The Wild West of South Florida | Buying Fish in Miami
Soon after moving to Miami, I gave up on the idea of buying fresh, local and healthy fish. Publix’s fish section always looks depressing, Whole Foods and Fresh Market are expensive, and the few times I’ve visited market restaurants, like Garcia’s, I end up losing all conviction to attempt Julia Child’s sole meunière on local flounder, and I just eat dinner right there.
I recently visited Milam’s in Coconut Grove, hoping to buy shrimp for a dinner I was hosting. I walked up to the counter and saw the usual suspects – wild, deeply-colored salmon, farmed, paler salmon, tilapia and a variety of imported shrimp. As an eager follower of Alice Waters, and seeing there was hardly any information on the sourcing of the seafood, I asked the fishmonger if he had any domestic, preferably local, shrimp available. Quite simply, the fishmonger answered, “If I had domestic shrimp, I’d have to sell it to you at double the price, and then no one would buy it”. With those few words, all of my romanticized ideals of family-owned fishing boats, fresh fish markets and quaint seaside villages came crashing down. What is going on in the national seafood market and how is it affecting the fish and shellfish that are available in Miami?
After running up and down across markets and grocery stores, I’ve realized that Marion Nestle is right. Buying fish is like venturing into the “Wild West of the food industry: anything goes and the buyer had best be wary”. Miami is no different. The seafood that is available in our local markets reflects the extremely complicated, and, sometimes, horrific world of fishing. Before I started researching these factors specifically, I thought all fish was “healthy” and that the choice could easily be made by asking the famous question, “What’s fresh?” Today, whether farmed or wild-caught, fresh or frozen, the issues that we now have to consider before making a purchase can be daunting and intimidating. In this sunshine-filled Wild West, the consumer is responsible for managing their seafood intake in terms of sustainability, availability, sourcing methods, health benefits and health consequences.
Where Our Seafood Comes from
Scarcity of Wild Fish
Remember those days when “catch of the day” didn’t refer to fish farmed in Thailand, flown over to the United States, treated with carbon monoxide to keep that “fresh” look, and then served on your dining table? Yes, that’s the true story of that innocent looking fillet staring back at you. If you ever wondered why the wild salmon at Whole Foods is 50% more expensive than it’s pale-colored, farmed counterpart, it’s because wild fish is as sustainable as going out and hunting the beef for our hamburgers. Due to the increasing demand for wild fish, catching seafood in the ocean now takes more energy, money and time than ever before. Supply has diminished and fishing boats have to go further and further away from the coast to find seafood to bring to the coast for sale. Some fish are now on the verge of extinction, causing governmental agencies to enforce bans and regulations on fishing methods, quantities and periods. Organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council award certifications to fisheries who follow responsible practices for wild-caught fish.
But depletion is not the only issue at hand. Years of industrial pollution have increased the amount of mercury that reaches our oceans, rivers and lakes. Wild fish, who feed on algae, krill or other sea-creatures, are slowly absorbing a type of mercury, methylmercury, through their food. Methylmercury levels are highest in fish at the top of the food chain, like tuna and shark, since these fish live longer and thus eat a larger quantity of mercury-filled foods in their lifetime. This mercury accumulates in the fish which can eventually become your dinner if you aren’t careful. Ever wondered why pregnant women were instructed not to eat a lot of fish? Cooking preparation and heat does not reduce mercury levels and studies have shown that high values of methylmercury in the bloodstream can harm the developing brains of unborn babies and young children, particularly for cognitive, motor and sensory functions. That’s enough to scare anyone, child-bearing abilities or not.
Concerns over Farmed Fish
The obvious solution may seem to just eat farmed fish, where aquatic feed can be controlled and monitored. It’s just not that simple. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that more than three-fourths of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries, mostly China. Outside of the United States, sanitary conditions, feeding practices and environmental factors are difficult to regulate and inspect. Unregulated farming has raised eyebrows as environmentalists argue that the over-populated cages cause high fish waste pollution in natural lakes. Because fish like tilapia are quick-breeding, they can also easily escape and completely disturb the ecosystems of natural bodies of water. Farmed fish is also commonly treated with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. Since few fish are inspected upon importation, illegal hormones and antibiotics can easily make it through our borders.
You are what you eat, and farmed fish are not fed the same as their wild counterparts. Commonly farmed fish, like tilapia and catfish, are fed corn and soy, instead of lake plants and algae. This makes them lower in omega 3′s and the beneficial oils that have cardiologists singing fish’s praises.
Farmed salmon are raised in pens surrounded by ocean waters and are fed fish meal (ground up fish parts) and fish oil. Their foods contain artificial colors, since it’s the marine krill that they eat in the wild that loads their flesh with that beautiful shade of pink. Otherwise, farmed salmon’s food would leave their flesh an unattractive gray color, which obviously doesn’t sell. There are natural ways to achieve the bright pink color in salmon, but only certain markets demand this from their farmed fish. Careless farming of salmon can also lead to concentrated releases of waste into surrounding waters, causing harm to the ecosystem, particularly if the long-distance swimmers escape their pens.
Farmed fish have also been found to contain a higher amount of PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyl), a possible carcinogen and a definite environmental pollutant. PCB’s are concentrated in oils and fat, and most farmed fish are fed dense pellets made out of these same components. As a result, the PCB’s become concentrated in the fish you eat. PCB’s can be reduced through baking, broiling or poaching, and by removing skin and fatty parts of fish before cooking. Still, no one wants to be eating that if they can avoid it.
Basically, wild fish is higher in omega 3′s, but also higher in mercury. Farmed fish is low in mercury, low in omega 3′s, but high in PCB’s. This may all sound very depressing and it may seem like there is no hope. But, armed with this knowledge, I promise you can venture through and buy fish virtually unscathed.
Fish Issues in South Florida
The Florida Department of Health issues periodic advisories on the freshwater fish wild-caught in Florida that is safe to consume. Most fish from Florida can be eaten without harm, so you can happily enjoy fresh mullet, snapper, pompano, flounder and dolphin from local markets and restaurants. However, try to avoid blackfin tuna, crevalle jack, great barracuda, king mackerel, little tunny and shark. Since these fish are long-lived, or at the top of the food chain, they consume more mercury in their lives. This, in turn, means that you could absorb more mercury if you eat too much of these species.
The American Heart Association recommends you eat two meals of fish or seafood every week. Women who could potentially become pregnant and children should probably stick to two servings of the safe fish per week. Local and fresh markets like Garcia’s and Casablanca (which are great sources for seafood) do not mind selling shark or king mackerel, because they are not aware of how often you will be eating these potentially harmful fish with high levels of mercury. It is up to you to limit your consumption of these types of fish to not more than once a month (or read the advisory from the Florida Department of Health which breaks it down for everyone).
If you don’t have time to hop on over to the Miami River or to catch the fishing boats off the marina in Key Biscayne, then don’t worry. Armed with this knowledge and these questions, you can drill any fishmonger about whether their fish is responsibly farmed or sustainably caught:
1. Ask if they source from fisheries that are certified by organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council.
3. For farmed salmon, ask if they permit artificial color to be added.
4. Ask if fish farms follow sustainable practices (ensuring fish waste is properly taken care of, low rate of fish escapes, no overcrowding).
5. Ask if the wild-caught species are overfished and if they could possibly have high levels of mercury.
6. If you prefer to research these answers yourself, I recommend that you install the app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium on your phone and study their “Super Green” list for sustainable seafood that is low in mercury. Also, read up on their “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative” and “Avoid” lists for each species. When in doubt, quickly look up the fish you are considering to buy and make a wise choice. Keep in mind that only their “Super Green” list takes methylmercury and PCB’s in consideration, while the other rankings mostly focus on sustainability and general farming practices.
Also, sometimes fish is mislabeled. Often, popular and in-demand fish, like cod, is mismarketed and mislabeled as a more economical version, like catfish. I haven’t heard of any investigations done on this topic in Miami, but be wary of cheap seafood. If the price seems too cheap (and you aren’t buying it directly off a fishing boat), it probably is too good to be true.
Buying Seafood in Miami
I generally avoid international farmed fish, unless I am buying it at a highly regulated fish market. Now, what reputable fish market am I speaking of? Well, before you start throwing fish bones at me, I will have to admit that, when I don’t want to think about PCB’s and the FDA and the EPA on my shopping trip, I opt for Whole Foods. Yes, Fresh Market may have classical music playing in the background as you venture their aisles, but their basic standard of “quality seafood” is freshness. Fresh Market does comply with COOL (country of origin label), a law which demands that fish be marked with the country of origin, as well as whether it is fresh or previously frozen, but there is a lot more at stake when it comes to seafood. Plus, very little staff members at Fresh Market know whether their farmed salmon was artificially colored or not, or if they source from sustainable fish farms.
Whole Foods serves seafood that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an organization that carefully analyzes the sustainability of fisheries and fishing boats. Whole Foods also prominently displays the rankings of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or the Blue Ocean Institute, and has imposed regulations for farmed salmon, shellfish and other common aqua-cultured seafood. Farmed salmon, for example, can only be fed non-synthetic pigment sources, like phaffia yeast. It must also contain a minimum of at least 1,820 mg of omega 3 fatty acids. Maximum levels of PCB’s and mercury in their seafood are carefully monitored according to the EPA’s standards and they require annual reports of levels from all fish sources. All farms and processing plants are subject to auditing and inspections. Yes, I know that Whole Foods is almost twice as expensive as Publix and almost half more expensive than Fresh Market, but you are paying for not having to think.
When I venture into the mission impossible that is buying safe, fresh, delicious seafood, I opt for choosing certain local fish, like flounder and dolphin at a local market, or simply going to Whole Foods and paying the high price for fish. Just remember that you have to fend for yourself and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to pester fishmongers. They are not the enemy and they will usually be very nice and upfront about their standards. Although, in the Wild West, anything is possible.