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How to know if your fish dinner is good for the environment - and you

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Updated: 1/17/2013 10:08 am

Most people go through life wanting to do the right thing. That desire is why many of us choose to buy products and food that have been produced sustainably with minimal negative impact on the environment. When considering questions about what constitutes sustainable seafood, however, it's not uncommon to feel adrift.

Even if you're educated about sustainable vegetables and fruits, separating responsibly produced seafood from the school of available products can raise many questions. For example: Is sustainable seafood farm-raised as opposed to fished? Not necessarily. Is pulling fish from the ocean or rivers bad for the environment? Not always.

“The key to finding sustainable seafood is knowing how it was harvested and transported, and what impact that has on the environment and on the animal itself,” says Mark Florimonte, executive chef of Kingsmill Resort, a AAA Four Diamond property in historic Williamsburg, Va. The resort's newly launched restaurant, James Landing Grille, specializes in sustainably sourced seafood and fresh local cuisine. “Farmed fish are not necessarily sustainably raised, or healthier for you, and it's over-fishing that's bad, not all fishing.”

When it comes to how fish are harvested, net fishing and over-harvesting are red flags, Florimonte says. “Net fishing can wipe out entire schools of fish and over-harvesting depletes fish populations.” Consumers and the culinary industry can make a difference, however, he adds. “A few years ago, swordfish could have been extinct, but the restaurant industry rallied to the cause and stopped buying and serving swordfish. At Kingsmill Resort, we uphold that philosophy and avoid buying product from net fishers. We prefer fish that are line-caught and we work with local purveyors as much as possible.”

Florimonte offers tips for recognizing sustainably sourced seafood dishes when you're dining out:

* Read the menu closely. “Restaurants are proud of their environmentally responsible practices, and they'll usually make note of their stewardship right on the menu,” he says. “Often, you'll see menu descriptions that make it clear a dish contains sustainably produced ingredients. Look for words like 'line caught,' 'sustainable' and 'local.' ”

* Look for the local connection. Buying locally produced seafood helps minimize the environmental impact of transporting the product from its point of origin to your plate. Because the product travels less distance, less fossil fuels get consumed transporting it. “Plus,” the chef points out, “it supports local economies.”

* Do some research on the restaurant before you go. Check the menu online and read reviews. If you're still not confident about a restaurant's environmental practices, call and ask - just not during lunch or dinner rush.

Restaurants aren't the only ones paying attention to consumer demand for sustainable products, Florimonte adds. “Supermarkets are more aware of the value of local and sustainably produced products, too.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council offers some advice on how to recognize sustainable seafood in your supermarket:

* Find out where the fish is from. How healthy a type of fish is, and whether or not it was sustainably produced, can differ from region to region.

* Whenever possible, buy American. The United States has stricter fishing and farming standards than other parts of the world, so the American variety of a type of fish is likely to be better than something imported.

* Go wild. Fish farming has a significant impact on the environment, so a wild-caught fish is more likely to be better for your health and the environment than a farm-raised variety.

* Look for line-caught, rather than net-fished. Catching fish using a hook and line has less environmental impact because it doesn't damage the sea floor and allows fishermen to throw back unwanted fish in time for them to survive.

* Frozen fish can be a good choice. Seafood frozen at sea is likely to retain its quality better, and transporting it creates less greenhouse gas than transporting fresh fish because it doesn't have to be air-shipped.

If you would like to savor the goodness of sustainable seafood at home, try this recipe from Chef Florimonte:

Crab Cakes


1 pound Chesapeake Bay lump crab meat

1 whole egg

2 ounces mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 ounces diced onion

2 ounces diced celery

1 ounce crushed corn flakes

3 cups (additional) corn flakes for the coating


Pick through the crab meat to ensure there are no shells left in it. To do this, heat the oven to 400 F, spread the crab on a baking tray and place in the oven for one minute. The heat will cause any remaining shell to turn bright white, making it easier to see.

When the crab is free of shells, combine all the other ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Add the crab, being sure to mix lightly and just enough to combine all the ingredients. Avoid breaking up the lumps of crab.

Grind the three cups of cornflakes in a blender. Divide the crab mixture into five portions, each approximately 4 ounces. Roll each portion into a ball and coat with the remaining corn flake crumbs. Form into cakes.

In a small skillet, melt three tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Place the crab cakes in the pan and brown on each side until golden. Finish in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes to complete heating all the way through.

Serve with fresh lemon and your favorite homemade tartar sauces or remoulade.

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