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Food Detective: Fishing for sustainable seafood on menus

Wild salmPrairie Fire 215 N. Clintis smart seafood choice. (Courtesy RKaplan)

Wild salmon at Prairie Fire, 215 N. Clinton, is a smart seafood choice. (Courtesy Ron Kaplan)

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:38AM

I really like bluefin tuna. So I don’t eat it.

Many of us have probably read the horrifying statistics and projections about how our oceans will be depleted of fish sometime within the next 20 years or so.

Although some of these are perhaps exaggerated, it does seem we’re overfishing the ones we love. Popular fish like bluefin tuna (standard in sushi bars everywhere) and many other varieties of sea creatures are unsustainable: They’re being eaten faster than they can reproduce.

Kassia Perpich, sustainable seafood manager at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, says consumers should push for the facts behind their fish.

“At Shedd, we think it’s important for diners to feel comfortable asking questions about the seafood they encounter at restaurants or grocery stores,” she says. “Asking questions like ‘Where is this fish from?’ and ‘How was it caught or farmed?’ helps diners make informed seafood decisions, and lets businesses know that their customers care about sustainability.”

My experience, however, has been that restaurant servers frequently don’t know where the fish they’re serving came from. So, I asked Perpich for some guidelines for diners who want to eat right but can’t rely upon servers for direction.

“Domestic seafood is usually more sustainable than imported,” Perpich told me. “The United States has stronger fishing regulations than other countries and is better able to enforce them. Smaller fish like sardines, herring and mackerel are also great choices because they tend to reproduce quickly. And nearly all shellfish are sustainably farmed.”

I asked Perpich if there were any varieties of seafood one can buy with the assurance that they’re sustainable.

“Most seafood from Alaska comes from well-managed fisheries, so wild salmon, cod and sablefish from Alaska are great choices,” she said. “Farmed oysters, mussels and clams are another great option. Whitefish and yellow perch from the Great Lakes are two particularly good sustainable choices from our region.”

What fish should we probably not eat at all?

According to Perpich, avoid seafood that’s severely overfished, including bluefin tuna, shark, orange roughy and freshwater eel.

“We also recommend taking a break from seafood that’s caught or farmed using methods that damage the habitat, such as farmed salmon and imported shrimp,” she said.

An easy way to ensure you’re eating fish not threatened by extinction is to patronize places that carry only sustainable seafood, such as Prairie Fire, 215 N. Clinton, or one of Rick Bayless’ restaurants.

Conscientious fishmongers such as Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop, 2070 N. Clybourn, label every item in the cooler with information about the item’s sustainability, which is very helpful.

But for now, I’m still laying off the bluefin tuna. I’d like my grandkids to be able to enjoy it.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and a founder/moderator of culinary chat site E-mail

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