The Gulf Oil Spill & Seafood Safety

Images like the one above are nothing short of horrific. It’s so easy to abuse our environment and shrug off the consequences when we don’t see them. And then a tragedy like the Gulf Oil Spill happens, and we start seeing images like this one, and I cringe. This isn’t just BP’s fault, or an inept U.S. Government’s fault. It’s my fault. This is the cost I pay for choosing the lifestyle I do, even when I try to mitigate the effects of that lifestyle by paying extra for renewable electricity sources, walking places as often as possible, reducing use of plastics, etc.

These images have far-reaching consequences. Not just for oil, or for the environment, but even for things as simple as the food we eat. I see images like this one, and I have to ask: how does the Gulf Oil spill affect seafood safety? I don’t really know the answer to that question, so I asked Norbert Sporns of HQ Sustainable to help.

HQ Sustainable raises farmed tilapia. I know. I know. Wild-caught seafood is supposed to be nutritionally superior, but it’s often quite toxic and environmentally irresponsible thanks to heavy-metal toxins and over-fishing. If you want to read my take on which seafood choices balance nutrition and sustainability, please check out this post on Healthy Seafood: What To Buy.

Here’s Norbert’s response about the Gulf Oil Spill & Seafood Safety:

The recent oil spill in the Gulf indicates the need to really examine our seafood, where it comes from, and how safe the products are that we consume. Many questions have arisen regarding the safety of our seafood and how this will impact our daily consumption, and I’d like to address several of these concerns below.

How will the oil spill affect the seafood we consume in the United States?

The Gulf oil spill has been environmentally and economically devastating. In terms of the seafood industry, about 80% of the seafood Americans consume is imported from overseas. Domestic seafood makes up approximately 20% of our consumption, and even then, a large part of this number is due to the fishing of Pollack in Alaska, not seafood from the Gulf. The Gulf oil spill only impacts a very small percentage of what we eat, so it is unlikely that we will experience a shortage of fish in the U.S.

Will there be price gauging?

There will always be people who try to take advantage in consumers in a crisis situation. However, as I mentioned above, I do not think there will be a shortage of seafood, due to the fact that the vast majority of the United State’s seafood comes from other countries. Perhaps there will be a slight bump in price of shrimp from the Gulf, but across the board, it is doubtful that prices will increase significantly, if at all.

How do you ensure the seafood you’re consuming is safe?

There are inherent problems with fish caught from the ocean due to the pollutants they are exposed to. Seafood safety is a big issue and there are several agencies designed to ensure that we are consuming the safest products available. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces regulations to keep our food safe for consumption, and food processors are held to HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) standards developed by the FDA. Foreign processors can opt to have the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDC) inspect their processing facilities for further health and safety assurance.

Are there other alternatives?

Absolutely. Ocean-caught fish are often romanticized as a superior, fresher, and more desirable product than farm-raised fish – yet this is an unfounded notion supported by interest groups with ulterior motives. There are definitely other alternatives to ocean-caught fish and, especially in light of the Gulf oil spill, these other alternatives should be taken seriously. Farm-raised fish are not exposed to the types of pollutants that filter into our oceans. Furthermore, in many aquaculture operations, neither antibiotics nor hormones are used, feed can be controlled, which means that fish can be raised on an organic, herbivore diet, and the entire operation is often sustainable. Farm-raised fish present a healthy and safe alternative to fish caught in the ocean.

When will Gulf seafood be safe again?

It’s hard to say when it will be completely safe, all we can do is hope that the clean-up effort will be thorough and the wildlife, including fish, will be safe post-spill and going forward. Even when the Gulf is completely cleaned up, it will be hard to combat the perception that the seafood has been exposed to these pollutants, which it has. If you are ever wary about what you are consuming, I suggest looking into other options, as I mentioned, farm-raised fish as opposed to ocean-caught fish, and taking extra care with what you, your friends, and your family are consuming.

I also asked Norbert specifically about HQ Sustainable’s farming operations (most of which are in China), in light of many of the downsides of much farm-raised tilapia (such as fish being fed GMO-corn & soy, or being fed testosterone to create mostly male fish). Here are his responses:

Does HQ Sustainable feed their tilapia corn? I noticed they don’t feed corn from recently deforested areas, but what about other corn (is it genetically modified)? And exactly what is in the HQ Sustainable farmed tilapia’s diet?

The diet is principally corn and soya. We source this from China. The other ingredients are vegetable based vitamins and amino acids. We source GMO free soya and corn (something mostly European buyers are interested in.) This is also more costly.

Does HQ Sustainable administer testosterone to their tilapia to produce males? If yes (or no), what’s the thinking that leads to this decision? Are there any known health/safety issues arising from this?

Sexing is done through a natural cross of two species of Tilapia which gives a 90% offspring. Female are separated out by two methods, by hand after the introduction of a food dye which colors female genitalia, and female are eliminated in the ponds as food for the Snake Head (predator fish) which feeds off of fish which do not grow as quickly as a healthy male, including the female.

With Tilapia, the breakthrough a few years ago which allowed commercially viable operations, was the ability to sex the Tilapia. Tilapia are mouth breeders. Since the female can spend much of their time and energy breeding the fish, the commercial viability can be compromised without sexing. The male hormone involved in Central and South America in sexing Tilapia is Methyl Testosterone. This product is illegal in China.

If we were to use Methyl Testosterone, the thinking is that it dissipates when the fish grows, since it is found in the animal naturally and is administered at a very young age. It in fact has no lasting impact other than inhibiting the expression of the female characteristics in a juvenile fish. Some people do not like the idea of eating eunuchs. Wholefoods has come out against such sexing. Like many things, science can endorse certain things which the public may not be ready for. Anyways for us it is not an issue.

Norbert Sporns is the CEO of HQ Sustainable, an aquaculture operation headquartered in Seattle with farms located in China. For more information about HQ Sustainable visit their website at:

(top photo by Charlie Riedel)


  1. Pete says

    Unfortunately, we cannot get away from using oil no matter how we try. Contact lenses, eye “glass” lenses, carpet, plastic dishes & “silverware”, computers, cell phones, CD’s, DVD’s, various life saving drugs, calculators, beverage bottles, automobile itres, etc., etc.

    Oil is so ingrained intto our current lifestyle that to eliminate it we’d have to go back to the 1920’s or earlier. I don’t know about you, but I like it here in the 21st century! However, this is the only planet we have and we must take care of it.

  2. says

    Ooohhhhh, we can live without carpet! lol

    I’m not sold on farmed fish. I refuse to eat it. A CEO of a fish farm has special interests in promoting their product. I’m sorry, but that’s like getting a drug dealer to explain the benefits of marijauna. It may not harm you, but to someone who thinks it’s a bad idea cannot be convinced by someone who has a vested interest.
    .-= Lindsay´s last blog post …Is it me? =-.

    • says

      I can understand your hesitation. That said, wild-caught fish generally *really are* more toxin-laden and over-fished. So, if we can find ways to farm fish that are more environmentally friendly, why shouldn’t we? We encourage animal husbandry in all kinds of areas, so long as the practices mimic the natural “is-ness” of the animals and are sustainable. If that’s the case, why not try to find aquaculture practices that do the same? Even Will Allen — the sustainable urban farming legend of Milwaukee — utilizes aquaponics to raise more than 10,000 fish which he not only eats & uses to feed his neighborhood, but which he also uses to fertilize his tomatoes & greens while simultaneously using the plants to “clean” the water. It’s a totally brilliant, sustainable, healthy way to get fresh fish into inner cities (or even your own backyard!), and it’s by no means wild.

      If you read the post I wrote and linked to on healthy seafood, you’ll find that I tend to draw the line (generally speaking) where Nina Planck does. I always eat wild-caught carnivorous fish, but for herbivorous fish I try to go by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s guide and get the sustainably farmed ones. That’s because it’s easier to feed an herbivorous fish their natural diet (or at least a good approximation of it).

      And just to be contrary, why wouldn’t I want a drug dealer’s perspective on the benefits of marijuana? It seems like it would be pretty informative, even if I don’t actually end up being persuaded by his arguments or agreeing with him!

      • says

        Thanks for your reply to his concern Kristen. I will have to look more into this. I definitely see where you are coming from. I will have to read your post on seafood all the way through.

        Do you read the articles Dr. Mercola puts out by any chance? He does not eat any seafood but now recommends Vital Choice. He would eat anything from Vital Choice seafood. There fish is very expensive and I am sure there is an excellent reason for it. Mark also recommends Vital Choice.
        .-= Primal Toad´s last blog post …Primal Fitness: Simple Fit Workout Day 2 =-.

  3. says

    Didn’t sound like Mr. Sporns really answered that last question clearly. Is the use of the hormone “not an issue” for his company because they don’t use it or because they don’t consider it harmful? Did I misunderstand what he said? Sounds like some very diplomatic sidestepping there.

    Also, is corn and soy really the natural diet of a tilapia? I think that farm-raised herbivore fish is a cool idea, and I have heard of the folks in cities who do aquaculture, sounds like a great way to have a healthy diet, a sustainable garden system and way to feed inner city people. That said, I’m stuck on the corn and soy fed fish, it just makes me think of grain-fed cattle; a protein-rich diet to bulk up the meat for sale. Do you think the same applies here?

    Thanks for the post, the oil spill is on everyone’s mind these days, but I don’t think we really consider the far-reaching implications. It’s pretty sad to hear someone say that the ocean is a polluted place that we cannot trust, sad but true I suppose.

    One last thing, Mr. Sporns comments that only a small fraction of the US’s sea food comes from the Gulf, therefore Americans don’t need to worry about an increases in seafood prices, is a little too suburban a comment for me. I don’t think the oil spill’s effects will be confined only to the Gulf of Mexico, nor do I think we need to assuage the severity of the spill by placating the folks who can’t see the it with promises that THEIR lives won’t change because their grocery bill won’t. EVERYONE has to care about ALL the effects of oil (or any pollutants) in the ocean for us to be able to do anything to stop it.
    .-= Charlie Roy´s last blog post …Photos uploaded and more yummy ‘reviews.’ =-.

    • says

      Charlie — I thought he was quite clear. They sex tilapia by hand and by using a predator fish that only goes after the smaller fish (females & unhealthy males). Then he said, “If we were to use methyl testosterone….” which is in the subjunctive, meaning that they, in fact, don’t use it. He even went so far as to say its illegal in China, which is where his farms are. I think he made it very clear that his company doesn’t use testosterone.

      And no, corn & soy aren’t really a “natural diet” to tilapia, but I do think they approximate one. That’s because tilapia are the herbivorous “pigs” of the ocean. They can and will eat just about anything, and are very happy doing it. I can’t help but imagine that all those Omega-6 fats in their diet (from the corn & soy) will change their nutritional profile, but they aren’t very nutrient-dense seafood to begin with (which is why I almost never eat them).

  4. says

    Thanks for the great post. I was just wondering about seafood safety in the States the other day. While I’m not there now, I do plan to move back in two years and I just love seafood.

    I’ll have to read your article about seafood because I always thought that wild fish was preferable to farm raised too.
    .-= Lovelyn´s last blog post …Ride ‘em Cowboy =-.

    • says


      Wild caught fish almost always *is* preferable, but in many individual cases it isn’t. That’s because of the heavy pollution of our oceans as well as over-fishing entire populations of popular fish. In other words, it’s about toxins & sustainability. There are still many, many wild caught fish that are highly-regulated so that overfishing isn’t a possibility, and there are ways to minimize the impact of heavy metal pollutants in your diet. So, yes, please *do* read my post about Healthy Seafood: What to Buy, as it pretty well makes my stance on seafood as clear as it can get!

  5. says

    I’m sorry but I completely disagree with you that farmed fish is safe. Especially the ones in the ocean. Perhaps things are different where you live but where I live fish farms are destroying wild salmon stocks and are fed antibiotics. From : “We the undersigned citizens of Canada stand against the biological and social threat and commerce of industrial marine net-cage feedlots using our global oceans. The science is clear: these operations risk wild salmon populations by intensifying disease and deplete world fishery resources to make the feed. They privatize ocean spaces and threaten our sovereign rights to food security.”
    .-= Melodie´s last blog post …She’s A Ballerina Again! With Prima Princessa Review & Giveway =-.

    • says

      Melodie — Clearly, the farming operations you’re referring to are NOT the ones that I think are safe. Please read the article I linked to in the post for my take on how to balance nutrition & sustainability when it comes to seafood. That post also makes it clear that I do not support the farming of carnivorous fish (like salmon), as it’s virtually impossible to do so in a way that’s both environmentally friendly and that mimics the natural diet of the wild fish.

    • says

      Yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at too. Tilapia never was a nutrient-dense fish, and farming practices (even the sustainable ones) make that even less likely. Nevertheless, some people love their Tilapia, and if they’re eating an otherwise great diet when it comes to Omega 6:3 fatty acids I don’t begrudge them their choice.

  6. maria says


    I love your point about this being ALL of our faults. We are so quick to point the finger at big companies and the government when we are not doing much better ourselves. If more people were committed to making the most sustainable choices available, the market and the government would be forced to follow.

    Here’s to you and all you do!


  7. says

    Great dialogue. On the omega 3 to omega 6 ratios, we have the ability to add to the Tilapia diet, algae rich in omega 3 which increase omega 3 close to where salmon is, without feeding fish to fish (or putting cages in the ocean).
    We are regular “hunter gatherers” of only one quality protein, and that is ocean harvested fish. Aquaculture is the source of all incremental growth in seafood since our oceans are unable to produce more, given current practices.
    Only farmed fish can achieve the levels of purity polluted oceans are no longer capable of.
    Only farmed fish can be organic.
    Now for Gluten free all Natural Tilapia meals, check out our “Lillian’s Healthy Gourmet” products!

    • says

      Mr. Sporns I have to disagree. We must be careful how we use the term “organic”. Currently, we cannot refer to a fish grown in captivity as organic because the fish-meal they are fed is not natural to their species and may not come from organic sources. When we are talking about living animals, the term “organic” means that the animal was fed organic foods that are traditional or “ancestral” to that species. Example: Cows naturally and historically eat grasses. Left to themselves, they will naturally pasture on many types of grasses and be happy and well-fed. For that cow to be processed and labeled “organic” for our food, two things need to have occurred. 1) the cow needs to have been fed food that is natural to its species. Corn and grain are not natural to a cow. Grasses are. 2) the food needs to be organic meaning that the soil it grew in meets USDA/QAI organic standards, therefore the grasses growing from the soil also meets USDA/QAI organic standards.
      In order for farmed fish to be termed organic,they need to have been fed organic food that is first NATURAL TO THEIR SPECIES. Not all fish are herbivores. Salmon are not carnivores, for example. They eat small fish and krill. Tilapia eat everything – from what I understand, they could be classified as scavengers but I’m not sure. However, in order for any kind of food to be termed “organic” they must be fed nutrients & foods that are natural to their species and classification, and the food and nutrients must be in correct ratios and free from solvents, chemicals, and pollutants.

  8. says

    Sorry… not sold on the farmed fish idea and here’s why. One of my first clients was a marine biologist and a PhD from the University of Washington. Her team was tasked with developing and perfecting food for farmed salmon. The process: Go out and find a wild female and harvest her eggs. Fertilize the eggs and watch while they hatched, feeding them the fish meal they had developed thus far, and documenting everything about what they saw in the maturing fish. When matured, they chose a female from that group, harvested her eggs, and repeated the process for this second generation that was now fully conceived, hatched, and fed in a farmed environment on that fish meal. As that second generation hatched and grew the research team noted so many genetic abnormalities in them that they had to stop and go back from the beginning. That meant going out to find another wild female, make changes to the fish meal recipe and start over. That was in 2006. To this day, Dec 2012, I have not seen or heard that any improvements have been made to how they determine what to feed fish grown and harvested in captivity. Judging from the article above that was written in 2010, it appears as though nothing has changed. All fish are not herbivores.
    The point is, if the fish, or any animal including humans, are not fed food that is traditional to their species – if it is not food they would naturally eat if left to themselves in their own habitat, their flesh will be changed in its nutrient content, their digestive system will be stressed, and their endocrine system will be stressed and changed resulting in infertitlity. Therefore this farming method is NOT sustainable. This is a lesson for us all! Humans fed on food not natural to them can’t reproduce either!
    In our culture, we have been eating food that is not natural to us and look at what has happened. The Fertility Industry has exploded! As a nutritional therapist I see young women quite often who are having a terrible time conceiving because their systems along with their husband’s sperm has been so severly compromised. The foods that their parents and grandparents ate was departed enough from what is natural to humans that it has had far reaching effects on their offspring we are now seeing in the generation born approximately from 1980 to 1990, especially. Every person, and certainly every person who has an interest in growing food needs to read POTTENGER’S CATS and POTTENGER’S PROPHECY. And you may as well read Dr. Price’s book NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL DEGENERATION.

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