About Fish & Shellfish
While much of the fish and seafood consumed is still wild caught, there is distress in fish populations around the globe. It was once thought that the oceans were an inexhaustible source of fish and seafood but today we know that many fish species once in abundance like cod, herring, swordfish, sole, and tuna are in danger of being depleted to extinction. Increasing consumer demand and sophisticated fishing techniques have taken their toll on fish populations and the environment. Fish farming has helped alleviate some over-fishing, but has created environmental pollution problems from intensive farming techniques, and additional negative effects to wild fish because the meal fed to farm-raised fish is often derived wild sources. It will take a concerted global effort to devise ways to harvest fish in ecological and sustainable ways to preserve fish stocks for future generations.
Wild Catch Fishing Methods
Small commercial fishing vessels use hand cast lines and purse seine nets that are drawn up like a pouch from the water. Larger fishing boats employ long lines with baited hooks sometimes 75 miles /120 K, or use gill nets that are set out like large barrier walls to catch fish as they swim into the netting. Bottom trawlers catch orange roughy, cod, and haddock by deploying bag-shaped nets that are pulled along the ocean floor. Some ships are floating factories that process and freeze hundreds of tons of fish a day. These methods are highly efficient but they have the added effect of depleting fish stocks quickly. They also damage the ocean environment and catch creatures not meant for commercial use. There have been some efforts to control fishing methods and fishing seasons to alleviate some of these problems. It will take a continued and concerted commitment to sustainable fishing methods to preserve fish stocks for the future.
Aquaculture, mariculture, and aquaponics are names used for a variety of farming techniques for fish, seafood, and marine produce. The techniques are used for freshwater and salt water fish and are employed in above ground tanks, ocean pens, and in open waters. Fish farming produces a steady supply of fish that are raised in a carefully controlled environment to uniform size and formation, much like breeding poultry or cattle. Farmed fish can be quickly processed and delivered fresh to market in a short time. They can also relieve the pressure on endangered fish species caused by over fishing.
While there are many advantages to fish farming, there are also disadvantages including fecal pollution from high-intensity off-shore pens. The fish can be genetically modified and are often fed fish meal laced with antibiotics. The fish meal may even come from wild fish meal adding more pressure to over-fished stocks.
The commercial fishing industry in the United States is routinely monitored, inspected, and regulated by numerous state and federal agencies to ensure that seafood is wholesome and safe to eat.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the primary agency responsible for ensuring the safety, wholesomeness, and proper labeling of domestic and imported seafood products. The FDA requires all fish and shellfish processors to develop and implement a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan for their operation. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, conducts a voluntary seafood inspection and grading program. This program, known as PUFI (Packed Under Federal Inspection), is used for fresh, processed, frozen, and canned fish and seafood products. Grading is determined by the process (fresh, canned, frozen) that includes factors such as overall appearance of the fish product, discoloration not characteristic of the species, surface defects on the fish, and cutting, filleting, or boning defects.
Other agencies involved in ensuring seafood safety and quality include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which requires labeling of fish and seafood to identify its country of origin, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is responsible for the management of the nation’s fishery resources in U.S. territorial waters, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which sets standards for acceptable levels of contaminants in commercial fishery products. Individual states also regulate the safety of seafood products including harvesting, processing, distribution, and sales in food service operations, and manage fresh and ocean water fisheries along coasts.
About 90% of seafood U.S. consumers eat today is imported but only two percent of all imports are inspected by the FDA and just .01 are inspected specifically for mislabeling. Some estimate 20-50% of fish sold in the United States are commonly mislabeled and consumers unknowingly overpay for less desirable fish. Red snapper, Dover Sole, tuna, grouper, Gulf shrimp, and Wild King salmon, fish that command higher prices, were found to be substituted with cheaper species like rockfish, escolar, tilapia, farmed Thailand shrimp, and Coho salmon. Buying from reputable fish suppliers will help to prevent this type of fraud.
Numerous health concerns are associated with fish and seafood and are compounded by loose and at times confusing regulations related to fish inspection. Eating raw or under-cooked fish and seafood can compound the problem if the product is not handled correctly. Fish-borne illnesses are generally divided into intoxications and infections, and are usually caused by environmental factors, fish handling or the treatment of water. Infections occur from bacteria like listeria, E. coli, and salmonella; viruses like Hepatitis and Norovirus, or parasites like tapeworms. Fish-borne intoxications are created by bacteria like Staph and Botulism, from biotoxins like Ciguatera, or from chemicals like heavy metals and PCB.
Purchasing Fish & Shellfish
Finding a reliable purveyor to provide superior fish and seafood is important for maintaining quality and consistency in the kitchen. Whether the products are whole, fillets and sides, or portion-cut, look for a firm texture and fresh odor as signs of wholesomeness. Quality factors when purchasing whole fish include a shiny skin that is tight to the carcass, gills that are red or pink and not brown, a belly cavity free of bruises or deterioration (also known as belly burn), and clear, bulging eyes, not sunken or cloudy. Fish often smell fishy because bacteria on the surface of the skin, called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), breaks down from exposure to oxygen creating an off odor. Sharks, skate, and rays urinate through their skin and can sometimes smell of ammonia. These odors can be counteracted by rinsing the fish and applying acids including lemon, vinegar, or tomato.
Store fresh fish covered with ice at 29-32°F /-2 0°C, in a self-draining perforated pan and replenish the ice as needed. Keeping the fish iced will provide a constant rinsing action that minimizes odors and maximizes shelf life up to a week. Fresh fish should always be gutted before storing, and will have a longer shelf life if kept whole. Wrap fillets in plastic wrap to prevent the ice crystals from tearing the flesh of the fish. Fresh fish is best consumed within 2-3 days from delivery but whole fish can be held longer, from 1-2 weeks depending on the species and freshness and the holding method. Frozen fish should be thawed slowly under refrigeration or cold running water.