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A Northwest feast of seven (sustainable) fishes

Certified eco-friendly Oregon Dungeness crab would be a top choice for a sustainable seafood feast in the Pacific Northwest. There are so many options, in fact, you could have a feast of more than seven fishes.

Certified eco-friendly Oregon Dungeness crab would be a top choice for a sustainable seafood feast in the Pacific Northwest. There are so many options, in fact, you could have a feast of more than seven fishes.

I’d never heard of the Italian feast of seven fishes until this year, and now suddenly I’m hearing about it all over the place. Italy has a tradition of eating seven different kinds of seafood in a big Christmas eve celebration.

Climatide blogger Heather Goldstone – who may be an even bigger fishery geek than me – did an inventory of which traditional fish would qualify for a local, sustainable feast in the Northeast.

Well, two can play at that game. We might not have lobster in the Pacific Northwest, but we’ve got a medley of home-grown shellfish, certified sustainable Oregon pink shrimp and Dungeness crab that’s coming across the docks this very moment. Yum!

If you wanted, you could probably make a feast of seven different kinds of farmed Northwest oysters.

If you wanted, you could probably make a feast of seven different kinds of farmed Northwest oysters.

There are a lot of sustainable seafood options on the West Coast, according to Allison Barratt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Her program categorizes fisheries worldwide by environmental and health benefits and drawbacks.

One thing the West Coast has that the East Coast doesn’t, according to Fish Watch: Sustainable cod. Oregon and Washington fisheries targeting black cod, or sablefish, don’t make the Aquarium’s “best choice” category, but they are a “good alternative”.

I wanted to craft a list of seafood feast options that are both local and sustainably caught, so I considered the fish on the Fish Watch super green seafood list (the best of the best for your health and the environment) but prioritized seafood caught or produced in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

One key point Barratt made that I took into account: Farmed seafood can be a sustainable option.

And a couple caveats I’ve noted in the past: Eco-labels are not completely foolproof, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium has its critics, too – particularly after the Fish Watch program red-listed troll-caught West Coast salmon last year.

The traditional Italian feast often includes the following: anchovies, sardines, salted, fried or baked cod, scallops, smelts, squid, crab, mussels, clams, oysters, tuna, eel and octopus (great background and recipes here).

We can get a lot of those in the Northwest, but here are some stand-out options for making a sustainable, local version of the feast:

  • Oregon Dungeness crab: Both certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council and at the top of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s super green seafood list. Fresh as can be on Christmas eve, and super tasty too. The fishery only catches mature male crab and avoids fishing while crab are molting to make sure the population can sustain itself indefinitely.
  • Oregon pink shrimp: The first MSC-certified shrimp fishery in the world is right here in the Pacific Northwest. Pink shrimp are the little salad shrimp – not the big honkers. One of the reasons they’re hailed as sustainable is because the fishery uses a specially designed grate in the nets to reduce bycatch.
  • Oysters, mussels and clams: I once had a plate of four different kinds of oysters that were all different shapes and flavors – and all from different Pacific Northwest farms. There are a ton of options for locally farmed oysters, mussels and clams in Oregon and Washington, and they’re all sustainable options, Barratt said: “Farmed shellfish are really good choices. They’re doing their own little job in the ocean keeping everything clean, and you don’t have to take lots of little fish to feed them. They’re heart healthy and low in contaminants.”
  • Pacific sardines: Another option from the super green list; the Northwest lands some of the biggest, oiliest sardines in the world in ports along the Columbia River. Small fish are generally a more sustainable option going forward than bigger fish, but some environmental groups warn that we need to leave enough of these forage to sustain the rest of the ocean food chain.
  • Albacore tuna: The Northwest’s troll-caught albacore has the MSC sustainable label, it’s on the super green list, and it now comes in a BPA-free can. Key to its success as a sustainable fish is the hook and line method of catching it (which minimizes bycatch) and its low level of contaminants.
  • Farmed rainbow trout: Idaho is a hotbed of rainbow trout farming, and these fish are also on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s super green list. Their feed is fish meal and fish oil, but the trout are very efficient at converting this feed into protein, and the species is native to the region, which minimizes the impact of any fish that escape.
  • So many others!  As I said earlier, the Northwest has a ton of sustainable options. You certainly don’t need to stop at seven. But I was impressed by how many local seafood options are on the “best of the best” list and have eco-labels. We’re short on scallops, octopus, squid and eel, though Darus Peake at the Tillamook Boathouse in Garibaldi told me you can find them here if you’re willing to do a little legwork.
  • Smelt? Pacific eulachon smelt were listed as a threatened species last year, and Oregon and Washington fisheries for the small forage fish were closed. There are still some questions about whether the pink shrimp fishery will have to do more to reduce its bycatch of smelt as plans for recovering the species come together.

Unfortunately, after doing all my homework on how to have this feast in the Northwest, I’m headed to Minnesota for Christmas. So, my next assignment will be to craft a separate list for the Midwest. Or maybe I’ll just pack some local seafood in my suitcase and cart it out there … as long as I’m making a carbon footprint by flying halfway across the country.

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