The good, the bad, and the fishy

It's dinnertime, and you're debating: salmon or swordfish? Striped bass or Chilean sea bass? It's a matter not simply of craving, but of conscience. With some fish populations more depleted than ever, driven down by consumer demand, several marine species are at risk of collapse - even commercial extinction - in the next few years.

To help consumers shop and dine responsibly, the Aquarium of the Pacific, in cooperation with the National Audubon Society, is offering a seafood wallet card, which lists fish on a continuum of plenitude. Some, such as Dungeness crab, mahi-mahi, and Pacific halibut, fall in the card's green-tinted "eat-freely" region. Others - like canned tuna, rainbow trout, and calamari - swim in the yellow zone to signify concerns about fish health and vulnerability. Those fish in gravest danger appear in the card's red area, indicating severe population loss, overfishing, or poor marine management.

The trifold fish guide, which tucks into your wallet like a business card, offers some surprises: Wild Alaska salmon, despite its exotic name and origin, is the "safest" fish of all, abundant and content in its healthy northern waters; Atlantic salmon and farmed salmon, though, fall in the red zone, endangered from overfishing and habitat loss, and interfering with wild salmon runs. Orange roughy, widely available in supermarkets, is, surprisingly, among the most endangered: With lifespans up to 150 years, roughy are slow to bounce back from overfishing and are still struggling to recover from aggressive predation 20 years ago.

Even some fish with abundant populations, such as clams and mussels, fall into the red zone if their fishing methods involve by-kill (with other sea creatures swept up in the chase) or dredging (in which gear is dragged along the ocean floor, effectively catching shellfish, but destroying habitats).

You can download the seafood wallet card and a more detailed seafood guide from the Audubon Society's website, www.audubon.org/campaign/lo, or pick up a free wallet card at the Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, in Long Beach, Calif. Call (562) 628-0631 for more details.

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