Posted by: leahbiery | December 1, 2009

Decoding Sustainable Seafood Decision-Making


Seafood is a delicious source of lean protein, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and other important nutrients, but due to pollution fish may also contain dangerous levels of toxins such as mercury and pesticides that can have serious health repercussions. The popularity of seafood consumption around the world is also leading to environmental problems as we turn to the seemingly infinite ocean as a source to feed our ever-increasing world population. This illusion of plenty in the vast blue sea is comforting, but the reality is that the ocean is quickly approaching its limit. If we continue consuming seafood at our current rate, many species of fish will become unavailable within the next half-century.

As consumers, we want to make choices that are both healthy and environmentally responsible, but poorly labeled products and overwhelming amounts of contradictory information make it difficult to do so. According to my wallet-sized sustainable seafood card, Mahi-mahi is a “best choice” AND a “seafood to avoid.” Pacific cod is an excellent choice, but Atlantic cod is a no-no. The discrepancies are enough to send me screaming back to the vegetables, where I am sure that a local organic orange is better than a non-organic one from South America. After a particularly frustrating trip to the grocery store that included a military-level interrogation of the seafood man and an argument with my mother about flounder, I decided to do some research. I learned that there are some very helpful online resources and a few simple rules that can increase your confidence as a sustainable seafood consumer, allowing you to help the ocean while still enjoying seafood.

1. Increase your verbal score. Take thirty minutes to learn about fishing industry terminology and fishing methods. This will help you understand seafood labeling at the store – if you know that longlining, bottom-trawling, and gillnetting are non-sustainable fishing methods that harm other species, you can immediately eliminate products with these labels. Knowing the lingo will also help you to make sense of your sustainable seafood card. Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great website for improving your sustainable seafood vocabulary.

2. Carry a card. Print out a sustainable seafood card and always keep it in your wallet. These cards make at-the-counter decision-making relatively simple, as long as you have a basic knowledge of the terminology. Monterey Bay Aquarium provides region-specific cards and they even have a card just for sushi. However, I prefer the Natural Resources Defense Council’s card, because I think the format is straightforward and easier to understand.

3. Buy local. If you can buy directly from the fisherman, do it. If not, try to find seafood from as nearby as possible- it’s better for you, the local economy, and the environment. Local seafood is healthier and tastier because it is fresh, not frozen for long periods of time during shipping. It is environmentally friendlier than imported seafood because it is not shipped over long distances and local fish is likely to be caught in smaller batches. If you don’t have the luxury of buying from your backyard, US-caught or farmed fish is generally best, Europe and South America are okay alternatives, and Asian imports should be avoided. The US has stricter fishing and aquaculture regulations than other countries, while Asia is notorious for pollution issues and severe overfishing.

If you’re in our area, Andy’s Island Seafood has good sustainability practices and carries some locally-caught seafood that varies from day to day. Their main store is on Matlacha, but they have a mobile market on Captiva Tuesday-Thursday (look for their teal truck on Andy Rosse Lane). Ask what is local and fresh.

On Sanibel, The Timbers provides some sustainable options, like seasonal stone crabs and rope-cultured mussels. Ask if their latest shipment of Tilapia is domestically farmed.

4. Know your source
. Identify a seafood retailer in your area that is committed to providing sustainable seafood options. Become a regular customer and get to know the “seafood guy.” If labeling or packaging information is unclear, ask questions- if the person behind the counter can’t answer your questions, you shouldn’t buy the product. As an added bonus, if you make friends with the seafood person, they might be willing to take special requests. Solutions for Seafood and Greenpeace have evaluations available that can help you find a retailer that stocks sustainable products.

5. Plan ahead. Before you shop, know what you are looking for. Have a couple of sustainable alternatives planned in case your first choice is unavailable. This will help you to avoid buying “whatever” just because you can’t find your sustainable option.

6. Know what’s good. Look for smaller fish species, which are generally healthier for you because they are lower on the food chain and accumulate less toxins. Small fish species often come from large populations, so they are more sustainable than larger, rarer species. When buying farmed fish, choose products from the US, and choose herbivorous species such as tilapia, catfish, oysters and clams, which can consume grain and do not require feed sourced from wild stocks. When purchasing wild-caught fish, pole/troll caught varieties are best. Wild Alaskan salmon is usually a very good option.

7. Look for a seal of approval. The United States is currently working on a standardized labeling system for identifying sustainable seafood, which will hopefully be implemented in the next few years. In the meantime, the Marine Stewardship Council gives its seal of approval to certified sustainable seafood products. Their website provides information about which certified products you can find at various retailers.


Of course the best way to help sustain wild fisheries stocks is to cut back on the overall amount of seafood that you and your family consume. I am not suggesting that you stop eating seafood altogether- my general rule is moderation, not deprivation. If you really want to make a positive impact on the environment, try replacing seafood with a vegetarian dish every once in a while instead of a different animal protein. Vegetable proteins like beans, tofu, and tempeh are delicious, but often overlooked. For healthy and very flavorful vegetarian recipe ideas, I’m a fan of http://www.fatfreevegan.com. As an added bonus, if you reduce your seafood consumption, you will enjoy fish even more on the occasions that you do eat it.

When you choose to eat seafood, you can act sustainably by making your portion sizes smaller. A serving of fish should be similar in size to a checkbook, but we have become accustomed to eating fillets equivalent to four or five servings in restaurants. Instead of replicating restaurant seafood portions at home, serve extra grains and vegetables with a small piece of fish.

If this all seems like too much information, don’t be overwhelmed- just start small. Follow a few of these rules each time you purchase seafood, and pretty soon you’ll be a savvy seafood sustainability expert.

Additional Resources:

The Blue Ocean Institute provides detailed information about individual seafood species.

NRDC provides guidelines for purchasing some of the most popular seafood in America.

If you are interested in learning more, I would recommend reading The End of the Line by Charles Clover.

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