Good Life

Eats & Drinks | Seafood choices can be complicated

Items in the freezer are packaged and ready to be sold.
Items in the freezer are packaged and ready to be sold. CDT photo

Amy Lake knows seafood. The Centre Hall resident grew up on the Maryland border where her dad took her crabbing and fishing on the Potomac, down to the tidal basin in Washington, D.C., and to area lakes. Once Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972, a 1-acre pond appeared on their farm, and the family kept it stocked with blue gill fry that they acquired from the fish commission and carried home in milk bottles. When she moved to central Pennyslvania in 1987 to study forestry and wildlife biology at Penn State, she enjoyed going to the seafood counter at Houts or stopping at Shelco, a seafood wholesaler in Hollidaysburg.

Now, with her very own Seafood Shack, she is the kid in the candy shop, able to introduce her two daughters, Emma, 11, and Anna, 6, to the pleasures of the fruits of the sea and of a family business.

“It was actually my husband Tim’s idea,” said Amy, who also has a full-time job at Wiscoy, where she has worked for the past 24 years. “I wanted to have the farm stand and he came up with the seafood idea. The seafood counter at O.W. Houts was our model and Tim built it all himself.”

Tim Lake, who also operates Lake Sandblasting from his shop at the farm where he grew up, is obviously good at multi-tasking. The gardens surrounding the farm stand are well-tended, and there aren’t too many places where you can ask for carrots and go and pull them out of the ground yourself. The Garden is decked out in full fall regalia right now, with varieties of pumpkins, gourds, mums, cornstalks and, in the back room, an appealing array of seafood.

“We get deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays from a company in Pittsburgh that sources seafood from Boston and Baltimore. Our supplier is fully supportive of our goal to offer sustainable fish and seafood that is wild caught or farm-raised in the U.S. Our fresh fish offerings change with each delivery, but we also stock frozen fillets of everything from cod and perch to barramundi and orange roughy. By customer request, we offer many varieties of frozen shrimp, both cooked Asian farm-raised and raw Gulf Coast. Our frozen frogs’ legs (farmed, China) and alligator (farmed, U.S.) have a devoted following of Louisiana transplants who also appreciate the crawfish. We try to accommodate all tastes,” Amy explained.

October is National Seafood month, and the directive to eat more seafood because it is good for your health should be considered carefully. Our once infinite-seeming and sparkling ocean waters are today very murky indeed. Paul Greenberg, the James Beard award-winning author of the 2010 book “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” and the 2014 “American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood,” illuminates what has gone so wrong in the last 50 years, when the rise of global seafood consumption climbed from 22 pounds per person in the 1960s to nearly 38 pounds in 2011.

“Four Fish” focuses on tuna, cod, sea bass and salmon. Bluefin tuna is sorely hard-pressed. The magnificent wild creature — one of the fastest and most wide-ranging on the planet — is highly prized in Japan, where a 380-pound fish sold for $37,500 at last January’s first auction of the year in Tokyo. Cod has been fished to near extinction and efforts to farm these wild species have proven as difficult as farming tigers. Sea bass, an important commercial and recreational species, faced severe shortages in the 1980s but is now being managed sustainably and even farmed commercially in the Mediterranean and in Massachusetts.

Salmon is complicated. It is the species we are most often urged to consume, due to the beneficial omega-3 heart healthy oils, but salmon are carnivores and the farm-raised salmon requires wild fish as feed. A study in the journal Nature calculates that it takes more than 3 pounds of wild fish — anchovies, herring, sardines, menhaden, mackerel — to produce 1 pound of market-ready farmed salmon. Other problems with salmon aquaculture include waste from the captive fish that pollutes the ocean; the escape of the genetically identical salmon that interbreed with wild salmon; diseases and parasites that flourish in the containment areas, requiring antibiotics and fungicides, which get carried to the wild salmon population.

Though wild salmon is the best choice for consumers, it is a limited resource and one that is underappreciated by a nation used to the mild taste of farmed salmon. According to Greenberg, “Americans now harvest our best, most nutritious fish in our best-managed Alaskan fisheries and send those fish over to Asia. In exchange, we are importing fish farmed in Asia, with little of the brain-building compounds fish eaters are seeking when they eat fish.” That popular farmed fish from Asia is tilapia, innocuous in flavor and bred to feed the masses, as in the biblical loaves and the fishes miracle.

Greenberg continues with his treatise in “American Catch,” focusing on oysters, shrimp and sockeye salmon. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sockeye is the most valuable U.S. salmon species and almost 100 percent of the sockeye on the market comes from fisheries operating in Alaska. The largest sockeye harvest is in the Bristol Bay area in southwestern Alaska, an area currently threatened by a mineral exploration project called Pebble Mine that threatens the ecology of our last great sockeye spawning grounds. Mining development in the area could be catastrophic to the salmon population.

Shrimp, the most popular seafood in America, is difficult to endorse as a wise choice for the wary consumer. According to Consumer Reports, we are eating three times more shrimp than we did 35 years ago, but 94 percent of our shrimp are imported, mostly from India, Indonesia and Thailand, where they are raised in shrimp farms. These shrimp farms can be environmental disaster zones and, in the case of Thailand, sites of human rights violations, with forced laborers working and living in horrific conditions. Shrimp harvesting and farming in the U.S. is sustainable and currently recovering from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that caused Gulf fleets to shrink by 50 percent.

Oysters, once so plentiful that oyster saloons were on every corner of every major city in America in the late 1800s, are also survivors of humankind’s incredible assault on the oceans. Oyster farms are thriving in American coastal waters, without any environmental stress. These filter feeders get their sustenance from the water, a single oyster filtering 30 to 50 gallons of water a day, and don’t need any additional feed and don’t create any waste; they create themselves, plump morsels of healthy protein, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-roots efforts on the Chesapeake Bay to promote oyster gardens have been successful and many Maryland residents make use of their waterfront to grow their own appetizers and stew ingredients.

The Lake family at the Seafood Shack has only been in the seafood business for just more than a year, and they admit they are still learning. Different species have different names in various parts of the world, and the harvest is always difficult to predict, especially with global warming. Amy follows the NOAA FishWatch seafood fact line and knows that she has customers who come in with the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app on their phones — there’s also a free app available at They are willing to learn and make sustainable seafood available to customers who are in the know. They are happy to make Country of Origin Labeling obvious. And they will be heartened by Paul Greenberg’s column in the New York Times Sunday Review last June that summed up what consumers need to do to protect our ability to eat seafood and get the health benefits from the “71 percent of the Earth’s surface that provides humans with 350 billion pounds of food every year.”

His recommendations:

• Eat American seafood. (Because America — as well as Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada and Namibia — regulates a code of conduct for fisheries based on science-based fish management and mandates overfishing within a defined time frame.)

• Eat a much greater variety than we currently do. (Because more than 30 wild fish stocks in the U.S. have been rebuilt in the past 25 years, and new species will become available. The problem is that most consumers have never heard of Pacific sable fish, Acadian redfish or Atlantic porgy. Locally, we can ask Dan Brigham for sable fish. He brought some back last year from his summer fishing for wild Alaska salmon.)

• Eat mostly farmed filter feeders. (Because oysters and mussels are very beneficial to the environment, easy to grow — and delicious.)