Can we consume fish sustainably while still reaping the health benefits?

As many individuals attempt to improve their diets by avoiding red meat, fish appears to be a healthy choice. However, the sustainability of eating fish has come under growing scrutiny. We examine the health benefits and reasons for and against eating fish in this section, as well as potential alternatives.

Can we consume fish sustainably while still reaping the health benefits? - Abstract Aerial Art/Getty Images
Can we consume fish sustainably while still reaping the health benefits? – Abstract Aerial Art/Getty Images

While fish may be a valuable source of essential nutrients, can we consume fish sustainably? We conduct an investigation. (Pictured: Aerial picture of a circular fish farm in a lake in the Scottish Highlands.)

According to some, fish is a healthier alternative to red meat. It contains protein, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as a variety of minerals and vitamins.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been demonstrated in studies to benefit heart health, are abundant in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel.

Additionally, research shows that these fatty acids can increase blood flow to the brain, which is critical for delivering oxygen to the brain. Additionally, one study showed that omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to healthy brain aging. A Reliable Source.

Consuming fish may also help fight inflammation: a recent study discovered that eating fish on a daily basis helped lower the prevalence of chronic inflammatory diseases and may even boost the immune system.

Met with Kate Cohen, MS, RDN, of the Ellison Clinic at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, to ascertain the validity of some of these claims.

“Fish and shellfish are the primary sources of polyunsaturated fats in our diet, including DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] and EOA [eicosapentaenoic acid], which are associated with brain development during pregnancy and have been linked to a number of potential overall health benefits,” she explained.

However, not all fish are created equal. “Cold-water fish have a greater fat content to help them stay warm in frigid waters, but this also provides important omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to the fish,” she said.

Choose wisely

There are also worries, however, regarding the high mercury levels found in some of these cold-water species. Wild salmon, sardines, rainbow trout, and Atlantic mackerel are all suitable alternatives due to their high quantities of essential fatty acids and low mercury levels.

Furthermore, what about white fish and shellfish? They are lower in calories than oily fish and contain fewer omega-3 fatty acids, but they are a rich source of lean protein and a variety of minerals and vitamins, including iron, zinc, and vitamins A, B12, and D.

Cohen advocated adding fish in your diet twice or three times a week to get the advantages, but cautioned against “rotating your fish.” Your body needs all of the vitamins and minerals found in fish, so avoid eating only one type.”

Is wild-caught fish a sustainable source of protein?

Shocking pictures of waste, environmental pollution, and bycatch (unintentional capture of a species of fish or marine animal), including marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds, have prompted many to wonder whether the health advantages of fish and seafood outweigh the environmental costs.

In the United Kingdom, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) oversees fisheries, while groups such as Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch do the same in the United States. The MSC refutes the argument that sustainable fishing does not exist, proposing three criteria for sustainable fisheries: sustainable fish stocks, environmental stewardship, and effective fisheries management.

According to the MSC, “fish populations may recover and replenish if managed correctly over the long run.” Its website offers a list of sustainably caught fish that bear the MSC designation.

In the United States, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) goes further, providing a frequently updated list of fish that are both healthy and sustainable in terms of pollutant levels. Similar data is available on the US government’s Fishwatch website.

Josep Lloret, director of the University of Girona’s Oceans and Human Health Chair, acknowledged that sustainable fishing is feasible but difficult: “While artisanal (small-scale) fisheries are viewed as the most sustainable, they too have an environmental impact, such as the impact on endangered species owing to selectivity issues.”

“Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be beneficial if constructed and administered correctly. However, many MPAs globally lack an effective management plan,” he noted.

There is some encouraging news. According to the European Environment Agency, the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea are showing indications of recovery.

It does, however, say that further collaborative work is required to rehabilitate commercial fish and shellfish populations in European seas. In the United States, despite widespread overfishing, certain populations are beginning to recover as a result of prudent fisheries management.

“Seafood is a healthier alternative than meat, but if we follow physicians’ recommendations for omega-3 fatty acid consumption, we will rapidly deplete our oceans as the human population grows.”

— Josep Lloret, Girona University

What is the other option?

Therefore, if wild fish populations are unable to produce the quantity of fish required for optimum fatty acid consumption, where can the fish come from?

Fish cultivation, or aquaculture, is an obvious substitute for wild-caught fish. There are no bycatch concerns, the fish is more affordable to purchase, the supply is more consistent, and the impact on natural ecosystems is minimal. However, is farmed fish as healthy as wild-caught fish?

“It truly comes down to the fish’s diet and environment,” Cohen explained. “Farmed salmon, for example, can have around 40% more calories and 50% more fat than wild salmon – a rather significant difference.”

She said, “There is also a higher danger of contamination in farm-raised fish housed in small, confined cages, as well as antibiotic exposure from farms’ disease prevention efforts.”

Additionally, there is worry regarding the food that these farmed fish consume.

Josep Lloret stated, “Farmed fish have a number of issues, including the requirement for forage fish to feed them (which results in overexploitation of forage fish), the fact that, in comparison to land, we raise ‘lions’ at sea (predators such as sea bass that consume a lot of forage fish), [and] the impact on sea bottoms due to pollution.”

Concerns about pollution

Combining diverse forms of aquaculture is one approach to mitigate this contamination, as detailed in a 2020 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

If fish farmers cultivate an extractive species near their fish cages, such as filter-feeding mussels, the mussels remove waste from the water. Additionally, those bivalves are a nutrient-dense, low-mercury source of shellfish.

Through independent inspections, organizations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council encourage responsible aquaculture and certify farms that adhere to its standards.

Additionally, fish farming groups are investigating alternatives to fish-based feeds, such as soy, canola, and seaweed, which all provide omega-3 fatty acids required for fish.

Without fish, there is no fish

But what about people who avoid fish for ethical reasons – whether they detest it, have allergies, or are vegetarian or vegan?

Cohen asserts that fish is the finest supplier of DHA and EPA. Other marine foods, such as algae or seaweed, are also good sources of omega-3s, as are grass-fed beef and eggs from hens fed flaxseed.

There are vegetarian and vegan alternatives to fish that are sustainable, but can they provide the same nutritional advantages as genuine fish?

Novish, a food manufacturer that produces plant-based fish sticks, nuggets, and burgers, claims that their goods, which are now accessible through the global seafood chain Nordsee, are free of soy and other ingredients. Additionally, the brand spices its dishes using seaweed and algae to provide a fishy flavor.

Cohen urged people purchasing fish substitutes to exercise caution: “Avoid plant-based alternatives to fish that have a large number of unexplained components, as they are ultimately processed food.”

The Good Food Institute Europe (GFI), an organization that promotes plant-based, cultured, and fermentation-derived proteins, has started a sustainable seafood project to promote plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived protein alternatives to fish.

According to the report, “companies are capable of transforming plant components into final products that mimic the sensory experience and nutritional profile of traditional seafood.”

Grown in the laboratory

While the majority of producers include plant-based “fish” into their goods, a recent breakthrough — cell culture — enables producing fish in the laboratory using cells. This technique has the potential to produce fish fillets without the bones or scales, although it is still in its infancy.

Wildtype and BluNalu, both based in the United States, are developing these items. BluNalu asserts that they will be “free of hazardous mercury, viruses, parasites, microplastics, and other environmental contaminants,” and will “have the same flavor, texture, and performance as traditional seafood in all cooking and preparation methods.”

Additionally, the GFI notes that, while grown seafood is not yet commercially accessible, it is cellularly identical to traditional seafood — but is devoid of mercury, heavy metals, and antibiotics.

Cohen, on the other hand, is skeptical: “There is no clinical evidence comparing the nutritional content of actual fish versus fish produced in a laboratory.” My goal is that we would devote further resources to advancing sustainable farming and fishing techniques in order to continue addressing environmental problems and ensuring that fish is available to everyone.”

Is it both healthy and sustainable?

Therefore, should we consume fish? While the nutrients in fish are essential, they may be obtained in other ways if you are worried about sustainability.

And the key to a healthy lifestyle is maintaining a diversified diet. Cohen emphasized that it is not only about eating fish: “Research has demonstrated that diets high in these good fats, such as the Mediterranean Diet, are connected with favorable health outcomes.” Whenever feasible, strive for a whole-foods diet.”

Thus, if you want to consume fish, read the label carefully to verify it comes from a sustainable source and picks cold-water oily fish for the highest health advantages when combined with a balanced and diverse diet.

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