Good Seafood Choices: Low in Mercury, High in Nutrients and Environmentally Friendly

Fisherman on the sunset

Photo Credit

The facts on what seafood you should eat is in murky water. There are so many variables, opinions, and considerations. I had hoped to be able to write just one post covering all of the issues but I’ve realize that it will take just a little time to thoroughly address every issue. So today I want to give you three considerations that I think are the most important when buying seafood. (For budget stretching tips see my post,  6 Tips for Eating Quality Seafood On a Budget).

Consideration Number One: Mercury

Most of us have probably heard about mercury and the damage it can do. It’s pretty ironic that the omega 3 fatty acids that “feed our brains” are packaged in fish that contains mercury that can then damage the brain. There are other toxins that can also accumulate in fish, but since they also are almost always found in high mercury fish, we will concentrate on mercury.

“A word of caution about wild fish, however. Mercury is an environmental pollutant known to cause brain damage. Like other metals, mercury accumulates in tissue as it moves up the food chain, which means larger, carnivorous fish contain more mercury than smaller ones. Thus the FDA advises children and pregnant women not to eat swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. “

Real Food: What to Eat and Why Nina Planck

And I would say that anyone, pregnant or not, should be careful about their intake of mercury! But it’s especially vital that pregnant women don’t consume too much, which Nina further discussed in her second book, Real Food For Mother and Baby (check out my resource page for more information on this great book).

“This is what you need to know about fish. The metal mercury is found naturally in the environment. It can combine with carbon to form a toxin called methylmercury. Industrial pollution creates methylmercury too. Methylmercury is infamous for causing birth defects and brain damage in children. It’s no friend of fertility, either…..Methylmercury dissolves in water and accumulates up the food chain, which means it’s found in higher concentrations in older, bigger, and more carnivorous fish, and it ends up in your tissues when you eat it. If you stop consuming methylmercury, it eventually clears your body. “

Nina goes on to give the advice of eating low mercury fish, low in the food chain, but not avoiding fish altogether. Fish is important for the development of your babies brain and shouldn’t be avoided.

Sally Fallon recommends that you don’t worry too much about mercury if you have healthy intestinal flora as it blocks the absorption of mercury. I think this is a great reminder of how important it is to consume probiotic foods. But I personally still don’t eat high mercury fish, because I don’t trust that my flora is good enough right now to deal with high amounts of mercury.

Thankfully there are fish that are both low in mercury and high in nutrients. Which leads to our next consideration.

Consideration Number Two: Fish High in Nutrients (especially Omega 3’s)

The Monteray Bay Aquarium puts out well respected, frequently updated guides to buying eco-friendly seafood. They also put out a “super green” list of seafood that is low in contaminants like mercury, pesticides and industrial chemicals and high in omega 3’s. This list is as follows.
The Best of the Best
Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
Mussels (farmed)
Oysters (farmed)
Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
Pink Shrimp (wild-caught, from Oregon)
Rainbow Trout (farmed)
Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
Spot Prawns (wild-caught, from British Columbia)

Other Good Choices

Arctic Char (farmed)
Bay Scallops (farmed)
Crayfish (farmed, from the U.S.)
Dungeness Crab (wild-caught, from California, Oregon or Washington)
Longfin Squid (wild-caught, from the U.S. Atlantic)
Pacific Cod (longline-caught, from Alaska)
Now, do note that there is some farmed seafood on this list. That’s such an important issue that I am going to take another post to go over my findings on the subject. Also note that oysters are on the best of the best list. Not only do they contain Omega 3’s, but oysters are pretty much the single best source for zinc (so feed them to your men!).

Consideration Number Three: Environmental Damage

There are several things to consider here. First is overfishing. Farmed trout is not nutritionally superior to wild lake caught trout, it’s just that certain areas are over fished. We do need to protect our resources and overfishing is a bad idea.

Certain fish farming practices are also bad for the environment, especially farmed salmon and shrimp. To help you wade through all of the different fish choices download a regional shopping guide for a list of eco-friendly fish in your area.

In short, buy low mercury seafood that’s also high in nutrients with a soft impact on the environment. I think that these three considerations are the most important for you to consider when you buy seafood.

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!


  1. says

    I’m appreciating these posts – I have the Watch List, but I need to USE it! 🙂 We have a ton of Asian markets in our area, and several open air markets where I KNOW I should be able to find some tasty seafood options…

    Also, are you going to follow these posts with some recipes?? 🙂 My children are happy to eat all kinds of food (liverwurst, salad, sprouts,etc) but are incredibly picky about meat and seafood… even salmon patties have to be accompanied by a good deal more ketchup than I prefer! 🙂

    • says

      There is an enormous flavor difference between the different types of salmon. Wild-caught salmon tastes so much better than farmed! Coho and Alaskan Sockeye and Halibut are splendid if you can afford them. Maybe with better quality fish, family members would have less of a need for sauces (like ketchup) that obliterate the fine flavor.

      • says

        We do use only wild-caught fish in general… and my husband is very big on halibut – he does deep sea fishing once a year to stock us up 🙂 Even then, its a challenge with these kids of mine! 🙁

  2. says

    Great info, Kimi! I have learned alot – and I am looking forward to your findings on farmed fish. I grabbed the guide from the Aquarium once when we were there, and I still have it. But sadly I don’t put it to use – all I get is wild salmon for our seafood. I’m just not sure where I could get good fish in my area, without going to the coast. I’ll look into it. Now that I read about oysters and zinc, I’d really like to add those into the rotation soon.

  3. says

    Kimi, thanks for sharing this! Great post and good to know about oysters! Now, any suggestions on how to sneak them into my husband’s diet, lol!! What can I say, I married a meat and potato country boy. He eats it, but grudgingly 😉

  4. says

    Thanks, Kimi! Great post. I have also read that farmed Tilapia (which is yummy) is a very good choice, though if it’s farmed in Asia it’s more questionable.

    • KimiHarris says

      I have been researching Tilapia a bit. I remain a bit concerned with some aspects of it. Will tell all in another post. 🙂

  5. Ronnie says

    You may have made a typo when you put Albacore Tuna on the Best of the Best list. Perhaps you meant Abalone?

    Tuna is a carnivorous fish, so it ingests mercury from all the fish lower on the food chain. Albacore is large (20-85lb) fish, high on the foodchain, that accumulates mercury throughout its 10+ year lifespan.

    It is better to buy canned chunk light tuna than albacore because chunk light comes from smaller species of tuna. Sockeye salmon which feeds only on plankton, not smaller fish, is an even better but far more expensive choice.

    When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to select very small fish, such as sardines or herring.

    • KimiHarris says

      Actually, I just copied and pasted the list. So if it was a typo, it wasn’t mine. 🙂 I was surprised to see it on the list, but it seems like if it was a mistake they would have fixed it by now!

  6. says

    We enjoy Wild Planet skipjack tuna. They test pretty extensively for mercury and sustainably catch only smaller fish to minimize the mercury exposure.

    And I’m hoping my family has good enough gut flora but I do agree that proceeding with caution is best in these cases.

  7. Cindi says

    What is the secret to cooking dry white beans and then making soup with them?…24 hour soak doesn’t seem to be working. I am determined to leave the can opener out of the white bean soup recipe!

  8. says

    Thanks Kimi for shedding some light on this issue and helping us to become better educated so that we can make the best nutritional choices for our families!
    We love many of the choices for fish and seafood, but know that not all are good for us.

  9. Lisa Imerman says

    Seafood watch also has an iphone application you can get for free with the list of fish, I assume it will be updated more frequently than their paper version!!

  10. Hanni says

    Trader Joe’s has wild alaskan salmon in their frozen section for a good price. It is really good too! It’s a staple at our house now.

    Kimi…thanks for the info. I’d love some ideas on recipes. Trying to eat fish every week is good but after a while I need some different recipes. Would love to hear what you do?

  11. says

    It’s such a bummer that fish can’t just be “fish” and be healthy. I need a fish that doesn’t taste fishy – hubs JUST acquiesced to eating fish for the first time in his life last summer, and we’ve been having tilapia every few weeks or so since then. Then I found out tilapia is actually high in omega-6s! I’m on the hunt for a new possibility…

  12. says

    I really think this is why I have stopped eating as much fish and seafood as I used to – it is hard to know what to eat based on all the various criteria. My husband has a terrible intolerance to anything with high mercury, so salmon and tuna are off the list for us – so we mainly eat shellfish and I try to eat wild smoked salmon regularly as well.

  13. Kirkie May says

    Herring is low on the food chain, however I never see it on ‘Best Sea Food’ lists. Perhaps being marinated has an impact on nutrient value. Any thoughts?

  14. Rachel says

    Kimi –

    Thank you for all the wonderful information you put on your blog. It is such a valuable resource for me and all other nourishing cooks. Quick question – I would like to make my own fish broth. I know that Sally recommends non-oily fish such as sole, snapper and rockfish. But I saw you mention that you have not been able to find a good source of bones. Would you not trust the bones of a non-oily fish purchased at a place like Whole Foods?

    Thanks for all your help on this!

  15. Mary says

    bumped into this delightful site & its a joy to read.. can anyone direct me to a farm or resource that sells chicken or any type of fowl that do not have all the hormones, chemicals and nitrates without paying $12.00 a pound?

    appreciate your input.

  16. TF says

    Do you have helpful advice for fish shopping in Hong Kong? I’ve recently moved to HK and am nervous about the fish choices both due to environmental hazards and knowing cold water fish are better but hard to find here.


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