Few in the culinary know were surprised when fish-focused chef Barton Seaver was named Esquire magazine’s “Chef of the Year” for 2009.
Chef Seaver’s since become a writer as well, with his book of easy, produce- and seafood-centered recipes, For Cod and Country, due in April, 2011.
But the site also offers links to his projects in support of saving the oceans and their bounty, which earned him status as a fellow of the National Geographic Society and Blue Ocean Institute.
Nat Geo's Seafood Guide, co-created with Barton Seaver
In addition to CookWise web videos – focused on fishermen, farmers, and sustainability science – his work with Nat Geo includes an interactive Seafood Decisions Guide that covers the 43 most popular species in North America.
Below, we’ve provided “screen shots” of the Seafood Decisions Guide, showing the seafood choices it recommended in response to two different sets of rankings.
As expected, many Vital Choice offerings appear when the Guide is set for for desirable levels of omega-3s, purity, and sustainability.
Vital Choice fares well in Nat Geo’s Seafood Guide
Nat Geo’s new Seafood Decision Guide is a very cool tool that ranks seafood species according to four criteria:
Food Chain Level
Toxicity Level (purity)
Each criterion has a “slider” you can set to different positions, allowing you to see which species meet your chosen criteria on any one or more of the four criteria.
Conversely, you can click on a species name to produce a new window that shows how it ranks on each of the four criteria.
Each species has a sustainability ranking, mostly provided by the Blue Ocean Institute, while toxicity levels are taken from the Environmental Defense Fund and the omega-3 content is supplied by the USDA.
Unfortunately, no seafood guide we’ve seen distinguishes between younger and older specimens of a species like tuna or halibut, which accumulate mercury as they grow large.
For example, we only purchase relatively young, small specimens of pole-caught albacore tuna (14 lbs. or less) and Alaskan halibut (20 lbs. or less), to minimize mercury and maximize tenderness.
Compared with tuna, swordfish, or wild Atlantic salmon, wild Pacific (Alaskan) salmon are short-lived, and eat lower on the food chain. Among wild salmon, sockeye eat lowest on the food chain (mostly tiny crustaceans), king eat the highest (mostly fish), and the others fall in between.
(Almost all farmed salmon are Atlantic salmon, fed a manmade “chow” that includes varying blends of grains, soy, vegetable oils, fish oils, and fish meal.)
This is not a matter of shunning tuna or other long-lived carnivores, but of picking the most sustainable members of a given species – such as our small, pole-caught (also called troll-caught) albacore – and striking a balance between long-lived carnivores and seafood species that sit lower on the food chain.
As Seaver says, “I’m not saying don’t eat tuna, it’s delicious and I love it. I’m saying eat it with reflection.”
Vital Choice seafood rankings at a glance
The following screen shots taken from Nat Geo’s show the species that appear when we set the sliders for the four criteria to different positions … all of which fall within the range that most consumers would want to pick.
We should note that only two species (herring and Alaskan pollock) rate a “4” in the Nat Geo guide, which is why we set the slider to “3” for these two examples:
Choice Table 1
Food Chain Level 3 (out of 4) • Sustainability Ranking 3 (out of 4)
Toxicity Level Low • Omega-3 Content – High
Resulting seafood offered by Vital Choice: Sablefish, Alaskan Salmon, Sardines, Northern Pacific Shrimp (Spot Prawns), Pink Shrimp
Food Chain Level 4 (out of 4) • Sustainability Ranking 3 (out of 4)
Toxicity Level Low • Omega-3 Content – High
Resulting seafood offered by Vital Choice: Pole-Caught Albacore Tuna
How Vital Choice seafood ranks on the Food Chain Levels
Below is the Nat Geo graphic showing the four levels.
*The level 3 ranking reflects an average of the five major commercial species (sockeye/red, silver/coho, king/chinook, pink, and chum/keta). Sockeye eat lowest on the food chain (eating mostly tiny crustaceans), king eat highest on the food chain (eating mostly fish), and the others fall in between.
NOTE: Most farmed salmon are of the Atlantic species, and it is not clear which level they belong to, because they’re fed a manmade “chow” that includes varying blends of grains, soy, vegetable oils, fish oil, and fish meal.