Murky Waters

“Organic,” “day boat,” “wild” versus “farmed”—what those labels at the fish counter really tell you about the seafood you’re buying.


The seafood restaurant Mare made a splash when it opened in the North End in 2005. It was modern! It was hip! It was organic! Er…maybe not so much that last bit: According to the USDA, there’s actually no such thing as organic seafood. Which is why Mare recently—and quietly—changed its full name from Mare Organic Coastal Italian to Mare Natural Coastal Italian. “It was pretty confusing for our guests,” admits chef Christopher Pauls. And for the hosts, too, it seems.

If seasoned chefs are getting tripped up by seafood taxonomy, what chance do the rest of us have of knowing from organic farm-raised bass and sashimi-grade day-boat scallops? Especially in New England, the nation’s fish and shellfish mecca, it’s a shame to feel lost at sea trying to decipher a menu or make an informed decision at the fish store. To help avoid that, here’s our guide to navigating seafood-market nomenclature:

Myth 1: It’s worth paying extra for organic seafood. When you buy a head of organic lettuce, you know you’re getting greens grown without herbicides or pesticides in soil farmed according to strict environmental guidelines. When you buy “organic” haddock—well, there’s no telling what you’re getting. The standards for organic food production that the USDA spent 12 years creating say nothing about farming fish, so the “organic” designation can mean whatever the seller wants it to. “To me, it sounds like a marketing tool,” says Oleana chef-owner Ana Sortun, who cooks with bona fide organic produce from her family farm in Sudbury. “How can you call something organic when it’s in the sea?”

To avoid confusion, high-quality fishmongers and supermarkets like Whole Foods have banned the label. But you still may see it around town on salmon and other farmed fish (particularly smoked products) that come from countries like Norway and the U.K., which use a different organic standard. Bottom Line: A fish without an “organic” label is like a fish without a bicycle.

Myth 2: Wild-caught fish beats the farmed stuff every time. Wild fish can cost three times as much as its farmed brethren. What you’re paying for is firmer and fattier meat, which provides more flavor and doesn’t fall apart or dry out on the grill. For those worried about additives, note that wild salmon comes by its lovely blush color naturally; farm-raised salmon goes the dye-job route. And those thick white lines of fat coursing through the wild salmon filets? That’s the ocean’s answer to a well-marbled USDA prime steak.

If taste is your only concern, skip ahead to Myth 3. For the rest of us, there are ethical issues to grapple with. Wild species are often overfished: For example, the current scarcity of monkfish, a local favorite, has earned it an “avoid” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. (The program updates its ratings regularly; for the latest, go to montereybayaquarium.org.) If you opt for farmed fish, make sure it was raised in a “closed system” (i.e., manmade ponds), not an “open system” (the ocean), where its waste can pollute the waters. This information typically isn’t on the label, so ask your fishmonger for advice. Bottom Line: For superior taste, go wild. For superior taste and a clear conscience, consult Seafood Watch, then go wild…in moderation.

Myth 3: Day-boat seafood is as fresh as it gets. While the term suggests ye olde fisherman bringing in the freshest catch in a small vessel, “day boat” simply means the craft went out and came back in a single day. How long the fish takes to get to you after that varies tremendously. According to Henry Lovejoy, founder of New Hampshire–based EcoFish, which sells sustainable seafood to Boston chefs, the average piece of fish reaches your plate in seven to 14 days. “I don’t think two-week-old fish can be fresh, “even if it’s treated meticulously.” Bottom Line: Want guaranteed freshness? Catch it yourself.

Myth 4: Sashimi-grade meat comes from higher-quality fish. A fish labeled “sashimi grade” has very low bacteria counts and can be safely eaten raw. So sashimi-grade fish is just regular fish eaten soon after it’s caught; it’s often flash-frozen on the boat to keep it pristine. Bottom Line: Befriend a fishmonger, who can steer you to the best specimens.

Myth 5: Beware frozen seafood. An example: In the Southeast, where shrimp are abundant, fresh is always better. In the Northeast, almost all the shrimp you see glistening in the seafood case came out of a frozen bag that morning. A better bet: Buy the frozen bag and defrost it yourself. Bottom Line: If it’s not from around here, frozen may be fresher.

In Season
August’s best local catches for summer grilling.

Bluefish
Natural oils keep this fish moist on the grill; its strong taste goes well with assertive flavors.

Striped Bass
The bass’s tender, mild white flesh is delicate yet firm enough to stay intact over the coals.

Swordfish
This meaty catch has genuine flavor and a substantial texture that takes marinades nicely.

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