Sustainable Seafood: Which Fish Should I Buy?

The locavore life is made easier at this time of year now that farmers markets, CSAs and home gardens are operating once again. And, the cost of fish is gradually becoming more comparable in price to meat and poultry products. But conscientious consumers find the waters murky when it comes to eating sustainable seafood. It pays off - both in the pocketbook and health-wise - to do some homework about how to buy sustainably harvested fish. Pocket-sized rating guides and mobile apps are handy when out shopping, but it’s still not so easy and, unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of confusion going on.

Image: malias via Flickr


Though long overdue, large retailers like Whole Foods, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Target are now committed long-term to purchasing certain types of fish certified as more sustainable. While some retailers stock their seafood sections on the basis of how fish are caught or raised, they increasingly count on certification and rating systems to make trustworthy choices. Retailers who rely on them need to recognize that certification standards are uneven and not well understood as this report on the efficacy of seafood testing by Oceana shows. A leading voice in ocean conservation, SeaWeb, provides handy links to aquaculture and fisheries resources at one of their many initiatives, Seafood Choices Alliance. But the debate continues over the effectiveness of seafood certification systems.

Credibility of these standards is critical to American consumers who care about the environment and what they consume. The Marine Stewardship Council is the largest certification body for sustainable seafood, but it is inconsistent about compliance according to a recent article in the Washington Post.  Other watchdogs with ratings systems are: The Blue Ocean Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (check-out this review on how to get involved with activities at Monterey Bay Aquarium), and the Environmental Defense Fund. I especially like Oceana which, along with its many conservation initiatives, promotes responsible fishing. The Living Blue section is an excellent consumer resource with a green list of grocers who post warnings about mercury in fish sold at their seafood counters, and a red list of those who don’t.

Geography counts. Wild marine ecosystems include oceans and inland rivers and streams. So, where did the fish swim? Some areas are overfished while others aren’t. How they were caught counts: longline = bad. Pole-caught, troll-caught and nets = good.

Labeling counts. Is it wild or farmed? Is it fresh or previously frozen? The jury is still out on aquaculture (Aquaculture, often referred to as fish farming, is the art, science and business of cultivating aquatic animals [including finfish, mollusks, crustaceans] and plants in fresh or marine waters) and its impact on certain wild species of fish, but there are more ethical, sustainable fish farms than ever before and even urban aquaculture is growing.

Bon Appétit, Bamco Foundation’s Fish to Fork and Farm to Fork programs are among ongoing sustainable initiatives I like. For consumers concerned about fish served in restaurants, fish2fork is another pioneer website that reviews restaurants according to whether their seafood is sustainable, not just how it tastes. Charles Clover, founder and editor of the website wrote The End of the Line upon which the documentary film of the same name was based. His website is an invaluable guide to finding sustainable seafood restaurants in your area.

Chefs are the gatekeepers to cuisine consciousness. On a Pacific Northwest garden tour last year, I had a chance to sample Vancouver’s local restaurants certified by the MSC and that participate in Ocean Wise, a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program that educates consumers about ocean-friendly buying decisions. One standout restaurant was Pescatores Seafood + Grill. Its guide to seasonal and sustainably caught fish currently available was invaluable. Many restaurants now offer clear information about fish offered on their menu.

One of my favorite websites for online shopping is Wild Planet. Like many others committed to providing seafood while supporting conservation of wild marine systems, they offer clear information on sustainability and fishing methods. For those of us who don’t want to give up our luxuries, another favorite is Tsar Nicoulai, pioneers of sustainably farmed California caviar. They are the leading artisanal producer and recognized world leader in sustainable sturgeon production.

It’s still tricky to find the balance between conservation of our oceans, waterways and livelihoods in the fisheries industry. Commercial fishing as a career is a hard way to make a living but there is improved GPS, Sonar, and Fathometers navigational advances and other equipment. The internet has had a major impact in changing how fishermen direct market their catch. They are social media savvy about Twitter and Facebook and even use YouTube videos as a marketing tool.

At last year’s annual Seafood Summit, where representatives of the global seafood industry, conservation organizations, scientists, academics, policymakers and media professionals convened to examine the many factors influencing sustainability and their role in the global seafood landscape, “accidental businessman” Yvon Chouinard, like environmental activist, David Brower, said no business is done on a dead planet. Chouinard spoke about how he believes that “fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base…and “without a healthy planet there are no shareholders, no customers, and no employees.” Chouinard also said no economic activity is truly sustainable and the “word ‘sustainable’…should be qualified…with ‘less’ or ‘more’ in front of it.” 

Ever the entrepreneur, now using fish to fuel his environmental causes, Chouinard has launched a new division of Patagonia called Patagonia Provisions. Wild salmon are sourced in partnership with SkeenaWild, a Canadian conservation organization that identifies non-endangered salmon from the Skeena River watershed in British Columbia. The product supports the local native populations who use nets to catch the fish.

Fortunately, there are oceans of resources available to conscious eaters than ever before to help make smart decisions about the fish we eat.

Live safe and live well.


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