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Start Eating These Fish

In the post-apocalyptic hellscape our descendants will almost certainly call home, wouldn’t it would be nice if the nomadic tribes of great-grandchildren roaming the coasts could still catch dinner from the sea? With the way we behave today, it looks as if they may be eating each other. And you may say, “Oh, shut up, John J. Goddard, that’ll never happen,” as if saying it’ll never happen is precisely what needs to be done to make sure it never happens. When I take my last breath I want to believe I did something to help prevent it, like telling you to stop eating so much tuna, salmon and cod, at the very least. Do I think you’ll actually change your eating habits? No. That would require major effort on your part — almost as much effort as it’s going to take to read this essay, or to do anything other than telling me to stop putting unpleasant thoughts in your head. But I’m going to ask you to change anyway, and give you a few reasons why you should at least quit tuna. 

You Don’t Know Where That’s Been

A fishmonger in Croatia weighs tuna.

Thanks to industrialization, most fish contain some mercury. Let me be plain: You, yourself, probably contain more mercury than a mackerel. Tuna, sharks, swordfish, marlin and tile fish, however, contain more mercury than just about any other fish in the sea. Since they are top level predators in the food chain, tuna absorb the mercury accumulated by the smaller fish they eat, as well as the mercury from the fish those fish ate, and so on. This is known as bioaccumulation, whereby pollutants and toxins build up in the food chain faster than they are lost. The lower you go on the food chain for your seafood dinner (that means smaller fish), the less likely you are to absorb mercury and put yourself at risk for damage to your brain, kidneys and lungs, which would certainly ruin your plans for immortality.

Albacore tuna contains three times as much mercury as light tuna (the stuff labeled “chunk” or “solid” light tuna). Women of childbearing age and children under the age of five years should avoid albacore tuna completely, because most of it contains very high amounts of mercury. Anyone who does eat this tuna is almost certainly exceeding known safe levels of mercury in the body.

Northern Atlantic mackerel and the other small mackerel are very low in mercury, and can be safely eaten twice a week. The larger King and Spanish mackerel, however, are higher predators and contain more mercury than should be consumed by women and children. But other mackerel and sardines are also high in the mineral selenium, which binds to mercury in the bloodstream and allows it to be eliminated from the body. So, eating mackerel and sardines can actually reduce the amount of mercury in your body… but only if you lay off the tuna and other higher predators.

For those concerned about radiation in seafood after the Fukushima disaster, tuna are the most radioactive in the sea, no matter where they’re caught. This is because they travel great distances, and a tuna caught in the Atlantic could have easily been swimming in contaminated waters only weeks prior to capture.

Maintaining a Healthy Balance

Atlantic mackerel as nigiri sushi.

Tuna is horribly over-fished throughout the world, especially the bluefin tuna, prized by sushi connoisseurs. What you’re not hearing much of is just how endangered they are (the bluefin tuna population is down 96% since its commercial fishing began).

It’s in all of our best interests to eat lower on the food chain, from thriving fish populations. When top level predator fish become extinct, the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems will be thrown into chaos, and that affects our entire food supply. Think about that the next time you go out for sushi, then order something other than tuna.

Smaller fish reach maturity faster, and reproduce in greater numbers (many tuna are harvested before they have a chance to reproduce, exacerbating the species’ plight). Even though Mediterranean sardines and Atlantic mackerel have both also been over-fished, they remain abundant. A female mackerel can produce 500,000 eggs in a season, while her sardine cousin might produce 200,000. The long term odds are pretty good for these species, provided populations are kept in check by larger predators, such as – wait for it – tuna.

Let Your Food Be Your Medicine

Mediterranean sprats, also known as skippers or brisling.

That 15 oz. can of mackerel you just opened up to make croquettes contains a whopping 84 grams of protein. It’s also high in vitamins D, B1, B2, B6, and B12, niacin, iodine, selenium, copper and iron. I’m not finished. Atlantic mackerel contains nearly twice as much omega-3 fatty acids as salmon, so it’s a powerhouse food as far as your health is concerned. The other oily fishes like sardines, sprats, herring and anchovies are similarly packed with nutritional benefit. Just like dark, leafy greens and “super grains” like quinoa are packed with nutrients, these oily fish can make a big difference in your health. You’re welcome.

Hmmm… Tastes Like Fish

The diminutive Red Mullet, best fried in olive oil to complement its mild, grassy flavor.

Here’s where we’ll hit upon some controversy. Since mackerel, sardines and the others I just mentioned are oily fish, it means they’re far more more flavorful (that’s why they are my favorites). To a lot of people, that means “fishy tasting.” Personally, I believe a fish should taste like a fish, and not like a steamed chicken breast on white bread with American cheese and mayonnaise. Through some miracle of willpower and self-determination I have somehow trained my palate to develop appreciation for foods that are extremely good for me. Whereas some people might say a super green smoothie taste like lawn clippings, I say it tastes like my body screaming hallelujah from a mountain top.

The same goes with the oilier, fishier tasting fish. When you eat a grilled mackerel with garlic and olive oil, your body will feel energized, and so will you. It’s for that reason that some Mediterranean people won’t eat mackerel six hours before bedtime. They know they’ll be far too amped for sleep.

Due to their fat content, the oily fishes are ideal for curing and smoking, and you won’t taste anything more intensely flavorful than a smoked mackerel. It’s the turkey of the sea. But if you still haven’t trained yourself to appreciate stronger flavors, you can cut the “fishiness” with lemon juice or red wine vinegar. As you may know, British fish and chips are often made from mackerel, and that traditionally calls for malt vinegar. Mackerel can also be made into rich, tomato-based stews, or bright, vibrant salads with vegetables. Lightly cured mackerel sashimi takes on a rich, almost buttery quality after a bath in rice vinegar. It’s all just a matter of knowing what to do with your ingredients.

When you introduce acidity, such as that from citrus juice, vinegar or tomatoes, the “fishy” flavor is diminished considerably. Still, that flavor means it’s doing good things in your body, so why not learn to like it? We’ll be forced to eat much worse things than oily fish if we ruin our planet much more. Besides, there’s so much more to a seafood diet than salmon filets, tilapia and cod (which is also endangered). Don’t live so mildly. If you’re not an adult yet, you will be soon. Eat like one, consciously and with vigor.

If you can’t wait to get cooking, grab a copy of my book Dalmatian Cooking. It’s loaded with delicious preparations for some fish you’ve probably never heard of, but which are absolutely available in major US cities. I’ll also share recipes and tips in my free newsletter, and you can subscribe from the menu at the top.

A Tuna Saved Is A Dollar Earned

Chub mackerel, about as cheap and plentiful as it gets.

Whereas a single 489-pound bluefin tuna can be auctioned off for as much as $1.76 million USD, smaller, less commonly eaten fish are cheap, cheap, cheap. I’ve seen salmon and tuna retail at around $27 and $40 per pound, respectively. That’s because everyone wants them, they are fished more heavily, and there’s not as much to go around. If you can’t get fresh mackerel or sardines where you live, the canned varieties are every bit as safe, sustainable and nutritious, and you can do a lot of delicious dishes with them. A five-pound box of boat-frozen sardines can be had for around $10, and that’s a lot of good grilling, frying, smoking or broiling.

Whatever you decide to eat, I hope you’ll seriously consider leaving tuna and the other high-demand fish alone, or at least cutting back. We’ve taken too much tuna out of the sea, and put too many harmful substances into the sea for eating them to be a good idea. Maybe in 50 years we will have managed our appetites and our resources a little better. I doubt it, but the fact remains that our tuna and large predator fish consumption levels are screwing up our own habitat.

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