Thursday’s Dish: “Safe” Fish

My daughter loves salmon – really, really loves it. She’d easily eat an adult portion if I let her, but I usually don’t because I worry about the toxins, especially mercury, in that and other fish. This spurred me to do some research about “safe fish” to eat because I find the information confusing.

The first thing I had to do, though, was narrow down what I meant by “safe.” Low in mercury? Sustainable? Farm-raised vs. wild-caught? High in omega-3s but not omega-6s? Whoa, there’s a lot to think about. I decided to go with healthy for the whole family – as in low in mercury and other toxins but still high in the good stuff like omega-3s – while giving a nod to sustainability.

Salmon Dinner-4
Creative Commons License photo credit: gkdavie

My first bit of advice, if you choose to go Googling for yourself, is to be mindful of the date a study or article is published. The circumstances of a fish that was considered “safe” in 2004 may have changed. Also, if you don’t want the hassle of trying to figure it out yourself, environmentally conscious seafood retailers like Whole Foods will be more than happy to give you the 411 when you’re at the fish counter. Plus, they have a handy color-coded rating system for sustainability, so you can easily choose a “green light” fish and feel okay about how it was raised and caught.

For non-pregnant, non-nursing grownups, the Mayo Clinic advises two 3-ounce servings a week of fish high in omega-3. Their top picks are salmon, herring and tuna, with some species of freshwater trout also fitting the bill. However, when you’re feeding the whole family, you want to balance the health benefits with concerns about mercury, so tuna’s right out and, depending on where it’s caught, possibly the freshwater trout.

The Mayo Clinic also points out that some fish, like tilapia and catfish, have higher levels of “unhealthy fatty acids” – plus, if you look into the farming practices of those fish, particularly outside of the U.S., you’ll find the practices and levels of pollutants unacceptable. Currently, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council is trying to make a difference by certifying the farms that do meet certain criteria for sustainability and responsibility, but the program is still new.

That pretty much leaves us with salmon and herring, as far as fish that are safe and sustainable while giving us the health benefits of fish (although fish not high in omega-3 can certainly still be part of a healthy diet because they are low-fat protiens). Now, my husband likes pickled herring, but my daughter and I don’t, and I don’t often find fresh herring fillets at my local HEB.

So I’m back to where I started. My daughter loves salmon … and I can give it to her with a pretty clean conscience, but in moderation because it still contains some toxins. But wait! Is farmed or wild-caught better? It turns out that so many people are eating salmon these days, for the very reasons I mentioned above, that wild-caught choices are actually few and far between, with wild Atlantic salmon being “commercially extinct.”

In fact, farm-raised fish accounts for 90% of the salmon sold in the U.S., according to this article from, which also notes  that farm-raised salmon has “significantly higher” levels of PCBs and dioxins (according to a Science magazine study), plus synthetic dyes to make the flesh that appetizing shade of orangey-pink. Aaaauuuugggghhh!!!!
AdvertisementSigh. So what’s the answer to feeding the whole family fish? My best recommendation is to use your family’s tastes as a guide (they won’t eat it if they don’t like it!) and use a few good tools to determine the safety of a kind of fish and its sustainability. A good, trustworthy and often-updated site is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. They have apps, a pocket watch guide you can print out, and recipes.

Of course, your consumption may vary – less for babies and children, pregnant and nursing mothers; more for older adults with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Below is a quick recipe for my daughter’s favorite way to eat salmon, which I’ve decided she can have a child-sized portion of about every two weeks. If you’ve got a good herring recipe, pass it along!

Greta’s Fave Salmon

1 1/2 to 2 pounds salmon fillets

1/3 cup soy sauce

2 Tablespoons honey

1 Tablespoon fresh orange juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking pan with aluminum foil. In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, honey and orange juice until blended. Place fillets in pan, then brush or spoon generously over salmon fillets. Bake fillets for 15-20 minutes (depending on thickness), until cooked through. Serves 4-6 (depending on size of your diners!).

Written by: Shannon Oelrich

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