Hey Mr. Green,
I've heard that omega-3 fatty-acid capsules contain oil from a bottom-dwelling fish that the big supplement companies are fishing into population collapse. Is there any truth to this?
--Eric in Scottsdale, Arizona
There's evidence that omega-3 might help prevent heart problems. Some proponents even claim it staves off dementia, which gives me hope.
But most of the critters used for omega-3 oil are not bottom dwellers; they're smaller fish like anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and menhaden. And if any species, bottom dweller or otherwise, is getting fished into extinction, it's not by the supplement manufacturers. The supplement makers obtain the oil as a byproduct of "reduction fishing"--fishing by outfits whose catch is processed into fish meal, which in turn is fed to farmed fish, chickens, and hogs. (The fact that we roam the seas to net fish to feed other fish and livestock strikes me as one of the screwier aspects of the food system. Why not just eat the smaller fish instead of the farmed salmon that has eaten them? And why not just give livestock homegrown feed?)
Most of the small species caught for fish meal and omega-3 oil aren't endangered, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), but concern about overfishing has led 13 of the 15 Atlantic-coast states to either outlaw menhaden reduction fishing in their waters or ban the gear that's used for this purpose. Unfortunately, proposals to extend the ban on fishing menhaden for feed to all state and federal waters in the Atlantic have failed to get out of congressional committees.
Some fish-oil supplements haven't been adequately screened for mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), although the EDF found that most U.S. producers do remove these toxic substances. To be sure you're getting a safe brand, consult the group's list here.