Fish can serve as either a power food or an inflammatory, toxic nightmare for your body, all depending on what fish you choose. That why it’s so important to pay attention to (and avoid) the fish you should never eat.
It’s incredibly important to get ample omega-3 fatty acids, and certain fish can serve as potent sources. But due to issues like mining, sewage and fossil fuel emissions, heavy metals like mercury are winding up in the water and building up in our fish. Unfortunately, low-level mercury poisoning from contaminated seafood is a real threat and can lead to devastating effects on health.
Not only that, but some fish have also been so overfished that they are on the brink of collapse, which can have detrimental effects on the ocean ecosystem. Luckily, there are healthy, low contaminant choices with stable populations that serve as much smarter choices.
Let’s take a look at fish you should never eat, plus a few healthier options for best fish to eat.
Fish You Should Never Eat
Did you know that in some regards, eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon? In fact, the shift to eating more farmed fish like tilapia is leading to highly inflammatory diets, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Wake Forest University School of Medicine researchers say tilapia is one of the most widely consumed fish in America. The problem with that? It contains very low levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and, perhaps worse, very high levels of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Sustaining high levels of inflammation in the body can worsen symptoms of autoimmune disorders and may be linked to chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
If you must eat this fish, avoid tilapia from China, where farming practices are particularly worrisome. Better sources are the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, Ecuador and Peru.
Of course, wild-caught tilapia is preferable to farmed fish but is very hard to find.
2. Atlantic Cod
Historically, Atlantic cod is a species proven to be vitally important to feeding the New World civilization and early colonization of the Caribbean Sea. But the heavy fishing over the last thousand years has taken its toll. In the late 1990s, catastrophe struck: the fishery collapsed.
Although the female cod releases more than a hundred millions of eggs, only a few are able to survive to adulthood. According to Oceana, scientists agree that North Atlantic food webs have fundamentally changed as a result of the Atlantic Cod collapse, and the species is currently considered vulnerable to extinction.
If you’re a fan of cod liver oil, make sure it’s not sourced from Atlantic cod. Instead, opt for Alaskan cod caught with a longline, pot or jig.
3. Atlantic Flatfish (Atlantic halibut, flounder and sole)
Due to historical overfishing and high contamination levels, these flatfish species have secured their slot on the list of fish you should never eat.
In 2014, Oceana, the largest ocean conservation group in the world, conducted an investigation using data from the National Marine Fisheries Service. It identified the nine worst fisheries in the U.S. based on “wasted bycatch.”
They found that commercial fishermen in the U.S. throw about 2 billion pounds of “bycatch” overboard each year. That’s equivalent to about half a billion seafood meals. The California gillnet fishery that targets halibut was identified as one of the worst. According to the report, if you’ve eaten U.S. halibut, there’s a good chance it came from this damaging fishery.
Beluga sturgeon are ancient fish that are highly sought for their fish eggs, aka caviar. In fact, this fish grows to be very large, can live to be 100 years old and can carry several hundred pounds of caviar, which can be worth up to $3,500 a pound.
According to Oceana, the fish that produces this prized caviar is in major trouble:
It is completely gone from several seas/rivers in which it used to live, and scientists fear that it is critically endangered. In other words, it is very highly vulnerable to extinction across its entire range. Without further protection and enforcement of existing efforts, we may forever lose one of the biggest, most interesting fishes in the world.
If you absolutely cannot give up caviar, Seafood Watch recommends caviar from blue sturgeon raised in recirculating aquaculture systems in the U.S. as a more sustainable alternative.
5. Chilean Seabass
Actually named the Patagonia toothfish, seafood distributors started marketing this deep-sea predator fish as “Chilean seabass” because it sounded less intimidating. It worked. Now common on menus around the U.S., Chilean seabass overfishing has left this species in serious trouble.
Aside from overfishing, its high mercury levels are also problematic. Furthermore, harvesting the fish from Chile is also plagued by poor management and bycatch problems.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch places eel on the “Avoid” list on its sushi guide because it’s slow to mature and has been overfished in many parts of the world, bringing some populations to collapse.
This is leaving even Asian countries looking to American eels, which are threatened among U.S. populations, too. That’s a problem because eels are incredibly important when it comes to protecting our water supplies. In the Delaware River, for instance, eels are an integral part of spreading mussel populations that serve as natural water filters.
Aside from the issues with overfishing, eels tend to readily absorb and store harmful chemicals and contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants. In certain states like New Jersey, river eels are so contaminated even adults are advised to eat no more than one eel a year.
7. Farmed Salmon
Americans consume a lot of salmon. Unfortunately, the majority is the unhealthiest kind. In fact, most salmon marketed as “Atlantic” salmon is farmed, meaning that fish are raised in conditions often ridden with pesticides, feces, bacteria and parasites.
What’s more, studies show that farmed salmon is more likely to contain harmful contaminants like PCBs, which are pollutants linked to insulin resistance, obesity, cancer and stroke. They’re also often treated with antibiotics and tend to be higher in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
For a better alternative, skip the Atlantic salmon and opt for wild-caught Alaskan salmon instead.