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The Food Love's Guide: Good Catch

Finding a fish whose provenance isn’t, well, fishy can be as tricky as hooking one yourself. Here we share some guidelines on reeling in a sustainable supper

Eating fish is good for you (all those omega-3 fatty acids!) when it’s not bad for you (the mercury!). The per capita consumption of seafood in Greater Los Angeles is twice that of the rest of the country. We’re a health-conscious lot—greedy about our  sushi—and we have a high percentage of immigrants for whom fish is a staple. Yet confusion runs rampant when it comes to eating responsibly: choosing fish that aren’t endangered through overfishing and have been caught with as little collateral damage to the environment as possible. By now you know to lay off endangered species: Chilean sea bass is over. But do you have any idea of the percentage of sea creatures inadvertently caught (known as “by catch”) that were sacrificed for your sautéed fillet?

There’s no organic label for seafood in the United States, so figuring out where and when your catch was caught takes work. The downloadable Seafood Watch pocket guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium are handy tools, and now the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach is teaming up with Southern California restaurants—including Providence, Lucques, and Nook Bistro—to help diners make conscientious choices one entrée at a time. Bonus: Order a sustainable fish dish marked with the “Seafood for the Future” logo, and you get free admission to the Aquarium. Whole Foods Market is also buoying this program with sustainable seafood cooking classes.

Little fish like sardines, anchovies, and mackerel have the lowest concentrations of mercury; larger, older fish, the highest. While fish farms get a bad rap, some of them deservedly (overcrowded pens can pollute adjacent waters), an increasing number of U.S. fisheries are raising their stocks healthfully. Federal fish farms are overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service, whose mandate is to stamp out overfishing by 2011. From a carbon footprint standpoint, local is better: Oysters, sea urchins, sardines, abalone, and albacore tuna are all found off the Southern California coast. Wild Alaskan salmon (which starts its life in state-run fisheries) and halibut trump their Atlantic counterparts, and pole- or line-caught anything beats fish that’s been trawled.

Providence chef-co-owner Michael Cimarusti has long been mindful of the origin of the seafood on his menu; he stopped serving tuna when he couldn’t nail down exactly where it came from. But his interest in sustainability isn’t purely from the perspective of a restaurateur. He’s also an avid angler. “I come at it from a selfish point of view. Sometime I’d like to take my son out to catch swordfish, or maybe a giant bluefin,” he says. “I’d turn it back, but I’d like to have it on the line.”

Photograph by Pornchai Mittongtare