Scitech  Consumers fishing for a healthy diet

Canadian scientists question the sustainability of recommending fish intake

Sushi, anyone? Our omega-3 frenzied society tells us that eating fish will stave off conditions like heart disease, mental illness, and cancer. Health Canada touts fish as an excellent source of protein, and recommends we eat two servings per week. So fish is all we need to stay alive and well into our triple-digits, right?

According to a newly published study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, these conceptions are based on insufficient and contradictory scientific data.

“Research is needed to clarify the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids,” write the authors in their article.

One of the major problems with these studies, argue the authors, is that they target a healthier demographic than the average – those who regularly eat fish are also more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke or drink.

The authors maintain that what is certain is that fish stocks are disappearing faster than you can say “cod”. With affluent and developed countries continually pursuing the alleged health benefits of fish, consumption is on the rise. Forty per cent of the world’s fish stocks are currently classified as “collapsed”, meaning they yield less than ten per cent of their historic maximum catch, and the number of collapsed fisheries is increasing exponentially from year to year.

There are also over 100 confirmed cases where overfishing has resulted in marine population extinction. Scientists predict that by mid-century, all commercially exploited stocks will have collapsed.

Scott Cantin, a spokesperson from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, remarked that while Canadian domestic fisheries are “well-managed and sustainable,” he would recommend people “become informed about the issue and how they can make informed choices when buying fish and seafood for their dinner tables.”

According to Scott Wallace, the sustainable fisheries analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, current dietary recommendations for fish are unsustainable. “Health guidelines exceed what is realistic, ecologically,” Wallace said. He also noted that aquaculture, or at least the aquaculture we’re used to in North America, isn’t the answer either.

Though large carnivorous fish like salmon and tuna consume three to five times their own weight in smaller fish, their relative nutritional value is actually low. A third of the world’s fisheries are devoted to “reduction fishing,” catching fish to feed to larger, more marketable farm-grown fish, which only exacerbates the problem.

Until any significant health benefits from fish oils can be scientifically confirmed, slight changes to your eating habits can make a difference. Start serving small fish such as herring or plant-eating carp at the dinner table and you’ll still get your seafood fix while remaining fish-stock-friendly. Another option suggested by the study’s authors is to go right to the source and harvest these oils directly from algae or genetically modified yeast and plants. Beth Hunter, the Oceans Campaign Coordinator of Greenpeace Montreal, suggested taking advantage of the fact that fish oils are the same oils present in many seeds, like flax or linseed.

There’s no law that says what fish we should or should not eat. But the exaggerated health claims and factual ecological concerns are something to consider if we want a sustainable future.