Week of 04/06/2008

Dear EarthTalk: How can I find out which seafood to avoid if I am concerned about lessening my impact on the environment and avoiding consuming unhealthy pollutants?

Pat Kelly, Seattle, WA

Several decades ago a fish-centric diet was considered to be not only healthy but also environmentally friendly. But today those of us who eat a lot of fish may not be doing ourselves or the environment any favor. The two major concerns are overfishing and pollution.

Demand for low-calorie, protein-rich fish has grown tremendously alongside increases in world population. At the same time, the technologies employed for catching seafood have improved to the point that the commercial fishing industry has essentially stripped the ocean of its once teeming fish populations. One recent analysis concluded that only 10 percent of the large predatory fish that once roamed the world's oceans are left, due to overzealous sport and commercial fishing. Another study concluded that three-quarters of the world's fisheries are either fully fished or overfished.

Pollution from industrial, agricultural and other everyday activities like electricity generation and automobile driving has also taken a serious toll on the health of the remaining fish species. Scientists routinely find unsafe levels of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and other harsh toxins in the fat, internal organs and even muscle tissue of many different kinds of fish. These contaminants are then passed on up the food chain to our dinner plates.

According to Seafood Watch, a project of the Monterey Bay Aquarium that works to educate the public about the seafood crisis, consumers can make a difference by getting educated so as to make smart choices about what seafood to avoid. Consumers can download and print out free Seafood Watch pocket guides to the "best choices" across six different regions of the U.S.—after all, what's abundant and sustainably harvested in your area may not be the same for someone across the country.

The commercial fishing industry has essentially stripped the ocean of its once teeming fish populations. Pollution from industrial, agricultural and other everyday activities has also taken a serious toll on the health of the fish that remain.
© Getty Images

Another convenient way to get the low-down on the fish you may be contemplating buying at the grocer or a restaurant is to text "30644" with the message "FISH," followed by the name of the specific fish in question. In a few seconds, an automated response will come back from the non-profit Blue Ocean Network's FishPhone service with information on the status of the fish in question—and alternatives, should Blue Ocean consider the fish an undesirable choice.

The basic skinny on fish consumption is that if you like it, you should eat it, but responsibly—that means in moderation and armed with the proper knowledge of which types of fish to buy and which to avoid.

For those looking to cut down on or eliminate seafood from their diets but still gain the health benefits of eating fish, plenty of alternatives exist. As most vegetarians know, beans, tofu and many nuts can be significant alternative sources of protein. And walnuts, flaxseed and hemp oil/seeds are all rich in the Omega-3 fatty acids common in many fish and thought to help ward off heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration (age-related blindness), arthritis and inflammatory disorders.

CONTACTS: Seafood Watch; FishPhone


Dear EarthTalk: What makes those so-called "new urbanism" housing developments popping up around the U.S. more environmentally friendly than regular old suburban neighborhoods?

Rusty Spinoza, Galveston, TX

The husband-and-wife team of town planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are typically credited as the founders of new urbanism, a style of community design that embraces mixed use (commercial and residential) development in pedestrian-friendly and green space-rich neighborhoods—much like the old neighborhoods many baby-boomers remember before suburban sprawl made us all slaves to our cars.

Front porches, especially those located close to the street, are an essential ingredient in new urbanism communities because they promote neighborhood interaction and enable porch sitters and passersby to communicate without raising their voices.
© amandab3, Flkr

Duany and Plater-Zyberk formulated their new urbanism principles while living in one of the Victorian neighborhoods of New Haven, Connecticut while they attended graduate school in architecture at Yale. Their neighborhood included corner shops, front porches and a variety of attractive and well-designed housing and commercial structures—planting the seed of an idea that has now swept the U.S. and beyond.

The prototypical new urbanist community is Florida's Seaside, which Duany and Plater-Zyberk began designing in 1979 for the 80-acre coastal parcel's developer, Robert S. Davis. Their plan took the best elements of a handful of graceful southern cities like Key West, Charleston and Savannah to create a community based on the tried-and-true concept of walkable, self-contained neighborhoods. Besides 300 homes, Seaside contains a school, a town hall, an open-air market, a tennis club, a tented amphitheater and a post office—everything anyone could ever need in a town, and all within a five minute walk.

According to the non-profit Smart Communities Network, Seaside works as a community because of its design: "Mandatory porches are set close enough to walkways to enable porch sitters and passersby to communicate without raising their voices
. The streets are all interconnected; creating a network that eliminates "collector" routes and reduces congestion. Walkways crisscross the development to encourage walking and biking, while narrow streets serve to reduce traffic speed." Building fronts are a uniform distance from the curb and all streets are tree-lined to further the community's "sense of place."

Other examples of new urbanist communities include: Stapleton on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado; Seabrook on the southern coast of Washington State; Melrose Arch in Johannesburg, South Africa; Alta de Lisboa near Lisbon, Portugal; and Jakriborg in southern Sweden. Meanwhile, the idea has caught on in New Orleans, where developers are styling new communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina based in part on the principles of new urbanism.

According to the website NewUrbanism.org, being green is central to the concept of new urbanism, where houses tend to be compact and on small lots. And many developers are incorporating green building design and alternative energy generation into their plans for these communities. Furthermore, proponents say that building densely settled, walkable communities instead of road-intensive suburban developments cuts down on the need to drive, thus further reducing the carbon footprint.

CONTACTS: Seaside; Smart Communities Network; NewUrbanism.org