In the gray winter months, I clamor for some signs of the lush green vegetative growth I was privy to from April to November. Farm life here, for the most part, is about sitting down and dreaming of more ways in which we can grow more food on our micro-farm, or trying to wrestle with crop rotation when you have such a small space and grow bio-intensively. Fortunately, some nearby farms were still open to the public for tours during these bleak months so we visited Cabbage Hill Farm in Mt Kisco, New York. All of their outside beds were resting for the winter months however upon walking into the main greenhouse, life was in full gear. Cabbage Hill farm is known for their work in Aquaponics - which is the system whereby fish and plants live in a symbiotic recirculating relationship. The fish provide nutritious waste which is then funneled out to the roots of plants and vegetables which happily grow from this nitrogen source, and in turn, clean the water that gets funneled back again to the fish tanks. There is little to fear with PCB, dioxin and mercury fish contamination and in theory it is a sustainable system with the only input being the feed for the fish [though there was lots of electrical needs that could eventually be offset by solar panels]. This system imitates the ancient practice of allowing carp, herbivorous fish, to swim in rice paddies. The rice benefit from the carp excrement and the roots filter the water for the fish. At Cabbage Hill Farm 6000-8000 lbs of tilapia, trout and striped bass are sold to markets and local restaurants every year.
It is estimated that for every pound of vegetarian fish food used at Cabbage Hill 1/4 lb of fish and 8-10 lbs of vegetables (bok choy, chard, lettuces, mustard greens and herbs) are produced.
More and more, people are becoming aware that they can make sustainable choices in the types of fish they eat and there are several well-known chefs, like Rick Moonen of Vegas’s RM Seafood restaurant, who are trying to spread the word within the culinary industry. What about fish oil supplements? Can they be sustainable and what type of information does one need to eat fish sustainably? This is a difficult question that I’ve been wrestling with especially since eating fish has so many obvious health benefits. There are countless studies on the health benefits of omega -3 fatty acids which are found in high concentrations in oily fish. I first began recommending fish oil to patients with cardiovascular disease at least a decade ago but with the plethora of studies continuing to show benefit for a wide range of conditions from cancer cachexia to depression, it has become the supplement du jour. Since 2006, the US market for omega-3 neutraceuticals has doubled to an estimated $1 billion (and that doesn’t include the fortified foods like infant formulas for example).
Though the word sustainable is thrown around a lot, it’s helpful to really dissect the definition of what it truly means before coming to a reasonable conclusion of whether or not eating fish or consuming fish oil supplements can be sustainable.
According to Wikipedia, that bastion of knowledge that most people turn to on the web, sustainability means “the capacity to endure” which “can be applied to every facet of life on Earth.” To me, it is most obviously applies to our limited resources but less obvious, it also pertains to the health and well-being of humans. Pertaining to our discussion here, fish are the limited resource. There are simple things one can do: refuse to buy and eat any fish that is being overfished i.e. Chilean Seabass, Beluga Sturgeon, Bluefish Tuna. These actions would be for the sustainability of the planet. Then there are other fish you should avoid which is for the sustainability (health) of humans because of high pollutant and contamination levels (farmed salmon, orange roughy, swordfish and tuna (longline)).
This is relatively easy to grasp and there are numerous resource, pocket and mobile phone guides you can download and keep with you for when you shop or dine out. I like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch which will break down the guides according to which area you live in the US.
Now the hard part. Is the use of fish oil an environmentally unsustainable practice? This recently was discussed in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, and brought to my attention, the plight of the Menhaden fish, a fish that I had never heard of before this piece. Menhaden provides one of the largest sources of omega-3 fish oils in the supplement industry. Other sources include sardines, anchovies and cod which are fished mostly in Peru.
First a lesson in Omega-3 fatty acids which I will make as simple as possible:
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential fatty acid, which means our bodies do not produce them. They must be consumed. The reason why certain fish have high levels of omega 3-fatty acids is that they either consume algae or they eat other fish that have in turn consumed algae. So predatory fish like tuna or shark aren’t just born with high levels of omega 3 fatty acids, they consume fish that in turn eat smaller fish like Menhaden which, by the way, are a “colossal eater” of algae. The larger the fish, the large the accumulation of omega3- fatty acids which is the good news, but the bad news is that these same fish are also larger accumulators of toxic pollutants like mercury, PCB’s and dioxins. The same applies when you buy eggs high in omega-3 fatty acids: they are simply fed omega-3 fatty acids usually in the form of flaxseed but they may also have been fed Menhaden as well. Be sure to look for the label “vegetarian fed” on your egg cartons. So what’s Menhaden and why is it important in the ecological scheme of things?
Menhaden, an oily inedible fish, that used to swim in schools as large as 40 miles long on the eastern seaboard, have been fished so drastically over the last 200 years that the impact is being felt in the entire ecologically systems of both the Atlantic ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. To understand this, one needs to know what Menhaden do:
1. Menhaden are filter feeders. One Menhaden fish can filter 4-8 gallons of water per minute. Because they only eat phytoplankton, which are algae, or cellulose from rotting vegetation, (one of the few fish that do this) they essentially clean the water. What happens if the water is not cleaned? Though there are other causes of algal blooms which lead to “dead zones,” areas in the water that cannot support any life, Menhaden can dramatically reduce these areas, but only if they are around. Think of a swamp ecology - thick algae blocks sunlight which decreases oxygen and thus create a inhospitable environment for fish and shellfish.
2. They are the main food source for other marine animals like bluefish, striped bass and fluke. The Menhaden are the preferred meal for these predators which is substantiated by the fact that it’s the best bait you can use when fishing. When this is eliminated, populations of these fish are greatly reduced. These predators then hunt other fish like herring and those populations eventually will decrease.
As you can see, when you take this particularly unknown fish out of the water, the ecosystem begins to fall apart. A must-read for all those who consume fish and care about the environment is H. Bruce Franklin’s The Most Important Fish In The Sea. During his extensive research several biologists to environmental advocates emphasized the critical role of Menhaden; “[One] can’t overemphasize the importance of this fish to the ecology of the entire East Coast” or that the Menhaden are “the absolute keystone species for the health of the entire Atlantic ecosystem.” His book provided me with the inspiration to look into this matter further as it pertains to my patients and my use of prescribing fish oils.
What to do with this information?
Eat Vegetable Sources of Omega 3’s
There are many plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid. These include flaxseed and oil, walnuts, purslane and canola oil, hemp seed and hemp milk, chia, and soybean. The issue here is that the beneficial omega-3’s known as DHA and EPA, which are readily available from fish, are not in these vegetarian sources. The body must convert them slowly to these forms and a small percentage of the population has the genetic polymorphism that doesn’t enable the critical enzyme delta-6-desaturase to convert alpha-linolenic acid to the long chain DHA and EPA.
Eat fish and not supplements
This is becoming more and more difficult to do give the effects of toxic contaminants that have filled our oceans and rivers. However, there are choices one can make when eating out or purchasing fish. The most important being knowing exactly where your fish comes from. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Environmental Defense Fund both provide interactive guides online about good, bad and worse choices. As a frequent consumer of sushi, I especially like their pocket sushi guide where you can download HERE.
Educate yourself on the companies that produce your fish oil.
One of the things you can do to make an impact on the Atlantic ocean’s ecosystem is to vote with your dollar. Do not support companies that use Menhaden either as their source for fish oil, pet food, food products or fertilizer. In fact, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the worst choices (purity standards) you can make in purchasing fish oil supplements is from the company that continues to be responsible for the destruction of the Menhaden population: Omega Protein which makes Omega Pure fish oil. They had contaminant levels well beyond the standards for their survey. Finally, consider algae-based omega-3 supplementation. The caveat here is that it provides primarily DHA and not EPA fatty acids.
Read what your dog food is made of: brands like VeRUS, Wellness Core Ocean formula, Earthborn Holistic Ocean or Solid Gold Holistique Blend Fish all use Menhaden fish in their formulas. There are PLENTY of other safe choices. Better yet, become acquainted with Omega Pure’s website and their products. Menhaden oil is the source of omega 3’s in Smart Balance Buttery Spread and Cindy’s Kitchen “All Natural” salad dressings. Don’t buy!
Become a Seafood Watch Advocate
By joining, you can increase awareness to the restaurants and markets you shop as well as being able to educate your friends and families about their choices and the effect those choices have on our delicate and fragile ocean ecology. Join HERE.
Farmer Pam, MD
A lawsuit is pending in California is alleging that 8 major manufacturers of fish oil supplements contain huge amounts of PCBs - a manmade cancer-causing toxin. Testing was done by Manteel Environmental Justice Foundation and named these companies: Omega Protein, GNC, Rite Aid, CVS, Pharmavite (Nature Made), NOW, Solgar and Twin Labs. For now, avoid these brands and look into reputable companies that perform third party testing on their supplements.
H. Bruce Franklin's book had a readl impact as the menhaden fish are now being protected...
See story HERE.