Health knowledge and news provided by doctors.

Twelve fish to keep off your dish

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
seafood, contaminants, mercury, pollution, overharvesting

Seafood is generally deemed to be healthy; however, a number of popular ones you should avoid at all costs. Prevention magazine reported that the nonprofit Food & Water Watch compiled a list of the 12 least-healthy seafood products; they also note healthier alternatives. It is likely that a number of your favorites are on the list.

Food & Water Watch notes that our oceans have become so depleted of wild fish stocks, and so polluted with industrial contaminants, that trying to figure out the fish that are both safe and sustainable is a daunting task. They note that “Good fish” lists can change year after year, because stocks rebound or get depleted every few years.

Imported Catfish: Almost 90% of the catfish imported to the US comes from Vietnam, where use of antibiotics that are banned in the U.S. is widespread. Furthermore, the two varieties of Vietnamese catfish sold in the US, Swai and Basa, are not technically considered catfish by the federal government; therefore, they are not held to the same inspection rules that other imported catfish are.

Eat This Instead: Purchase domestic, farm-raised catfish. It is responsibly farmed and plentiful, making it one of the best fish you can eat. Or, try Asian carp, an invasive species with a similar taste to catfish that is out-competing wild catfish and endangering the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Caviar: Caviar from beluga and wild-caught sturgeon are susceptible to overfishing; in addition, the species are also being threatened by an increase in dam building that pollutes the water in which they live. All forms of caviar come from fish that take a long time to mature, which means that it takes a while for populations to rebound.

Eat This Instead: If you really love caviar, opt for fish eggs from American Lake Sturgeon or American Hackleback/Shovelnose Sturgeon caviar from the Mississippi River system.

Atlantic Cod: Chronic mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries Service and low stock status made it very difficult to recommend. Atlantic cod stocks collapsed in the mid-1990s and are in such disarray that the species is now listed as one step above endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Eat This Instead: Pacific cod stocks are still strong and are one of Food and Water Watch’s best fish picks.

American Eel: Also called yellow or silver eel, this fish, which is commonly offered at sushi restaurants is highly contaminated with PCBs and mercury. The fisheries are also suffering from some pollution and overharvesting.

Eat This Instead: If you like the taste of eel, opt for Atlantic- or Pacific-caught squid instead.

Imported Shrimp: Imported shrimp holds the designation of being the worst choice among the 12 fish on this list. Most (90%) of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. Imported farmed shrimp comes with a laundry list of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects. Part of this has to do with the fact that less than 2% of all imported seafood (shrimp, crab, catfish, or others) gets inspected before it is sold.

Eat This Instead: Purchase domestic shrimp; 70% of domestic shrimp comes from the Gulf of Mexico, which relies heavily on shrimp for economic reasons. Pink shrimp from Oregon are another good choice; the fisheries there are certified under the stringent Marine Stewardship Council guidelines.

Atlantic Flatfish: This group of fish includes flounder, sole, and halibut that are caught off the Atlantic coast. They found their way onto the list because of heavy contamination and overfishing that dates back to the 1800s. According to Food & Water Watch, populations of these fish are as low as 1% of what is necessary to be considered sustainable for long-term fishing.

Follow eMaxHealth on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Please, click to subscribe to our Youtube Channel to be notified about upcoming health and food tips.

Eat This Instead: Pacific halibut or other mild-flavored white-fleshed fish, such as domestically farmed catfish or tilapia.

Atlantic Salmon (both wild-caught and farmed): It is actually illegal to capture wild Atlantic salmon because the fish stocks are so low, and they are low, in part, because of farmed salmon. Salmon farming is very polluting: Thousands of fish are crammed into pens, which leads to the growth of diseases and parasites that require antibiotics and pesticides. Often, the fish escape and compete with native fish for food, leading to declines in native populations. Currently, all fish labeled “Atlantic salmon” comes from fish farms.

Eat This Instead: Opt for wild Alaskan salmon.

Imported King Crab: The main problem with imported crab is that most of it comes from Russia, where limits on fish harvests are not strongly enforced. In addition, imported king crab is often misnamed Alaskan king crab. It is often seen labels at supermarkets that say “Alaskan King Crab, Imported.” Alaskan king crab is a completely different type of shellfish and it is much more responsibly harvested than the imported products.

Eat This Instead: When you shop for king crab, whatever the label says, ask whether it comes from Alaska or if it’s imported. Approximately 70% of the king crab sold in the U.S. is imported; thus, it is important to make that distinction and go domestic.

Shark: These predatory fish are extremely high in mercury, which poses threats to humans. However, ocean ecosystems suffer because the decrease in sharks has resulted in species they feed on such as cownose rays and jellyfish. The rays are eating, and depleting, scallops and other fish. The result is that there are fewer of those fish in the oceans for us to eat, placing an economic strain on coastal communities that depend on those fisheries.

Eat this instead: Among the recommendations for shark alternatives are Pacific halibut and Atlantic mackerel.

Orange Roughy: In addition to having high levels of mercury, orange roughy can take between 20 and 40 years to reach full maturity and reproduces late in life, which makes it difficult for populations to recover from overfishing. Orange roughy has such a reputation for being overharvested that some large restaurant chains, including Red Lobster, refuse to serve it. However, it still can be found in grocer freezers, sometimes mislabeled as “sustainably harvested.” There are no fisheries of orange roughy that are considered well-managed or are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Eat This Instead: Opt for yellow snapper or domestic catfish to get the same texture as orange roughy in your recipes.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: A recent analysis by The New York Times found that Atlantic Bluefin tuna has the highest levels of mercury of any type of tuna. In addition, Bluefin tuna are severely overharvested, to the point of reaching near-extinction levels, and are considered “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature..

Eat This Instead: If you really cannot give up tuna, opt for American or Canadian (but not imported) albacore tuna, which is caught while it is young and does not contain as high levels of mercury.

Chilean Sea Bass: Most Chilean sea bass sold in the US comes from fishermen who have captured them illegally. Fish stocks are at such a low level that the nonprofit Greenpeace estimates that, unless people stop eating this fish, the entire species could be commercially extinct within five years. In addition, these fish are high in mercury.

Eat This Instead: These fish are very popular and considered a delicacy; however, you can get the same texture and feel with US hook-and-line–caught haddock.

Reference: Food & Water Watch



This is so eye opening! Thank you. I have a friend who always chooses orange roughy. Must share this.
It was an eye opener for me as well. We now have to modify our seafood selections.
I think that 90% of the shrimp, (maybe more), sold in the North West comes from Asia. Before the BP spill in the Gulf most of the shrimp came from there. I no longer see that 70% from the Gulf anymore, and if I did I would be reluctant because of the chemicals used for the cleanup. I have to search far and wide to find any USA shrimp, even from Oregon, which is nearby. It makes me wonder where all that USA, Gulf of Mexico and Oregon shrimp are being sold?