What is the healthiest and most sustainable fish to eat in Belgium?
Fish is a great source for easy-to-digest proteins, healthy fats (more or less fat depending on the type of fish) and key nutrients such as iodine, zinc and selenium (which are all crucial for the thyroid). When it comes to fish, we have to select smartly though, because of potential heavy-metal contamination and of course, sustainability and over-fishing concerns.
When it comes to heavy metals, there is no 100% “clean” fish anymore these days. For most species the benefits of eating them outweigh the risks though. There are studies indicating that the selenium content in fish counterbalances potential heavy metals (selenium helps to detoxify). The only exceptions seem to be shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel, where selenium is relatively low (read more here). Still, I recommend to limit fish with high risk for heavy-metal contamination to no more than two servings a month. The bigger the fish, the further it swims and the longer it lives, the higher the risk for contamination. The smaller the fish and the further down the food chain, the saver it is. That makes sardines a much healthier choice than for example tuna (sardines are also rich in omega 3, more on omega 3 here). They are also more sustainable, since we eat the sardine directly, rather than the tuna (or shrimp, or salmon) that has eaten many sardines throughout his life.
In general, I favor wild-caught fish over farmed fish, because farmed fish often has the same issues as farmed meat: over-farming, destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems, pollution, inadequate feed or feed that wastes a lot of resources (i.e. by-catch is shredded up to feed shrimp, whereas we could also eat the by-catch directly to satisfy our protein needs), and antibiotic use. This means that I also avoid all fish labeled “organic” or “bio”. You cannot certify wild fish as “bio”. As soon as it carries the “bio” or “ASC” label, this means it has been farmed (ASC = Aquaculture Stewardship Council). Thus, when I recommend fatty fish, such as salmon, I only recommend WILD salmon, not organic salmon and not “general” salmon from non-organic farms. If it is wild, it says so on the packaging, since this is a rather rare specialty.
Unfortunately most wild fish is not fished in a sustainable way these days. When thinking of sustainable fishing, most people think of using environmentally-friendly fishing methods that do not destroy the sea ecosystem, and fishing with regard for fish populations and reproduction seasons. While those are important factors, sustainable fishing should ideally comprise three pillars: economic, social AND environmental sustainability. However, the various labels out there, first and foremost the popular MSC/ASC label, address only the ecological one. MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) is in fact harshly criticized by fishers, because their label is prohibitively expensive for small fishermen (25.000 Euros entry fee) and provides no additional income (= economic sustainability) for them in the long run. Apart from that, fishing methods using electric shocks are labeled “sustainable” under MSC, yet this method seriously damages the fish and also allows to fish in areas that were not easily accessible before, thus favoring overfishing even more. Food kilometers are also not yet sufficiently accounted for in the whole sustainability discussion, favoring the import of exotic species (like farmed, ASC labeled Pangasius from Vietnam) over the consumption of local fish (of course, "local" is not always best, if you live in Japan…)
If we need labels at all, it’s because we are living in a world of anonymous distribution and the only way for us to choose one product over another is via the information on the label. However, there are a few organizations working to establish a short-circuit distribution system, in which the fisher is involved from the sea to the table. The closer the fisher is to the consumer, the higher his sense of responsibility to deliver a high-quality product. The better the consumer knows who has fished his fish and how, the more he can trust and the less he needs a label. He will also be more inclined to pay a fair price so that the fisher can make a decent living and continue to deliver high quality.
In Belgium, Pintafish is such an organization. Pintafish originated from Veeakker, a company pioneering already since the late 80's with sustainable meat and short circuit distribution. Under the guidance of the Dutch North Sea Foundation and later the Flemish Institute for Research in Agriculture & Aquaculture (ILVO), the cooperation with regional fishermen was sought. Talking to those fishermen revealed that lots of the fish they caught was not known and as such not bought (enough) by the consumer. In 2014, 178 tons of highly nutritious fish were wasted or processed into cat and dog food (this is what is enforced if market quantities/prices are too low)! It is Pintafish’s ambition to reduce this enormous number by buying whatever the fishermen fish and offering those “less known” types of fish to consumers via their popular “seasonal packages” (inspired by “the North Sea chefs” initiative that has already managed to introduce around 50 new species to local chefs and restaurant owners).
The superior quality of the fish is ensured by collaborating with Danny Huyghebaert, a former fisherman, who knows all about the different types of vessels, fishing methods and the cold chain. From the merely 70 Belgian boats still regularly going to sea, he only buys from those working in accordance with Pintafish’s requirements for hygiene and sustainability. Concretely that means that the fish comes from close-by areas, mainly the North Sea (some Belgian fishers tend to go far away), where fish stocks are sufficiently high (as regularly assessed by ILVO), respecting seasonality and breeding times. It also means selecting vessels based on the sustainability of their fishing method. The types of fish they offer tend to score low on the contamination scale. The fishers receive a fair price.
But what differentiates Pintafish most from any other fish supplier is the authenticity and integrity of the people behind the project. In fact, Pintafish consciously puts ecological choices before purely economic interests. For example, they do not offer any cod, tuna, shrimp or regular salmon (despite an existing demand for those), because
- Cod is highly overfished
- Tuna is imported from far away, often fished using unsustainable fishing methods and killing a lot of by-catch in the process,
- Shrimp and salmon are usually farmed, causing a lot of pollution and destruction, and also requiring a lot of by-catch to feed them.
Pintafish also chooses to vacuum-pack all and freeze most of their fish immediately after the return of the boat. Even though freezing their fish makes it more difficult for them to sell it, doing so allows them to bridge the gap between supply and demand, thus further decreasing fish waste.
I can only encourage you to support Pintafish’s cause by buying their fish! This will allow them to continue and grow their activities, making it attractive for more and more fishers to work with them and to invest in sustainability. You can find Pintafish in Flanders (ordering via www.veeakker.be), in their shop in Leuven, in Brussels via www.topino.net, at Belgomarkt, at Färm markets and www.efarmz.be. Soon you should also be able to order from Pintafish directly (homedelivery is planned as of March, stay tuned).
In summary the healthiest and most sustainable fish you can eat in Belgium (and most of Europe) is:
- Wild-caught, ideally local fish that has been caught using sustainable fishing methods and fished in relatively clean waters. You can eat this fish in all its varieties (white fish, fattier fish). Best source in Belgium is Pintafish. Herring (Maatjes) from the Netherlands are also a good option.
- Wild-caught fish that comes from further away, that has been caught using sustainable fishing methods and been fished in clean waters. Examples would be Pintafish's wild salmon, or brands such as Food4Good in some bio shops, although you need to pay attention, because not all is wild fish, lots is labeled "bio" and thus farmed).
- Small, fatty fish, such as sardines or mackerel that come in glass jars (buy only in water or olive oil). Those are available for example at Tan or Färm.
To be avoided:
- Farmed fish (in general), even if "bio"
- Overfished species (such as cod, tuna, shrimp or salmon)
- Fish with higher risk for Heavy Metal contamination or where selenium is rather low, esp. shark, swordfish, tilefish or king mackerel (not regular mackerel)
- Tinned fish in sunflower or canola oil