Eat Fish, But Do It Carefully

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Well, here we are. Summer is once again upon us—too soon for some, long overdue for others.
If you are returning to the East End for the first time this year, you will be pleased to know it should be easy for you to put some fresh fish on the dinner table straight out of the gate.

There are a number of species you can target this weekend according to your means or palate. Big porgies are chock-a-block in the Peconics, with the easiest fishing being just west of Jessups Neck or around Rogers Rock. Fluke fishing has been very good in Shelter Island Sound as well, either off Sag Harbor or Southold, with plenty of keeper fish coming over the rails.

Striped bass are in the surf in a few spots, with the early mornings and late evenings being the best shot. Or, if you have a boat, the rips off Montauk are now holding good numbers of keepers, as is the South Ferry slip at Shelter Island. There are weakfish in Noyac Bay and the Quogue Canal. Bluefish are just about anywhere you want them.

So there are plenty of options for a fish dinner. However, while almost all of our fish species are delicious and very healthy for you, some do carry some of the negative effects of living in the shadows of human civilization and can pass them right back to us if we do not take some care in what we eat. It’s kismet, but it can be avoided with a little vigilance.

My first piece of advice: Stick to local fish. And that means actually local fish. Your “Block Island Swordfish” at the East Hampton Grill this weekend did not come from anywhere near Block Island, and it certainly wasn’t caught by a boat from New York State until at least July or August of last year. The striped bass the waiter told you came from Montauk, didn’t. The commercial striped bass season in New York doesn’t open until July, so even if they bought the fish from Gosman’s, it did not come from local waters at all and was probably caught at least a week ago.

Imports should be avoided at all costs. Chilean sea bass is just about the least healthy fish you can eat—it is loaded with mercury. So is tuna, especially bluefin and bigeye tuna, which grow very large. Yellowfin is less of a concern, because most of those caught commercially are relatively small fish. Warnings still say not to eat it more than once or twice a month.

Second of all, you can be left completely at ease by simply focusing your seafood consumption on fish that live on the bottom. In these parts, that is porgy, fluke, flounder, blackfish, and black sea bass. These fish carry basically no toxins in their flesh at all and are among the easiest species for anglers to catch on any of the party boats out of Montauk or Shinnecock Inlet.

Mercury, PCBs and dioxins are found in the flesh of any fish that swims in the upper half of the water column, and the larger a fish gets, the more of these unhealthy substances it accumulates. Not that these fish can’t or shouldn’t be eaten by a health-conscious individual—just the opposite. The health benefits of eating seafood are still there if you just follow some basic guidelines. New York State issues advisories each year on which fish to eat and how often that can help you avoid any concerns.

Striped bass are our most popular food fish by far, but because they spawn in the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, they also soak up some of the ills of industrialization—namely, PCBs, which can lead to birth defects. Thus, the state advises that nobody eat striped bass more than four times a month. Women who may become pregnant and children under 15, however, are warned to not consume bass more than once a month. Of course, since these warnings are based on a cumulative effect, you can extrapolate that for an entire year if you only eat fish in, for example, the five months of summer.

Too many people sell bluefish short as a palatable fish, which is a grievous mistake. Bluefish can be light, flaky and as delicious as any broiled flounder. And their oily flesh is loaded with antioxidants and Omega-3 oils. However, any oily fish tends to accumulate impurities faster than flaky-fleshed ones. But simply paying attention to the size of the fish you are eating will help you dodge these concerns. The state recommends eating bluefish that are less than 20 inches long, up to four times a month. This fits nicely with bluefish’s palatability, since the little ones are the most delicious. Come snapper season, do not worry about how much eggs Benedict au snapper you consume (other than the cholesterol!).

The most stern warning issued by the state is for one of our most quintessential seafoods: lobster. Don’t panic—the warning does not say don’t eat lobster. It does, however, advise that nobody eat the tamale, or hepatopancreas, of lobsters or crabs. That’s the mushy green stuff found inside the body cavity that some people are grossed out by anyway, but that some of us think is the best part. (From the “why bother heeding your own advice department”: I personally told the tale of the toxicity of the stuff as I scarfed it down just the other night.)

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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