Posted by: Hil | August 13, 2009

Sustainable Seafood 101


I am a huge fan of fish.  It’s a delicious, versatile, and healthy food that I really can’t get enough of.  But one of the things that I love most about seafood is that its so possible to make environmentally-friendly seafood choices.  With other meat sources, eco-friendly options can be a lot harder to come by and a lot more expensive.  But with seafood, if you do a little bit of homework and are willing to be flexible, you can make some great earth-friendly choices without too much trouble.  An invaluable resource for this is the Seafood Watch Guide provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They provide up-to-date pocket guides that help you navigate the most ocean-friendly seafood choices to make.  I’m signed up as a Seafood Watch Ambassador because I really think that people can pretty painlessly make more ocean-friendly fish choices, and I want to share some of the knowledge that I’ve picked up.

The Issues

Fish is one of the few truly wild foods that is readily available–an exciting thing in a world full of factory farmed foods.  However, there are definite concerns with wild caught seafood, including:

  • Over-fishing:  Some fish populations have been fished at a faster rate than the fish can reproduce, leading to dwindling populations.  Orange roughy, Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, shark, and monkfish are among the species that are particularly over-fished.
  • By-catch:  Worldwide, fisheries throw away 25% of what they catch.  Fish that are too small, or simply not the desired species are thrown overboard dead or dying.  Seals, sea birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins can also become entangled in fishing gear by accident.  While some fishing methods create minimal bycatch, other methods waste far more food than they bring in.
  • Environmental damage:  Some forms of fishing involve basically dragging a big net over the bottom of the ocean floor, which can be highly disruptive to ocean habitats.

When done properly, fish farming is a great way to avoid the potential problems of catching wild fish.  However, fish farming has its own set of problems.  Salmon farming, unfortunately, is a good case study of what can go wrong with fish farming.   Farmed salmon are generally raised in crowded net pen environments.  This leads to accumulation of large amounts of feces in pens, which can lead to disease among the fish and can pollute surrounding waters.  To control the disease, farmed salmons are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can also leak into surrounding waters and create disease resistant organisms.  The salmon themselves can also escape their pens and take over the surrounding areas.

By contrast, vegetarian fish that are farmed inland can be very eco-friendly choices.  Tilapia, catfish, and trout farmed in in the U.S. are all eco-friendly choices.  All three of these varieties are widely available and generally quite affordable.

So Which Fish are Good Choices?

The best and easiest way to make sure that your seafood options are ocean-friendly is to print out a seafood watch pocket guide and keep it for reference.  Also, be sure to keep a lookout for the seal of the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies fisheries that operate sustainably.  But I thought I would give a quick crash course in making good choices with a few favorite seafood varieties. 



Everybody loves salmon.  Unfortunately, as described above, farmed salmon isn’t a good choice for the environment.  (Note:  “Atlantic salmon” is farmed.)  Wild salmon salmon is a much better choice.  Wild salmon is pretty wildly available frozen, and I can often find it fresh at Costco and sometimes at my local farmers market.  Canned salmon is almost always wild, and works great in pasta, salads and salmon cakes. 



Tuna is tricky.  Some varieties are abundant, while others are overfished.  Some fishing methods create little or no by-catch, while others create a lot of it.  American tuna is generally a good choice.  Tuna populations are healthier here, and we have strict bycatch regulations.  Tuna that is caught with either troll or pole-and-line fishing methods creates the least bycatch.  As an added bonus, pole-and-line fishing tend to catch smaller, younger tuna that have not had as much time to accumulate mercury in their systems.

I found an American poll-caught brand of canned tuna at my local Whole Foods called “American Tuna.”  It’s more expensive than most grocery store brands, but the fish is delicious.  If you can’t find (or can’t afford) an American pole or troll-caught brand of canned tuna, look for cans labeled Albacore or Skipjack, which are less overfished than other varieties.


The most commonly used shrimp fishing methods overseas have the worst bycatch of any fishing method, generating three to fifteen pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp caught.  Shrimp farming operations overseas are also a concern due to the ongoing destruction of mangrove forests to build shrimp farms in tropical regions.

Both wild and farmed shrimp from the U.S. and Canada are good alternatives.  It is a pain to find North American shrimp in grocery stores, in my experience, and I will be sure to post if I can find a good source.



Shellfish are a fantastic backup option that you can feel good about ordering even when you have no idea where you fish came from or how it was caught.

Shellfish farming is one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly aquaculture methods in use.  Shellfish filter plankton out of the water for their food, so they do not do not require outside feeding and can actually improve the quality of the surrounding waters.  Almost all of the oysters and abalone on the market today are farmed, and farmed clams and mussels also make up a large part of the market.  Farmed scallops are harder to find, but are becoming more available.

Wild shellfish are generally abundant and are not at risk of overfishing.  Although some commercial methods of harvesting shellfish can damage the ocean floor, wild shellfish are still a better choice than many seafood alternatives.



  1. Fabulous post! I swear every week there’s one new study about how amazing fish is for health and one about how horribly we’re polluting the oceans and overfishing important species. I carry a pocket guide in my wallet to make sure I’m buying responsibly.

  2. I just printed the little pocket guide. This little guy will be coming to the grocery store with me. Thanks for the resource!

  3. What a great post!! I use the iPhone app and it’s so convenient.

  4. […] Sustainable Seafood 101 […]

  5. Another great resource is they have their own products that are certified as sustainably harvested by a very highly regarded advisory panel. They also have some great info on the various species and what factors to consider, the good and bad of farmed products, etc.

    I came across this company in graduate school when I was researching sustainable fisheries and ways that those fisheries were being marketed.

    Ecofish also sells their approved fisheries products to restaurants, so you can find out if there is a local one near you with sustainably harvested fish!

  6. Good for you for sharing! I’ve been using that website and pocket card for 3 years and it’s great to be informed.

    Check out my Ethical Eating page for other ideas and info.

  7. Thanks for sharing this info! I wanted to note that there are some salmon farms practicing sustainable farming. My husbands company, Cleanfish, imports only sustainable seafood, and one of their largest products is a sustainably farmed salmon from Scotland – Loch Duart Salmon. As you mentioned, there are huge problems with overfishing in our oceans, and it is important to recognize those farms who are using sustainable farming practices. I had the opportunity to meet the owners of Loch Duart while my husband and I were in Scotland, and I must say how impressed I was. They are leading the way in aquaculture – the way our oceans are being depleted, this will become a necessity. Just wanted to add this bit of info!

  8. Great point, Annamarina. The above guidelines reflect industry trends and are not hard and fast rules. Of course knowledge about a specific farm should trump any general guidelines, and the spread of sustainable salmon farming practices is a very exciting thing for fish lovers. Thank you for commenting.

  9. […] impacts as having lunchmeat.  For more information on eating healthy, sustainable fish, please see this post by Hil.  So informative, helpful, and […]

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