Fish can serve as a power food or an absolute inflammatory, toxic nightmare for your body, depending on what you choose. That why it’s so important to pay attention to (and avoid) the fish you should never eat.
It’s vitally important to get ample omega-3 fatty acids and certain fish may serve as potent sources. But due to things like 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, especially in the developing fetus. (We’re now learning mercury impacts adults’ hearts in very concerning ways, too, including heart attacks and hypertension.)
There are other reasons to avoid certain species on the fish you should never eat list, too. Some fish have been so overfished that they are on the brink of collapse. And losing them could impact the ocean ecosystem in a way that could lead to a cascading effect impacting so many other species we rely on for nutrition, too. 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, healthier options. (Of course, the healthy omega-3s found in fish actually come from the fish eating phytoplankton, so you could always bypass fish and go straight to the source for your omega 3s.)
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 omega-6 fatty acids. That means the natural fish oil benefits found in this fish are not likely adequately boosting your omega 3s.
The low omega-3/high omega-6 ratio is a potentially dangerous food for people living with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and autoimmune disease symptoms who are vulnerable to an exaggerated inflammatory response. This inflammation damages blood vessels, the heart, lung and joint tissues, skin and the digestive tract.
And get this. Wake Forest researchers found that farm-raised tilapia, as well as farmed catfish, “have several fatty acid characteristics that would generally be considered by the scientific community as detrimental.” Tilapia harbors higher levels of potentially detrimental long-chain omega-6 fatty acids than 80-percent-lean hamburger, doughnuts and even pork bacon.
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. The best cod source comes from Alaskan cod caught with a longline, pot or jig. (Call the manufacturer and ask how the fish is caught if it’s not apparent.) Just be aware this and other types of cod can be moderately high in mercury.
3. Atlantic Flatfish (Atlantic halibut, flounder and sole)
Due to historical overfishing and contamination levels, it’s best to leave these fish in the sea. While some organizations say Pacific halibut is a better option, there are some issues with that. For starters, 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. The data showed commercial fishermen in the U.S. throw about 2 billion pounds of “bycatch” overboard each year. That’s equivalent to about a half-billion seafood meals. The California gillnet fishery that targets halibut was identified as one of the worst. If you’ve eaten U.S. halibut, there’s a good chance it came from this damaging fishery, according to the report.
Beluga sturgeon are ancient fish that are highly sought for their fish eggs, AKA caviar. In fact, this fish grows to be very large and can live to be 100 years old. A single fish can carry several hundred pounds of caviar, making the caviar worth up to $3,500 a pound. Oceana says this makes the Beluga sturgeon the most valuable fish in the world to fisherman.
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.”
As a much healthier and more sustainable alternative, try “poor man’s caviar.” It’s one of my favorite eggplant recipes. Or tap into black eyed peas benefits by created “Texas caviar.”
If you absolutely cannot give up caviar, Seafood Watch recommends caviar from blue sturgeon raised in recirculating aquaculture systems in the U.S. Beluga sturgeon, including caviar, is a “Best Choice” when farmed in closed tanks in the U.S. That’s because closed tanks often have less waste, disease, escapes and habitat impacts than other aquaculture systems.
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 America, Chilean seabass overfishing has left this species in serious trouble. Aside from that, I consider this a fish you should never eat due to elevated mercury levels, too. Environmental Defense Fund notes harvesting this fish from Chile is especially problematic, as it accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. imports and is plagued by poor management and bycatch problems.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch places eel on its “Avoid” list on its sushi guide. An eel, also called unagi on many sushi menus, is slow to mature and has been overfished in many parts of the world, bringing some populations to collapse. The news of the eels’ plummeting numbers (and finding out about its incredible migration) may hopefully make the fish harder to swallow.
This is leaving even Asian countries looking to American eels, which is threatened U.S. populations, too. That’s a problem because eels are super important when it comes to protecting our water supplies. In Delaware River, the longest undammed river East of the Mississippi River, eels are an integral part of spreading mussel populations that serve as natural water filters. Think of them as one important piece of the puzzle when it comes to nature’s Brita filter.
Aside from overfishing problems, eels tend to readily absorb and store contaminants like endocrine disruptors like PCBs and flame retardants. In certain states like New Jersey, river eels are so contaminated even a grown man is advised to eat no more than one eel a year.
7. Farmed Salmon (Atlantic or Wild-Caught)
Americans consume a lot of salmon. Unfortunately, the majority is the unhealthiest kind.
If there was ever a fish you should never eat, this is it. And for a number of reasons. The dangers of farmed fish, particularly farmed salmon, are enough to make your stomach turn. Most salmon marketed as “Atlantic” salmon is farmed, meaning fish are raised in conditions that have been shown to be ridden with pesticides, feces, bacteria and parasites.
It’s illegal to fish wild Atlantic salmon because they’re listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, even with current protections and efforts to restore the species, there’s a 19 to 75 percent chance U.S. Atlantic salmon could be extinct by 2100. Farmed salmon aquaculture is a huge reason the species can’t rebound, along with other issues like climate change, water pollution and water extraction.
Here are a other reasons inflammation-boosting farmed salmon needs to be a fish you should never eat:
An October 2016 study found omega-3 levels in farmed salmon are rapidly dropping and are half of what they were 5 years ago. Part of the reason for the nutrient loss is salmon farm feed contains less ground anchovy content. The high demand for farmed salmon feed is causing anchovy numbers to crash, so less is now being used in salmon feed patties. (This is another argument for eating lower on the food chain.)
University of New York at Albany researchers found dioxin levels in farm-raised salmon to be 11 times higher than those in wild salmon. Dioxins are classified as “dirty dozen” chemicals that are stored in fat cells. Their half life is 7 to 11 years. The environmental pollutants are linked to cancer, organ damage and immune system dysfunction.
A 2011 study published in PLoS One found mice eating farmed salmon actually showed weight gain and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes symptoms. The risk comes from the persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, that tend to be high in farmed salmon. POPs looked at in this study include organochlorine pesticides, dioxins and PCBs.
A 2011 Food and Water Watch aquaculture report highlighted some concerning statistics. Hundreds of thousands of farmed fish escape into the wild. These fish are often carrying “super lice” parasitic hitchhikers that even the harshest chemicals no longer kill. Some even carry other diseases that can debilitate nearby wild fish populations. Farmed salmon have also been treated with banned pesticides, another serious toxicity concern.
Fish farms threaten other sea life in other ways too. And remember: Fish farms don’t really combat overfishing: they contribute to it. Salmon, for instance, are carnivores. It takes about 2½ to 4 pounds of other fish to create the salmon chow needed to produce 1 pound of farm-raised salmon. The overfishing of wild sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and other fish upset natural ecosystems. “We are not taking strain off wild fisheries,” agricultural economist Rosamond L. Naylor told the Los Angeles Times back in 2002. “We are adding to it. This cannot be sustained forever.”
In November 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon and will not require any labeling, leaving consumers in the dark. It was approved despite findings the GMO salmon doesn’t actually grow as fast as its creator claims.
Luckily, wild-caught Alaskan salmon is one of the best seafood choices you can make, so you have a great alternative here.