On Down the Chain

by Elif Selvili

Even the least-accomplished cook among us knows how to open a can of tuna or grill a piece of salmon and make a decent, tasty meal. And it’s probably no surprise that salmon and tuna are the two most popular types of fish in the U.S. What may come as a surprise, though, is that these seemingly healthy and easy meal choices may also carry a hefty ecological price tag.

Larger, longer-living predatory fish that are higher on the seafood chain have more time to accumulate toxins and heavy metals over their life spans. This problem is compounded as they feed on smaller “forage fish”—concentrating the contaminants. Unfortunately, cooking has no effect on mercury content, which can build up in our bodies and lead to problems with the nervous system. The other bad news is the impact on sustainability. Fish with longer life spans are often the most overfished species because of the high demand from consumers. Research shows that if these fishing practices and preferences continue, the large “big-fish” population could become nearly extinct within our lifetimes. With all this alarming information, choosing the right fish—that’s both healthy for us and for the environment—can be challenging.

But here’s the good news: The healthier choices for us also happen to be the healthier choices for the environment. Simply put, if you choose a fish that’s likely to be low in mercury, you’re probably choosing a species that’s sustainable. Your fish is probably smaller, too, and more than a few links down on the food chain. These humble, often-ignored fish, such as smelt, sardines, perch and rainbow trout, to name a few, are, in fact, nutritional powerhouses and high in omega-3s and vitamin D. They’re also low in environmental contaminants and are easily purchased in Austin.

sardines3

Currently, only a small percentage of these smaller fish go directly to consumers; the majority is processed into fishmeal to feed larger farmed fish as well as pigs and chickens. If we consider that it takes about 5 pounds of smaller fish to grow 1 pound of farmed salmon, it makes sense for us to cut out the “middleman” and enjoy these nutrient-rich smaller species ourselves. This choice results in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way of using limited resources. Moreover, smaller species travel in large, dense schools, making them easier to catch with less fuel, less bycatch (fish inadvertently caught in nets and discarded) and less habitat damage. Armed with this glowing ecological and nutritional report card, let’s dive into the less-explored waters of the small catch and discover some easy and creative ways to prepare them.