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Analysis: Sustaining seafood for public health

When ordering seafood, the options are many and so are some of the things you might consider in what you order. Is your fish healthy? Is it safe? Is it endangered? While there are many services and rankings offered to help you decide -- there‘s even an iPhone app -- a group of researchers have found a simple rule of thumb applies.


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„If the fish is sustainable, then it is likely to be healthy to eat too,“ said Leah Gerber, an associate professor and senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University.


Gerber and colleagues ran an analysis of existing literature on fish to see which ones are more healthy choices and which seem to be the types that you might want to avoid, due to exposure to contaminants like mercury or due to over-exploitation. Their findings are published in the 2 August early on-line version of the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.


In Sustaining seafood for public health, Gerber and fellow authors state that their analysis is the first to bring together the sustainability rankings from several organisations, the health metrics of consumption ranked by various species (like how much omega-3 fatty acids are found in a specific know bluefin was taboo made me think about how complicated it has become to decide what seafood to eat,“ she recalled. „How do seafood consumers make informed decisions based on ecological risk, health risks (mercury and PCBs) and health benefits (omegas)?”


So Gerber, Karimi and Fitzgerald began digging in the literature and developed a database on both ecological and health metrics of seafood.


„We used the database to look for patterns of similarity between ecological and health metrics, and found that in general, choosing healthy seafood also means that you are choosing sustainable seafood,“ Gerber said. „Great news for sushi-lovers! Choose the sustainable options and you also are boosting omega-3 intake, without risking mercury poisoning.“


Concern about the collapse of overexploited fish populations and the safety of consuming seafood can complicate determining what types of fish are best to eat. In recent years, public attention has become increasingly focused on oceanic environmental contaminants, which may be toxic to seafood consumers in sufficient doses.


Laudable education campaigns have been established to inform consumers about seafood choices that are sustainable, and to provide information on which fish are deemed safe for human consumption. We found that unsustainable seafood items also present higher health risks (as indexed by mercury concentrations) and do not necessarily provide greater health benefits (as indexed by omega-3 fatty acid concentrations) as compared with sustainable seafood items. Our results have broad implications for identifying effective approaches for informing consumers about the health risks and benefits of different seafood choices, while simultaneously addressing the ecological consequences of fishing and fish farming.


Seafood is generally a healthful food option that brings many benefits (Dorea 2005; McMichael and Butler 2005). It is rich in high-quality proteins, vitamins, and minerals, and some species contain high levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, namely eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (Meyer et al. 2003). Numerous studies show that consumption of fatty fish and fish oils can lead to safer pregnancies (Olsen et al. 1993; Buck et al. 2003), lower cardiovascular disease risk (Siscovick et al. 1995; Bouzan et al. 2005; König et al. 2005), and other health benefits (Simopoulos 1991).


Next up for Gerber is to help develop a tool that can be used to help guide seafood consumers to smarter choices in what they eat. „We want to help people choose fish that are both eco-friendly and healthy,“ she said.




Project partner:

Leah R. Gerber

Arizona State University (SLS)

P.O.Box 871501


Arizona 85287-1501




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Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Article (pdf)