Not very long ago, Atlantic Cod were so numerous on the New England coast that they were sometimes a hazard to navigation. Now, their numbers are critically low. Over the last two centuries, poor fisheries management, an ever-increasing world population, even food fads (remember Blackened Redfish?) have contributed to a serious decline in the numbers of fish and other sea life in our once teeming oceans.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has made us all more aware of the importance of protecting our oceans and the vibrant diversity of life within them. Making mindful, sustainable choices when it comes to seafood is a great start. It lets us enjoy nature’s bounty in the present while helping to ensure that it will be around for our grandchildren to enjoy in the future.
What Is Sustainable Seafood? While the details can be complicated, the basics are fairly simple. Seafood is considered sustainable when:
- Species populations are either naturally abundant or are maintained through regulation and responsible practices
- Fishing and harvesting methods don’t harm natural habitats, other species, or the environment in general
Why Is Sustainability Important? According to Seafood Watch, nearly 75% of the world’s fisheries are currently overfished or are in danger of becoming so. When species are overfished or their habitats are destroyed, it can take decades for populations to recover – if at all. Choosing sustainable seafood helps avert this damaging cycle.
How Can I Make Better Choices?
- Think Low Species that are lower on the food chain (catfish, mussels, Atlantic croaker) require fewer resources and can be a healthier choice than large, predatory species (swordfish, shark, tuna) which often have higher mercury levels.
- Think Fast Species that grow quickly (mahimahi, tilapia, barramundi) are a better choice than slow-growing species (orange roughy, grouper, Chilean seabass) that can take 15-30 years to reach maturity.
- Support Responsible Practices Just as important as the type of seafood you choose is how it was caught or harvested. Irresponsible fishing methods can kill endangered species (like sea turtles) and destroy breeding grounds. Learn more about the best and worst practices
- Check the Charts Is the seafood you want to buy a Best Choice, a Good Alternative, or one you should Avoid? The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program maintains up-to-date, color-coded charts and handy Pocket Guides listing seafood choices based on species population, fishing/farming practices, health concerns, and more.
Is Farm-Raised a Better Choice Than Wild-Caught? It can be, but not always. Some fish and shellfish farming practices are responsible; others can be outright hazardous to health. Because of higher standards and oversight, U.S. farm-raised fish and shellfish options are currently a better choice than those from Asia.
How Can I Tell if the Seafood in the Supermarket Is Sustainable?
- Read Labels Improved labeling in recent years has helped shoppers make better choices in the supermarket. These labels may show country of origin, whether the seafood was farm-raised or wild-caught, and even the fishing/harvesting method.
- Look for Logos Choose seafood and seafood products that are certified as sustainable by organizations with tough standards like the Marine Stewardship Council and Friends of the Sea.
- Grill Your Fish Seller Your local seafood vendor can be your best source for information on quality, origin, and methods. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: honest vendors are proud of their stock and will be happy to help. If a vendor is impatient with your questions or vague with their answers, shop elsewhere!
What About Restaurants?
- Choose Sustainable Chefs. Many chefs and restaurants have already joined sustainability organizations (such as the Sustainable Seafood Initiative here in Charleston, SC.) They’ve committed to keeping at-risk species off their menus and serving more locally available seafood. Check your local seafood restaurant’s website to find out more.
- Pick a Pocket Guide The regional and national Pocket Guides available for download from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program are a convenient way to keep sustainability information at hand when dining out locally or while traveling.
- There’s an App for That You can now download a free Seafood Watch application for your iPhone or get Pocket Guide info on any mobile device.
Want to learn more about sustainable seafood, including where to find it? Check out these 10 Valuable Sustainability Resources
Bonus Etiquette Tip: Should you recoil in horror if friends serve you shark kebabs or broiled Chilean seabass at a dinner party? Well, no. Here’s a more tactful and effective response: next time those friends are at your place, serve them a sustainable seafood meal and mention how you just recently read about the importance of sustainability. Not a big sermon – just a mention. You could even ‘just happen to have’ an extra copy of an article or a pocket guide for them. Teaching by example is the best recipe for sustainable friendships.