I know I’ve been on a fish kick lately, but because June 8th is World Oceans Day, because the newly minted USDA Dietary guidelines recommend eating 2 servings of omega-3 rich fish each week, and because I was recently invited by the Norwegian Seafood Council to visit the stunningly beautiful country of Norway (one of the world’s largest suppliers of both farmed and wild fish) to see their Norwegian salmon farming operations, I’m still hooked on it.
As I recently blogged, fish is awash in challenges for many reasons, but I came away from my trip to Norway with some refreshingly simple takeaways. Given that this is a blog (read: short and sweet) and not a research treaty, I’ll just boil down the key issues that gave me hope and confidence about what I saw. (Please note: my comments only relate to what I experienced in Norway, and do not constitute a broad brush stroke of all farmed salmon by any means).
Norway is as stringent about good clean fish as Europe is about good clean food.
Call it the “halo effect” I feel for Europe when it comes to defending their food supply from frankenfoods; I admire Europe for how much much more vigorously they defend their food (consider that the controversial milk hormone rbST is banned in the EU, and that strawberry sundae you buy at a local fast food chain in the US has Red Dye #40 in it, while in Europe it contains beet juice extract).
I was relieved to discover the same rigor extends all the way north to those chilly Norwegians fisheries as well. I (as did many of you) had several questions prior to my trip: Here’s a quick summary of the facts of what’s happening in the fjords of Norway.
No GMO Norwegian salmon. The mere question of it on my part was quickly dismissed as “not an option at all”, when I asked Livar Froyland, PhD, of Norway’s National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research. The salmon they raise are genetically identical to the Norway’s traditional salmon populations.
No GMO in the salmon feed. “We wouldn’t eat it, why would we feed it to our fish?” he asked me, as we were standing out in the misty platform of the fish farm. (I had a hard time thinking John Stossel might get a similar comment when checking out our poultry or meat industry). Also, there are no hormones or antibiotics in the feed.
Antibiotic use has been dramatically reduced. (compared to 10 or 15 years ago). This has been accomplished through the use of vaccines instead. While you have to decide how you personally feel about vaccines, it’s worth noting the organic livestock & poultry in America and Europe are also treated with vaccines.
Sea lice? Managed organically. Norway now has a program which uses “cleaning fish” in the pens which keep the salmon free of sea lice.
Best practices. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Norway is ranked number one in the world when it comes to compliance with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) code of conduct for responsible fishing. Things like managing waste, fish pen conditions, and relationship to surrounding ecosystems are all included with this ranking, and Norway comes out on top according to the UN.
Fish feed. This one is still a work in progress, and admittedly is one of the challenges facing aquaculture (and livestock feeds) worldwide. Currently, about 35% of the fish feed comes from a combination of fish oil and fish meal, and the remainder a combination of grains, other oils, vitamins, etc.
The risk of NOT eating fish far outweighs the risk of eating fish.
Of course parents everywhere just want what’s best, safest and healthiest for their kids (I have a 4 and 5 year old and feel the same way) but fish is one exception when it’s very possible you’ll be doing more harm than good by leaving fish off the shopping list.
With the 2004 study sounding the alarm that farmed salmon contained 4-10X more PCBs and dioxins than wild, the media was whipped into a frenzy and the nuance was lost as the takeaway become “avoid eating farmed fish at all costs”. Missing from the story? What are the risks of not eating fish?” Turns out they are actually much, much more significant, especially for pregnant women, where skipping fish potentially deprives the developing brain of vital nutrients. (The growing brain loves DHA, and DHA is 50% by weight of some brain cells. DHA increases 300-500% in an infant's brain during the last trimester of pregnancy).
Harvard School of Medicine’s Dr. Dariush Mozafarian, MD, PhD, Co-Director, Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, one of the world’s leading experts on fats and heart disease, framed the issue in clear terms for us while on the trip: “With kids, the science is clear; eating fish is linked to a significantly higher IQ than not eating fish-even when all the potential for mercury and PCB contaminations are factored into the equation.”
In fact, a 2007 study found that the children whose mothers avoided fish had almost double the risk of a low IQ by age 8. Also important: the children who did the best in the IQ testing were those whose mothers ate more than 12 ounces of fish per week while pregnant.
The science is equally shocking and strong when it comes to America’s number one killer, heart disease: “You are 10 times more likely to die of sudden death from a heart attack if you don’t eat fish,” says Mozafarian-making fish literally the first line of treatment for the primary prevention of cardiac death. Those odds completely overwhelm even the most powerful cholesterol lowering drugs on the market today (and consider that if you smoke, you’re just 7 times as likely to die of lung cancer.)
The bottom line is eat more fish, especially more omega-3 packed fish, period. The benefits far outweigh risk for almost everyone-if you have children or are thinking of becoming pregnant, government advisories (avoid shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel) are sound guideposts. Frankly, a much more important thing to avoid during pregnancy is pesticides on produce, which recent studies have connected to lower IQs in children.
Wild Alaskan Salmon is amazing, but we need other options too. While I typically cite wild Alaskan salmon (especially if you live on the west coast), as the leanest & greenest choice you can make, the reality is that there simply isn’t enough salmon swimming right now for every American to enjoy wild Alaskan salmon twice a week for the rest of their lives. And if the controversial Pebble Mine project happens up in Bristol Bay, we might need a backup plan for what we tell families to put on their table-think of the Gulf Oil spill and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Few, if any, seafood options (including salmon) come with zero health or environmental considerations, but Norway has done a world-class job of linking responsible fisheries with ocean preservation and food security-two of the biggest challenges facing the world in our lifetime. And remember that the science suggests that fish, even farmed fish, is always a better choice for dinner, from both a lean AND eco-friendly standpoint, when compared to other staples such as beef or pork.
One last thought...
We absolutely love farmers in America-is it possible that some “farmers” of the ocean could love their fish, their sea, and a commitment to sustainability as much?
American farmers these days are akin to civic rockstars. Meeting these fish farmers, whose Nordic ancestors have literally been working in, eating from and managing these fjords for millennia, who told me proudly that “they could tell which fjord the sardine came from just by the taste”, got me thinking: might some fish farmers in the world be just as committed to ocean health, sustainability as their land locked cousins, equally proud to bring you “from fjord to fork? After all, humans from Hawaii to Japan have actually been farming fish for millennia; can the best of today’s fish farmers play a critical role in helping to preserve the ocean and still feed our planet’s exploding population? I think yes.
Next month, I’m on to vegetables!
Written with the help of Lindsey Toth, MS, RD