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The Best Fish for the Environment? Frozen

The other day, as I was contemplating the offerings at Lakewinds' seafood case, one of the gentlemen working there told me to consider the frozen wild salmon.

It's actually better than fresh, he said, because it's flash frozen as soon as it's caught and then vacuum-sealed to preserve the flavor -- even before it begins its journey to restaurants and stores.

I took his advice because he has steered me right in the past with other seafood purchases I've made there, such as buying, stuffing, and grilling the delicious -- and almost local -- Wisconsin trout.

So I bought the frozen salmon fillet, thawed it and grilled it. And you know what? He was right. It was even better than the fresh I have so ignorantly sought in the past.

This happened about the same time that the New York Times published "Catch of the Freezer" -- an article by two ecological economists and a food system researcher -- who have determined that properly frozen fish not only tastes better, it's better for the environment, primarily because it doesn't have to be transported by air.

Here's the entire article, as written by Astrid Scholz, vice president of knowledge systems at Ecotrust in Portland, Oregon; Ulf Sonesson, researcher at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology; and Peter Tyedmers, professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

GO local. Eat organic. Buy fresh. Those food mantras continue to make waves among environmentally conscious consumers. But — as is often the case in these climate-conscious times — if the motivation is to truly make our diets more earth-friendly, then perhaps we need a new mantra: Buy frozen.

Several years ago, the three of us — two ecological economists and one food system researcher — teamed up in an effort to understand how to develop sustainable food systems to feed a planet of nine billion by 2050. As the focus of our study, we chose salmon, an important source of protein around the world and a food that is available nearly anywhere at any time, regardless of season or local supply.

We examined the salmon’s life cycle: how the fish are caught in the wild, what they’re fed when farmed, how they’re processed and transported and how they’re consumed.

And what did we find in our research? When it comes to salmon, the questions of organic versus conventional and wild versus farmed matter less than whether the fish is frozen or fresh. In many cases, fresh salmon has about twice the environmental impact as frozen salmon.

The reason: Most salmon consumers live far from where the fish was caught or farmed, and the majority of salmon fillets they buy are fresh and shipped by air, which is the world’s most carbon-intensive form of travel. Flying fillets from Alaska, British Columbia, Norway, Scotland or Chile so that 24 hours later they can be served “fresh” in New York adds an enormous climate burden, one that swamps the potential benefits of organic farming or sustainable fishing. (Disclosure: A nonprofit subsidiary of Ecotrust, the North Pacific Fisheries Trust, lends money to sustainable fisheries.)

Fresh fish is wonderful and healthful, and if it’s driven a reasonable distance to market, then its relative environmental impact is low. Fortunately for conscientious diners, when fish is flash-frozen at sea, its taste and quality is practically indistinguishable from fresh. More important, it can be moved thousands of miles by container ship, rail or even truck at much lower environmental impact than when air freighted. If seafood-loving Japanese consumers, who get most of their fish via air shipments, were to switch to 75 percent frozen salmon, it would have a greater ecological benefit than all of Europe and North America eating only locally farmed or caught salmon.

Is the future full of fish sticks? No. But when it comes to eating seafood from halfway around the world, we need to get over our fetish for fresh. With the challenges facing the world’s oceans mounting, buying frozen is a powerful choice that concerned eaters everywhere can make.

Comments

Fish is definitely good for you, at least when it doesn't have mercury in it. However, it might not be available that much longer, at least for anyone other than the rich. Overfishing is a real problem.

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The idea of organic food is becoming popular day by day. People are more and more interested in buying local, organic and fresh food now days. The importance of organic food is much realized by the masses. I love fresh fish. It tastes good and better for health. An idea of frozen seafood really impressed me because I love eating fish, only when its taste is intact. The researchers are doing a great job and I hope that whole the fish eating community will be beneficial due to their research in the long run.

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I never knew a frozen salmon fish is way better than the fresh ones. I admire their research. It's truly outstanding. Thanks for posting. By the way Shari, did you happen to know if they have also tried to conduct a study for other varieties of fish? Just curious.