Something Fishy

Between mercury and environmental concerns, what's a seafood customer to do?

Buying fish, it seems, has become more complicated than selecting the proper wine. Choices that were once facile are now fraught with moral and health conundrums. There’s a ton of information to memorize, and keeping it up to date is all but impossible; Atlantic swordfish is overfished … no, wait, the ban has been lifted. Pacific swordfish is okay — but what about those high mercury levels?

East Bay diners are keeping restaurateurs on their toes. David Stevenson, chef at Downtown in Berkeley, says his educated customers “constantly ask questions” about the fish the restaurant serves. Christopher Cheung, owner of Oakland’s Marica, a seafood restaurant, concurs: “People around here know a lot about fish.” He has responded by taking Chilean sea bass and anglerfish off his menu, and tries to stay away from other overfished species. “Sometimes I don’t have too many choices, though, since I don’t serve frozen fish.”

Diners don’t seem to hold sushi restaurants to the same standards. Kirala took Chilean sea bass off its menu six months ago, when chefs across Japan decided to follow a boycott that started in North America, but otherwise hasn’t altered its menu. Like all the sushi chefs I spoke to, the owner claims she hasn’t fielded a single question or complaint about sustainability.

Stevenson says Downtown has been committed to sustainability from the beginning, but cautions that it’s not an easy task. “There is no way as an individual you can be certain where your fish is coming from, but you can place that responsibility on your purveyor.” One of the purveyors both Cheung and Stevenson trust is Monterey Fish Market. According to Aaron Johnson, manager of the Berkeley retail store, all the fish Monterey sells has been caught by hook and line or by harpoon. Johnson says that the market’s owners — along with two of their customers — have even sent swordfish samples to labs for mercury testing, and haven’t found toxically high levels.

What can consumers do to self-educate? For a small donation, you can pick up a “Sustainable Fisheries Guide” at Monterey Fish Market, 1649 Hopkins, Berkeley, 510-525-5600. This discusses the basic issues surrounding sustainability and weighs ecologically friendly versus harmful fishing methods.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s “Seafood Selector” (www.environmentaldefense.org/seafood/fishhome.cfm) features a database profiling more than 150 commonly available fish. The database describes fishery locations, fishing methods, and health advisories. To skip the research, download the “Pocket Seafood Selector,” a PDF file that you can print out and carry around into your wallet.

Your parents used to sneak a similar card out of their wallets when ordering wine. But instead of trying to convince the waiter you know the best years for burgundy, show the chef you’ll only order sustainable, and healthy, seafood.

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