, laws stipulate that cages be comprised of 97% water and 3% fish, allowing salmon room to swim, grow and jump, just as they do in the wild. To see for myself, I visited a salmon farm to examine the pens and was profoundly surprised to view, via underwater camera, spacious pens containing vigorously swimming fish in pristine, unpolluted water. Technical experts closely monitored the fish as shepherds would watch their flock. It was an impressive sight and one that gives me complete confidence to enjoy farmed fish from Norway.
Issue: Fish health, vaccines and antibiotics are contentious topics in the media. With advances in aquaculture, how are fish kept healthy and safe for consumption?
Findings: Good preventive measures have dramatically reduced the use of antibiotics. Better vaccines, cost-effective operations and farms located in pristine fjords have radically improved fish health. In Norway, it is mandatory that fish in each of a farm’s installations be checked on a regular basis. Here, fish farms thrive under the watchful eye of scientists and ecologists.
Issue: For years, there’s been the perception that farmed salmon is toxic, full of PCBs and mercury. True or false?
Findings: This is a huge misperception. The most current research shows that there is no probable or convincing evidence that mercury in farmed salmon will have a negative effect on the general population. There are no recommendations whatsoever for the general population to avoid or limit fish intake due to concerns about this issue. In regard to dioxins, the industry has reduced emissions by greater than 90% since 1977. Bottom line: the risk of NOT eating fish is far higher than limiting fish consumption. Pregnant? There are only four species that should be avoided. These include Tilefish, Shark, Swordfish and King Mackerel. Pregnant women should still eat up to 12 ounces of fish per week, due to the essential omega-3 fatty acid requirements of the developing fetus.
Issue: Fish feed enhances the color of farmed salmon, making it more orange/red than that of wild salmon. What’s in the feed that has this effect, and is this additive natural or synthetic?
Findings: Astaxanthin has primarily been used in the feed industry to make farmed salmon a richer pink color. It is a completely natural nutrition component; it’s a carotenoid. Recently, astaxanthin gained momentum in the human dietary supplements market and is being promoted as a functional food ingredient.
Traditional Norwegian lunch
Issue: To eat farmed salmon or not to eat farmed salmon. That is the question.
Findings: The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that 80 percent of cardiac arrests, 90 percent of type 2 diabetes and 30 per cent of cancer occurrences could be prevented with better diets and regular exercise. To realize any health benefit, you need to eat a minimum of 2 servings (8 ounces) oily fish per week. As I see it, it can be life-threatening not to eat salmon; I’d choose farmed salmon over beef any day. Further, if we take fish off the menu, we will likely eat more red meat, chicken and pork. The environmental costs of producing more livestock are much higher than farming fish with ecologically sound regulations and standards.
Open face sardine sandwiches
Issue: Many of my clients ask me about balancing the risks and benefits of eating fish. What does the most recent scientifically-based evidence support?
Findings: Eating fish is the first line of defense in preventing sudden death from heart attack. The positive effects of a high intake of fish are mainly related to the long chain, omega-3 fatty acids called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These make veins more elastic, prevent blood clots, reduce blood pressure and stabilize heart rhythms. DHA plays a particularly important role during fetal development; DHA increases 300-500% in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy, and since these store are begin taken from the mother, it’s imperative that she eat at least 8 – 12 ounces of fish weekly. In old age, our bodies form less DHA and EPA which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Eating oily fish may also help stave off or lessen the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia. Last, omega-3 fatty acids may be an excellent choice for preventing certain inflammatory diseases. By acting as anti-inflammatory agents, omega-3s may be able to decrease disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis, lung fibrosis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Issue: What are the best source of DHA and EPA?
Findings: The best sources of DHA and EPA are oily fish (i.e., salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies). While there’s no current recommended daily amount for DHA and EPA, your goal should be to consumer 250 mg/day. Three ounces of salmon provides 1,130 mg; three ounces of mackerel provides 1,120 mg and Three ounces of light tuna canned in water provides 230 mg.
As was evident from my trip, Norwegian farmed fish is among the best in the world. The Norwegians have linked responsible fisheries with food security, secure maritime boarders and stable coastal communities. A connection between good governance and responsible fish farming makes me confident to put farmed Norwegian fish on my table. Where to find it? Whole Foods and Costco carry fresh Norwegian fish and most supermarkets carry smoked and cured (http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0818771.html) Norwegian salmon varieties. Remember, not all farmed fish is created equal, but that should not stop us from eating fish, especially those rich in omega-3s.
Norwegian Honey-Mustard Marinated Salmon with Apples
This delicious yet simple recipe is a wonderful way to satisfy your EPA and DHA requirements!
Makes 2 servings
2, 8-ounce salmon fillets, skin on
2 T good quality olive oil
1 T honey
2 T Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T lemon juice
1 large apple, peeled, seeded and cored
2 T unsalted butter
1 large sprig rosemary
Rinse the fish under cold water and pat dry. Set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, honey, mustard, garlic and lemon juice. Place the fish in the bowl, skin side up, and let it marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. While the fish is marinating, preheat the oven to 375°F. Next, slice the apple into eight wedges. Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium high heat, and add the apples and rosemary sprig, cooking the apples for about seven minutes or until tender. Remove the pan from the heat and discard the rosemary sprig. When the fish is ready, transfer it to a baking dish lined with aluminum foil, and place it skin side down. Bake the fish for 15 minutes or until the flesh flakes easily with a fork. Season the fish with salt, plate each fillet with four apple slices and serve immediately. Complementary sides include wild rice and sautéed rapini or asparagus.