Eating smart: 12 fish to stay away from

A smart seafood guide

With countless fish choices, which appear to be healthy, Food & Water Watch reviewed more than 100 types of fish found in our oceans and bred on farms to determine which are the worst.

One in four Americans experience a foodborne illness each year. Seafood products cause about 20 percent of these known illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

While reviewing the types of seafood, Food & Water Watch examined the level of contaminants, status of the stock, catch method or farming method, economic and social significance and species of wildlife to determine which fish are deemed the worst.

  1. Imported catfish
    -Why it's bad: Nearly 90 percent of the catfish imported to the U.S. comes from Vietnam. They are treated with antibiotics that are banned in the U.S. Two types of catfish, swai and basa, are not technically considered catfish by federal standards so therefore, aren't held to the same inspection rules.
    -Instead: Eat domestic, farm-raised U.S. catfish, says Marianne Cufone, director of the Fish Program at Food & Water Watch.
  2. Caviar
    -Why it's bad: Caviar that is wild-caught are susceptible to overfishing and are being threatened by an increase in dam building that pollutes the water in which they live. 
    -Instead: Eat fish eggs from American Lake Sturgeon.
  3. Atlantic Cod
    -Why it's bad: "Chronic mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries Service and low stock status made it very difficult to recommend," Cufone said. It has been listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List for threatened species.
    -Instead: Pacific cod stocks.
  4. American eel: 
    -Why it's bad: Also known as yellow or silver eel, is highly contaminated with PCBs and mercury. They also suffer from water pollution and overharvesting.
    -Instead: Atlantic or Pacific caught squid has the same taste.
  5. Imported shrimp:
    -Why it's bad: Imported shrimp is the dirtiest of the "dirty dozen" says Cufone. 90 percent of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. 
    "Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects," Cufone says. "And I didn't even mention things like E. Coli that have been detected in imported shrimp."
    Less than 2 percent of the shrimp imported is inspected and imported shrimp meets the Food & Drug Administration's definition of "filth." Read More about Suspicious Shrimp.
    -Instead: Eat domestic shrimp which primarily comes from the Gulf of Mexico. Pink shrimp from Oregon is another good option.
  6. Atlantic flatfish:
    -Why it's bad: Other fish in this group include flounder, sole and halibut. They have heavy contamination levels and overfishing, dating back to the 1800s. According to Food & Water Watch, populations of these fish are as low as 1% of what's necessary to be considered sustainable for long-term fishing.
    Instead: Eat Pacific halibut or domestically farmed tilapia.
  7. Atlantic salmon (wild-caught and farmed):
    -Why it's bad: It's illegal to capture wild Atlantic salmon because the fish stocks are so low. Salmon farming is very polluting causing growth of diseases and parasites. The FDA is pushing to approve genetically engineered salmon instead.
    -Instead: Wild Alaskan salmon is the best of any choices, for now.
  8. Imported king crab:
    -Why it's bad: 70 percent of king crab sold in the U.S. is imported. Most of it comes from Russia, where limits on fish harvesting isn't enforced. "Imported king crab is often misnamed Alaskan king crab, because most people think that’s name of the crab," said Cufone. Alaskan king crab is a completely different animal.
    -Instead: Go with anything domestic.
  9. Shark:
    -Why it's bad: Sharks are extremely high in mercury. The ecosystems also suffer from the killing of sharks because the species that they eat increase in population. 
    -Instead: No shark, at all. Atlantic mackerel is a go-to.
  10. Orange Roughy:
    Why it's bad: High levels of mercury and overfishing are the two reasons why this fish is a no-go. This fish is found mislabeled as "sustainably harvested" but this isn't necessarily true.
    Instead: Yellow snapper.
  11. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna:
    -Why it's bad: The New York Times found that bluefin tuna has the highest levels of mercury in any type of tuna. Aside from the contaminant levels, they are considered "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
    -Instead: American or Canadian tuna - something that isn't imported.
  12. Chilean sea bass:
    -Why it's bad: Most of the sea bass sold in the U.S. comes in illegally and are high in mercury.
    -Instead: Haddock.

While shopping for seafood, ask the seafood producer at your grocery or market where it comes from and understand what wild-caught and farm-raised means.

If buying frozen fish, check the label because chances are, it was imported. Learn what "organic," "sustainable," and "eco-friendly" means. Organic

labels don't mean much for Americans on seafood. There are not yet any U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards for organic seafood.

In 2005, the USDA developed a mandatory 'County of Origin' labeling (COOL) rule for seafood, that was intended to inform consumers of where their fish comes from.

Flaws in the rule exclude "processed" seafood, fish sellers at wholesale markets and to top it, there is no real enforcement for violators other than a small fine.

Below is a list of substitutions for certain seafood :

If you like mild, white fish like catfish, halibut or sole, try hook-and-line caught haddock or U.S. farm-raised tilapia.

If you like thicker, more flavorful fish such as grouper or salmon, try pole-caught skipjack tuna, snapper, or U.S. farm-raised barramundi.

If you like steak-like fish such as swordfish or some tunas, try mahi-mahi, California or Washing halibut.

For shellfish, find domestic only mussels, oysters and U.S. wild raked clams. Net-caught squid or California squid is also recommended. For the crab lovers, Maine lobster and U.S. wild-caught rock and stone crab and lobster is the best way to go. 

For the shrimp substitute go with what the above states. U.S. wild-caught shrimp, Oregon pink shrimp or shrimp off the Florida coast.

Be smart about what you're bringing home from the market so you and your family can stay healthy!

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