Misconceptions abound over wild vs. farm-raised fish
Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010

we were forwarded some comments from newhampshire.com written by a Guide Lines reader concerning one of my columns about striped bass, which included a few recipes for preparing this fine table fare.

The substance of her comments boiled down to this: Striped bass are so full of pollutants that they should not be eaten, and if one insists on eating fish, it is best to choose farm-raised fish.

Both statements have little validity, and the one about farm-raised fish couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the mid-1980s, the National Wildlife Federation magazine featured an article about the dangers of eating fish from Lake Ontario. The conclusions drawn from actual studies of Lake Ontario trout and salmon were frightening and the article caused an incredible stir. In fact, it decimated the charter boat industry there.

The Lake Ontario Charter Boat Association went on the offense and started an investigation of the NWF study.

First, they learned that the fish tested by NWF were ground up whole, including stomach contents, and then tested. That was enough to get the charter boat industry to hire their own independent laboratory to test trout and salmon donated by their members. But the difference was that fish would be tested after being properly prepared, with some also done whole.

All charter boat crews at that time knew how important it was for fish to be filleted, skinned and for all visible fat to be removed. Why? Because the vast majority of their pollutants are removed by this proper handling.

You probably already know what we’re going to report.

One hundred percent of the properly prepared fish were well below the federal maximums for pollutants. And there was only one fish from the study, a very old lake trout that had not been prepared properly, that did not fall below the federal guidelines.

But there was no going back. Despite the fact that Lake Ontario is the source of public drinking water for more than 40 municipalities in both the United States and Canada, the damage from that magazine article still affects this industry today.

A majority of the pollution found in water — and thus in fish — comes from airborne sources. What we eat, drink and breathe is found concentrated in human body fat.

These pollutants mostly do not get destroyed by humans’ or other species’ metabolisms.

The amount of pollution that any animal sequesters in its body also is in direct relationship to its age. The older an animal, the longer it has to build up the pollution. This is fact, not conjecture.

So it is suggested that people eat young, and usually smaller, fish as a valid way of diminishing the amount of pollutants.

Also, removing the fish’s belly flaps, where most of these pollutants congregate, and filleting, skinning and removing any visible fat, will almost guarantee that your fish is fit to eat.

This is not to say that eating a properly done fillet from a 20-year-old carp from the lower Merrimack River would be a good idea. Common sense should be used.

The reader’s suggestion that people should eat farm-raised fish instead of wild fish is almost absurd. These fish are mostly caged and live in the same water inhabited by wild fish. Moreover, fish farming is not one of the cleanest types of agriculture.

These fish are also treated with various antibiotics, and God only knows what else.

Fish farming has had a harmful effect on some wild species and in some instances has endangered their existence. On the West Coast, juvenile coho salmon, on their migration out to the ocean, have to run a gauntlet of fish cages full of farmed salmon that are heavily infected with both bacteria and harmful parasites, causing lingering health problems and very high mortality in the wild coho. And these farm-raised fish have the very same pollutants that wild fish in the same waters have.

Numbers of fish farm escapees also have impacted wild fish around the world, interbreeding and thus destroying some of the built-in disease resistance of the wild fish. They also compete with wild fish for food, and can take up valuable spawning areas.

Fish farms also release a huge amount of food that doesn’t get eaten, causing increases in the nitrogen content of the water and habitat degradation.

So the natural striped bassvs.- farm-raised fish argument has two sides. We will come down hard on the side of eating Mother Nature’s bounty anytime, except for extreme cases. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

Dick Pinney’s Guide Lines column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Readers may e-mail Dick at DoDuckInn@aol.com.