Seafood is not only great for your health, it's versatile, delicious and cooks in a flash.  So why do so many people shy away from buying it?  Here are some fun fish facts to take the mystery out of seafood and to encourage you to incorporate this naturally low-fat protein into your weekly meal plans.

Health benefits
Fish and shellfish are a good source of protein and other vitamins and minerals.  Fish are naturally low in fat and many fish contain the highly beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3's are essential in helping to process food for energy.  They are considered important for the functioning of the brain, eyes and nerves and evidence suggests omega-3 fatty acids also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.  Fish that are high in omega-3's are the oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and herring.  Some shellfish, such as mussels, oysters and crab are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Because of these great health benefits, the FDA recommends that we eat at least 2 servings of seafood each week, with one of the servings being an oily fish.  Because of pollutants in our oceans, some fish contain high concentrations of mercury and other harmful toxins.  The larger the fish and the fattier (or oilier) the fish, the higher the level of contaminants.  Ingesting high levels of mercury is considered dangerous, particularly to pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, the very young and the very old.  Sticking to fish that are low on the food chain and thereby smaller (think sardines, anchovies, mackerel) means you'll be exposed to lower levels of mercury but will still get the benefits of the low calorie protein and omega-3 fatty acids inherent in oily fish.  Eating a variety of fish and seafood is a good way to limit your exposure to contaminants.

Seasonal seafood
The harvesting of wild fish and shellfish is highly regulated, particularly in the United States and Canada.  These countries have the highest ecological standards for fisheries in the world.  Regulations have been implemented so that the populations of fish and shellfish can be replenished.  This helps fishermen maintain a livelihood and helps to protect species from extinction so that consumers can enjoy salmon, halibut, crab and shrimp for generations to come.

Two of the most popular fish, salmon and halibut, are generally in season in the summertime.  The exact calendar varies by state, country and even body of water. The season closes on the earlier of the specified date or when the maximum tonnage has been harvested.  Your best bet for buying wild-caught, fresh seafood is to patronize and rely on a reputable fishmonger, such as Flying Fish Company in Portland.   (See more on this below.)

There is an old saying that you should only eat oysters in months with an 'r' in their name (September, October, etc.).  This hails from the days when refrigeration was lacking or non-existent; unless oysters are kept very cold they quickly spoil.  The chilling process has made great strides and oysters can safely be consumed in any month, however, there is a flavor and texture difference between winter and summer oysters.  Oysters spawn in the warm summer months.  During this time their flesh becomes fatty, watery and less flavorful, so if possible, choose oysters that come from cool waters during the summer months.  (Note:  Most of the oysters (and clams and mussels) we consume are farmed.  Some farmers are using a genetic procedure that renders the oysters sterile so they never spawn, making prime oysters available year round.  Good for the consumers, not so good for the oysters.)

How to determine freshness
Looking at seafood through a glass case and pointing to what you want is a hit-or-miss method for buying seafood.  You need to see it close-up, touch it and smell it.  Look for the following characteristics:

  1. Fish and seafood should smell like the sea.  Close your eyes and imagine you're on a beach with a gentle breeze blowing.  You can smell the salty air and maybe a hint of seaweed.  This is how your fish should smell.  If you take a whiff and it makes your nose wrinkle or you think it smells 'fishy', it's probably old.  The smell won't improve with cooking.
  2. If buying a whole fish, the eyes should be clear and bright and the skin should be shiny and moist with no discoloration (this also goes for fillets with the skin intact).  If there are spots on the skin and/or the eyes are dull and gray, it may still be safe to eat but it is probably past its prime.
  3. If possible, touch the flesh of the fish; it should be resilient.  If an indentation from your finger remains, choose something else.
  4. If you are purchasing live shellfish the shells should be tightly closed.  If one is slightly ajar, tap on it and see if it closes.  If not, the animal has probably died.  You are likely to have a few casualties when buying shellfish, but any more than one or two per pound means either they haven't been stored properly or the whole batch is nearing the end of its useful life.  (Note:  If a shell doesn't open after cooking, discard it.  This is also an indication that the animal is dead.)
  5. Most shrimp are frozen right on the shrimp boats.  Unless you're in a shrimping area and you can buy shrimp caught that day, buy it frozen.  That fresh-looking shrimp you see in the seafood department is most likely labeled "previously frozen."  The store has taken the liberty of thawing it for you and the quality is deteriorating as it sits on ice under the lights.
  6. Scallops are worthy of special mention.  Again, unless you can be sure they were caught the day you are buying them, purchase frozen scallops that are labeled 'dry packed'.  Wet-packed scallops have chemical additives designed to retain moisture and plump up the meat.  This results in a mushy texture, a less desirable flavor and an inflated price.

How to store it
When buying fresh or frozen seafood, try to minimize the time it spends at room temperature.  If you have errands to run after stopping at the grocery store, bring a cooler or insulated bag to store it in until you get home.

Fresh fish should be stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator (away from lights and the door).  It is best if eaten as soon as possible after purchasing it.  If you buy it today, eat it today or tomorrow at the latest.  If your schedule fluctuates such that you never know when you'll be home to cook, buy frozen fish.  Most seafood is flash-frozen very soon after it's been cleaned, and as long as it stays frozen there will be very little degradation in quality and flavor.

Frozen fish and seafood should (ideally) be thawed in the refrigerator overnight.  If you're pressed for time, put it in a bowl of cool water at room temperature and cook it as soon as it thaws.

Live shellfish should also be stored in the refrigerator.  Put them in a colander or similar container that is not airtight (they need air to breathe.)  Sometimes the fishmonger will wrap your shellfish in a plastic bag and tie a knot so the juices don't run onto your other groceries.  Take them out of the plastic as soon as you get home or they will suffocate.

The importance of a reputable fishmonger
I can't emphasize enough how important it is to buy seafood from someone who knows his or her stuff.  She will tell you what is in season when, will only sell sustainably caught seafood, and will properly store everything to achieve optimal freshness, flavor and quality.   Ask at farmers markets, ask your friends, visit specialty fish shops and ask questions of the proprietors.  Find an expert whom you trust, then let them worry about sourcing the freshest and best seafood so you don't have to.

Too much of a good thing?
There is much talk these days about the over-fishing of our oceans and the irreparable damage being done to coral reefs and other sea habitats due to commercial fishing practices.  Fish and shellfish as food keeps gaining in popularity, particularly with the health benefits that are constantly touted.  It is conceivable (some scientists say inevitable) that within only a handful of years, if the current commercial fishing practices continue unabated, our oceans will be depleted of fish.

Aquaculture or fish farming has become big business in the last few decades, but so far only a handful of fish and shellfish can be farmed in a way that doesn't damage the environment and threaten other species.  (Farmed salmon, by the way, is one of the worst offenders.)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program provides consumers with a simple way of to keep informed about sustainable seafood choices.   Go to their website and you can view hundreds of varieties of fish and other seafood.  For each species they tell you what source is the best choice, what is a good alternative and what to avoid altogether.  This is the absolute best tool to help you make informed decisions when buying seafood, and it comes in several forms.  You can refer to the website, you can order or download a pocket guide or if you have an IPhone, there's a free app.

Seafood Watch takes the worry out of buying seafood.  Use it when you shop and dine out and there just might be some seafood left for the great grandchildren to enjoy.