An Introduction to Buying and Eating Sustainable Fish and Seafood

by formerchef on September 16, 2013

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Sustainable.

That word gets bandied about a lot nowadays in reference to everything from clothing to cars to construction. But nowhere is it more important than regarding our world’s oceans and the seafood life they support.

But what does it really mean?
How do we define sustainable seafood? Like anything else when talking about the environment, it’s complicated, but the most succinct definition is that sustainable seafood is either fished or farmed in ways which consider the long term viability of the affected ecosystem. Ideally the impact should be neutral to beneficial to the species and the environment.

There are plenty of fish in the sea is an expression best suited to finding another date for the prom rather than referring to an unlimited and inexhaustible supply of seafood for consumption. Just like certain species of land animals have been hunted to extinction, the same is happening in our oceans. We like to think of it as a wild and free place filled with nature’s bounty, but technology and a population now exceeding seven billion on the planet is starting to take its toll on the ocean’s resources. We can now fish farther, faster and deeper than the sea can replenish itself.

So what can we do to be responsible stewards of the oceans? As consumers there is actually quite a lot we can do simply by the choices we make at the store and in restaurants.

  • Support restaurants and stores which serve and sell sustainably raised and sourced seafood
  • Get a copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Pocket guide (in print or the smart phone app) to help determine which seafood is safe and sustainable and not endangered.
  • Know where the products you buy come from and how they are raised.
  • Stick with what’s seasonal and if possible, local.
  • Consider portion control; moderating consumption takes pressure off the environment
  • Look for MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified fish. If you see their logo at the fish counter or listed on a menu you can be sure that the fish was sourced and processed in a sustainable way.
  • Look at substituting endangered species for abundant ones. For example, bluefin tuna is at the center of most sushi menus yet some estimates have the species close to extinct within the decade. If you must have tuna, try substituting line caught albacore or yellowfin tuna. Chilean Sea Bass, another very popular fish is highly overfished. Look for it to be MSC certified or try sablefish or pacific halibut. For Salmon, if possible, choose wild when available or look for salmon which has been sustainably farm-raised. Anchovies and sardines are good sustainable choices. Tilapia is a good sustainable choice if farm-raised in the US. Avoid imported tilapia due to concerns about non-sustainable methods and high environmental impact of imported product.

Wild vs. Farm-Raised:

Wild seafood is just that; fish and shellfish which has been caught or harvested in oceans and rivers without breeding/feeding intervention. For the most part, wild seafood is a good choice, healthier in many ways than its farm raised counterpart. But wild seafood faces its challenges as well; overfishing has damaged the stocks and habitats, rising ocean temperatures threaten certain species, and illegal fishing practices are doing damage.

Farm raised seafood, also known as aquaculture, can be a great alternative to fishing in the wild as long as sustainable practices are kept. In the last few years, farm raised seafood has gotten a bad reputation due to less than favorable methods, especially regarding raising salmon and shrimp. Some methods include putting additives in the salmon’s feed to add color to flesh (if salmon aren’t eating their natural food in the wild, the flesh tends to be very pale, which is unexpected and unappealing to many consumers) and adding antibiotics to their food because of illnesses cause by being kept in too close confinement. Farm raising shrimp can do damage to the environment including polluting the water in which it’s raised.

There are many forms of aquaculture which can be beneficial or at most neutral to the environment. Oysters are most often farm raised now, but their natural functions actually filter the water they are raised in, adding oxygen, and making it cleaner. Some small scale salmon farmers have been effectively raising Atlantic salmon in a way which as much as possible mimics the way they grow in the wild, yielding a healthier farm raised fish with little environmental impact, but it’s tough to determine which ones are doing it the right way.

Fishing methods: To qualify as “sustainable” the best methods have as close to zero impact on the environment as possible. The goal is to avoid bycatch; the picking up and destroying unintended sea life in order to get the target seafood.

  • Pole /Troll Caught- Pole caught fish are done with a single line, bait and hook. This is one of the most sustainable methods because there is very little bycatch. Anything caught by mistake is usually tossed back. This results in a high quality product. Troll caught is a large scale version of pole caught fish; multiple baited hooks are pulled behind a boat and bycatch is returned to the water.
  • Gillnetting –A large net is stung across an area to capture fish of a certain size. Some bycatch happens.
  • Long Line-While this can be used safely, it can also result in a lot of bycatch. Long lines have multiple bated books at different depths.
  • Traps and Pots- Usually used for seafood like Lobster and crabs, cages sent in the ocean. Any bycatch is returned.
  • Trawls and dredges- The most destructive method which using a large net gathers everything in its path. This can damage the ocean floor and coral reefs. Dredges use a large cage to drag on the ocean floor which destroys habitat as well as resulting in massive bycatch.

In the next post I’ll discuss what to look for when shopping for fresh fish and seafood, plus give you an easy recipe for grilled Mahi Mahi with a fun tropical salsa.

Let me know…do you make an effort to buy sustainable seafood and fish? Or is this all news to you?

Is it too expensive or too much of an effort, or do you have a favorite fish monger who buys sustainable products?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzanne September 16, 2013 at 8:52 am

I’ve used the Monterey guide for a few years. Most of what they suggest (for things other than sardines, anchovies, oysters, etc) are generally hard to find and very expensive. However, they headed me toward Target, which offers frozen fish from sustainable sources at a reasonable price. It’s a conundrum, though – ‘wild caught’ and ‘farm raised’ are almost meaningless in themselves, so sometimes it’s kind of a crap shoot to know if you’re doing the right thing or not. And price is a serious issue, as it is with sustainable meat products. But the Monterey guide is helpful.

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2 Kate September 16, 2013 at 11:31 am

Thanks for reminding me of the guide. I look forward to the next post on this subject.
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3 Anthony Kleanthous September 24, 2013 at 6:41 am

A quick word of clarification on pole & line and tuna (and invitation to correct me if I’m wrong): although P&L is good for protecting stocks of the target fish, and although there is very little by-catch in the normal sense, you first have to catch bait fish to bait the hooks; I guess that might be called “pre-catch” rather than by-catch. Secondly, it’s more carbon-intensive than other methods, because of all the maneouvres required to chase the fish around the ocean. Finally, it’s not capable of meeting the huge and growing demand for tuna around the world. My hope lies in the increased certification of sustainable fisheries and fleets, leading to much wider availability of certified sustainable fish products.

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4 Mary @ Fit and Fed October 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm

This is an important subject. Almost all of the fish I buy is from the Alaska fishery, which is very sustainably managed (and fish farming is not legal in Alaska). A few other notes: sometimes you can find a vendor who is very good about selling only sustainable fish: in the Puget Sound, PCC Natural Markets is very careful about what they sell. Smaller fish like anchovies tend to be ecologically better choices. Now I’ve started to worry seriously about ocean acidification due to global warming: if we don’t solve that problem it may cause the loss of all our fisheries. It’s already affecting the oyster fishery here in Puget Sound.
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5 formerchef October 5, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Mary- You raise some really good points, especially about the oysters. If they can’t thrive in the waters, that’s a bad sign.

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