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Choose fish with health in mind

Q: I've never bought farm-raised fish. But now I hear that farmed shrimp are raised with

a clean diet and therefore superior to wild shrimp. What do you recommend?

- Jane R.

A: Before you purchase any type of seafood, consider three important criteria: mercury poisoning, sustainability and, if farmed, the quality of the fish.

In terms of mercury poisoning, nearly all fish contain trace amounts of the highly toxic methyl mercury and some fish contain high levels. Even though there are food antidotes for mercury poisoning (see below), avoid fish with the highest mercury levels.

The long-lived, larger fish that feed on other fish and thus accumulate the highest mercury levels pose the greatest risk to people who eat them regularly. The FDA advises pregnant women, women considering becoming pregnant, infants and young children to not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish (see ). I advise everyone else to consider the same.

Because tuna is a large fish, you may wish to limit your tuna consumption as well. For a complete listing of fish containing high mercury levels, see .

Regarding freshwater fish, the FDA advises contacting your state or local health department to see if there are any special advisories on fish caught from waters in your local area.

For the second criteria, sustainability, the United Nations reports that over one-third of all fish species are vulnerable to or in immediate danger of extinction. It is therefore critical to only purchase fish from a reputable merchant who does not carry endangered species. To track fish sustainability you can visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium's web page, . Their Seafood Watch chart is updated regularly and can be printed out in a wallet-size format for use when shopping or dining out.

When considering mercury and sustainability, farmed fish might seem like an obvious solution. However, our third consideration is the quality of "factory" fish. The way fish are farmed is comparable to that of factory chickens or hogs in that they're fed hormones, antibiotics and chemicals to enhance their growth and to keep them from dying in overcrowded conditions. Farmed fish, most commonly tilapia, may be fed hormones that reverse their sex as a way of yielding more succulent flesh.

To make fish food, the ocean is mined for trash (non-marketable) fish varieties. This is an extraordinarily wasteful process. In an effort toward sustainability, some farmed fish are fed grain and soy pellets. However, one can't help but wonder-how healthy are farmed fish raised on grains and beans? To drastically alter the diet of any species makes it vulnerable to disease.

As for farmed salmon, it's raised in offshore cages where the salmon cannot eat the krill (tiny crustaceans) and plankton that color their flesh and this means lower levels of essential fatty acids. Rather than attempt to market white-fleshed salmon, a chemical dye is added to their feed, resulting in "salmon-colored" steaks and lox. The water surrounding the densely crowded ocean nets becomes polluted with feces and spreads disease to other marine life. Sadly, some farmed salmon escape and breed with wild salmon but bear offspring too wimpy to swim up river to spawn.

To answer your question about shrimp, unfortunately shrimp farming severely damages their offshore habitat and destroys the local fishing economy. This forces the shrimp farms to relocate frequently. Many environmentalists find it hard to eat farmed shrimp in good consciousness. Regarding wild shrimp, I personally pass on shrimp and other shellfish because in our increasingly toxic environment these scavengers are commonly implicated in food sensitivities and food poisoning.

If you do buy farmed fish, ask for the details of what the fish are fed plus a guarantee that the farm does not have a negative impact the environment. Farmed fish may include abalone, catfish, caviar, clams, mussels, oysters, salmon, striped bass, tilapia and trout.

What fish to put on the dinner table? I favor wild fish not in danger of extinction and without high mercury levels, which currently include halibut (Pacific), sablefish/black cod, salmon, sardines, sea bass (white) and squid. The shellfish not in danger of extinction include Dungeness crab, lobster (rock/spiny), and shrimp (trap-caught).

Pacific Halibut,

Onions with Cilantro Pesto

Serves 2

Steaming showcases halibut's delicate flavor better than any other style of cooking. Here halibut is steamed over onions and red pepper to enhance its sweet and savory essence. Pacific halibut, a lean fish that when cooked breaks into large tender flakes, is available fresh from May to December.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1/2 red pepper

Sea salt to taste

2 small Pacific halibut steaks

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Warm the oil in a medium saut? pan over medium heat and saut? the onion and red pepper until soft and lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat if necessary to prevent the onion from burning. Season with salt. Add enough water to the pan to cover the bottom by 1/4 inch. Arrange the halibut steaks on top of the onions. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper. Cover tightly and steam for 5 minutes, or until the center of each steak is no longer translucent. Watch closely; do not overcook. Serve the halibut steaks and onions garnished with a tablespoon of cilantro pesto.

Cilantro Pesto

Makes about — 1/2 cups

Cilantro helps to clean out mercury stored in our tissues by chelating the mercury and safely discharging it from the body. Here's a tasty way to use it.

A flavorful topping for grilled fish, chicken or vegetables, cilantro pesto is also good as a dip, over pasta or grains and on sandwiches. This pesto keeps in the refrigerator for several days. For optimum flavor, bring it to room temperature before serving it.

1 bunch fresh cilantro, rinsed and dried (approximately — cups, loosely packed)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup roasted pine nuts, walnuts or macadamia nuts

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon lime juice

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or to taste

Strip the cilantro leaves from the stems and set the leaves aside. Coarsely chop the stems and place them in a food processor or blender. Add the cheese, pine nuts, garlic, lime juice, oil and salt and process to a uniform consistency. Add the leaves and process until the leaves are coarsely chopped.

Local resident is a food coach, educator and author. Her book, The Splendid Grain, won both the James Beard and the Julia Child Cookbook Awards. Wood's most recent book, She may be reached at