Out to dinner at a favorite restaurant, I'm tempted to stray from my usual order—a house-made veggie burger with mixed greens on the side—when the waiter mentions one of the specials: herb-crusted red snapper over a sweet potato risotto and steamed asparagus.
Though I am a fan of fish, I can't remember the last time I dined on snapper, and I'll admit my knowledge of the related ecological factors is limited. Does the fish contain high levels of mercury? Is the snapper population in danger? Does the fishing of it harm the environment in any way?
Fortunately, I know where to find the answers. I text "fish snapper" to 30644. Two seconds later, I receive the following response: "Snapper: significant environmental concerns; fisheries management is poor and populations are declining." I decide to go with the veggie burger.
FishPhone is a new service offered by the Blue Ocean Institute, a marine conservation organization based in East Norwich, N.Y. "One of our missions is to reach out to new audiences so we're communicating with people who aren't already engaged in ocean conservation," says Nick Hall, Seafood Program Manager at the Blue Ocean Institute and co-creator of the new text-messaging program.
The instructions are easy to remember: just type the word "fish" followed by the name of the species in question. (Standard rates apply.) In response, you'll receive an environmental assessment of any given fish—they currently cover more than 90 species—almost instantly. The message will also specify a color code that represents the fish's eco-safety ranking, as determined by the species' life history, abundance in the wild, habitat concerns, and catch method. Red, for instance, signals that fishing or farming methods have a serious environmental impact; green indicates a fish that is relatively abundant and whose fishing or farming methods cause little damage to wildlife. (For more detailed information about a particular fish species and the methodology behind its ranking, go to blueocean.org/seafood.)
As a bonus, FishPhone will offer alternatives if the fish you're dying to dine on (monkfish, for example) is rated red. (Pass on monkfish, which is overfished, and try U.S. farmed catfish or U.S. farmed tilapia instead.) The message also includes health advisory information for species that could be harmful if eaten in excess—like shark (high in mercury) or farmed salmon (high in PCBs.)
The FishPhone database is constantly being updated to include new species, particularly any trendy fish choices that appear on the market. According to Hall, this year's "it" fish is barramundi, which was originally imported from Australia and is now being farmed in Maine. Stay tuned to FishPhone before you jump on the barramundi bandwagon; it's slated to be added to the service's next update.
Tip: In the mood for fish but stuck without your cell phone? Keep in mind the following species, which have been given the highest ecological rankings and have no consumption advisories: walleye pollack, wild-caught Alaska salmon, blue and green mussels, littleneck clam, and chub mackerel.