10 scary seafood facts that will make you rethink your diet

There’s a whole lot of scary stuff that goes along with the seafood on your plate, and we're not just talking about the mercury.

Swordfish with a side of dead marine mammals? Shrimp with a little slave labor on top? A Sprinkling of a illegal poaching and habitat degradation over your caviar? There’s a whole lot of scary stuff that goes along with the seafood on your plate. Read on for some of the most shocking facts about seafood.

Farm-raised salmon: dyed pink — and one of the most toxic foods in the world

Farmed salmon can be differentiated from wild salmon by the lighter, orange color (dyed by carotenoids) and much thicker fat layers.

In the wild, salmon take on an almost red flesh because of the krill in their diet. When salmon is farm-raised, they don’t have access to that krill and their flesh is actually white or gray. Manufacturers therefore dye the farm-raised gray salmon pink with substances like carotenoids before it gets to supermarkets, claiming people wouldn’t buy it otherwise.

Farmed salmon is also one the most toxic foods commercially available. Researchers involved in one study recommended limiting consumption of farmed salmon to one-half to one meal total per month.

Thai shrimp is caught with slave labor

Extensive reporting has linked shrimp fishing to slave labor. The Southeast Asian nation’s economy is often braced by the work of migrants that are sold to boat captains and forced to work 20-hour shifts without pay. They’re threatened with deportation and jail if they don’t comply, and several men who escaped claimed that violence and even death ran rampant on these boats.

As the world’s largest exporter, Thailand supplies this shrimp to major retailers across the U.S. and other parts of the Western world.

Antibiotics are everywhere

The FDA tests less than 0.1% of imported seafood for banned drugs, and they still find powerful antibiotics every month.

Antibiotics are increasingly used in farm-raised fisheries, and have been found in fish labeled antibiotic-free and in wild-caught fish. This isn’t to say that antibiotics are necessarily harmful to us as individuals — that’s not the case. Rather, the increased use of antibiotics in food production is harmful to people as a whole, because it can lead to antibiotic resistance.

Caviar is making sturgeon extinct

Reaching 24 feet (7 m), 3500 pounds (1500 kilos), and 100 years of age, the beluga sturgeon is the largest sturgeon and one of the largest bony fishes in the world. The overharvesting of the beluga due to its prized caviar is why IUCN now classifies the beluga as critically endangered.

The chi-chi fish eggs are so in-demand that many sturgeon species have been pushed to the edge of extinction. The so-called best caviar on the planet can be found from sturgeons living in the Caspian Sea — and overfishing and poaching have decimated these species and degraded their habitat in the region so badly that sturgeon fishing is now banned.

That doesn’t stop illegal poachers from making a buck on the prized roe, however, and the ban doesn’t exactly bode well for the future of the species. Because of their exceedingly long life cycles and slow reproductive cycles, it will take decades for the sturgeon population in the Caspian region to recover, even with radical conservation efforts.

Mercury is poisoning our seafood

Mercury is absorbed or ingested by small organisms and then starts working its way up the food chain, its concentration rising with each step. Big predatory fish, like sharks or tuna (pictured), can have especially high concentrations in their bodies. Tuna is the most common source of mercury exposure in the country.

Cooking has no effect on it, you can’t taste it, and you can’t avoid it by cutting off the skin or other parts of the fish. Mercury poisoning from fish can be a very serious issue, and the primary source of mercury exposure (today, at least) is from seafood. Not all species are created equal, however, and high-mercury fish like tuna can be easily avoided.

However, in the United States, the government doesn’t even test for mercury in seafood, and only about 2 percent of imported seafood is ever inspected. If you’re going to eat seafood, look for fish and shellfish that are lower on the food chain, like tilapia and catfish. You can find an exhaustive list of what to eat and what to avoid here.

Sea turtles get caught in nets

In the United States alone, about 250,000 sea turtles are caught by commercial fisheries, and thousands of them die. Bycatch, or the animals that are captured alongside the ones being fished for, is a major consequence of fishing.

Much of our seafood is mislabeled

Are you sure it’s snapper?

That sauteed snapper you enjoyed at your neighborhood restaurant might not have been snapper at all, but perhaps Pacific Ocean perch, cloaked in a sauce. The same goes for that grouper you paid a premium for at your local fishmonger’s. It could have been whitefin weakfish and you would have been none the wiser.

About 1/3 of all fish sold in supermarkets and restaurants is mislabeled. This is partly because of economic reasons — people are willing to pay more for, say, snapper than they would for tilapia. But this raises some pretty major concerns, especially considering that so many of us avoid certain types of fish for health and environmental reasons.

Bycatch devastation — swordfish catching, for example, kills marine mammals

When it comes to the worst fish you can eat, swordfish are high on the list. For one thing, they have some of the highest mercury levels of any consumable fish on the planet, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns pregnant women, young children and women who may become pregnant to avoid swordfish all together.

But that’s not the only reason to avoid swordfish — there are major environmental concerns, as well. The methods used to catch swordfish is particularly harmful to marine mammals, and it’s thought that hundreds of thousands of sea creatures die each year because of it.