Happy World Ocean Week!!!
This is the beginning of my blog series on sustainable seafood. As a marine biologist sustainably sourced seafood is definitely an important issue for me. The health of our oceans is one of the primary reasons for my sustainability journey. As such, this will be a 3 part blog series in order to fully cover this topic. I hope by the end you will feel confident when you walk into a restaurant, seafood market, or grocery store that you know how to recognize a more sustainable option.
In part one I’ll explore what sustainability means in terms of seafood; and give you some great resources to help you find sustainable seafood in the market and at restaurants. Then in part two I will walk you through the sustainable seafood labels you’ll see at the grocery store and share my own research on how accessible and affordable it actually is. Finally in part three I will go into a little more detail on farm raised vs wild caught fish, take a deeper look at the global issues affecting our seafood stocks, and give my final recommendations on how we can play our part to keep those stocks healthy.
I took a poll!
Until moving to Arizona I had easy access to some of the freshest seafood around. I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, about 5 minutes from the beach. My dad is an avid fisherman and taught me to fish when I was 3 years old. We would also go crabbing, catch shrimp with a cast net, or buy it straight off the boat in our local harbor. I rarely had to think about where my fish came from, let alone brave the frozen seafood section of the grocery store.
With easy access to fresh seafood I wanted to see how my friends and family back home felt about sustainable options. So, I took a poll on my Facebook page asking all my friends and family to tell me if they look for sustainable seafood options or think about it when making their seafood purchases. I made it a safe space with no judgments! The results were pretty on par for what I expected. I’ve included a summary of the most common answers below:
- Almost everyone who responded said they did, at least, consider it in their decision making process. While only a couple said they really didn’t think about it.
- Most people said that even though they thought about sustainability, cost was the most important thing when making purchasing decisions. This is also important to me.
- Several said they weren’t really sure what seafood was sustainable and what wasn’t.
- Several said they just made sure to buy local.
These results somewhat fit with larger research studies that found environmental impact was the 3rd most important thing about the seafood people chose, with freshness being the first. In larger studies price was less of a concern but that could be for a number of reasons, including demographic (Gutierrez and Thronton, 2014). Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the Facebook poll! It really helped me understand what yall are looking for and how I can help. Cost is also an important factor in my purchasing decisions, and a big part of my journey is to find cost effective ways to help the environment in our day to day lives. Keep the poll going by commenting below whether or not you keep sustainability in mind when purchasing seafood!
What is Seafood Sustainability
We’ve already discussed the topic of sustainability as a whole. It means using resources conservatively to preserve them for future generations (Basiago, 1995). We’ve also discussed sustainable food choices from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint. But, when talking about sustainability in seafood we have to consider way more than just its carbon footprint. We have to take a conservation approach and consider the population sizes of the seafood we eat, how much we harvest, and how it’s harvested.
Only about 7% of the world’s fisheries are harvested under capacity. The other 90 percent are being fished to capacity( 60%) or over capacity (33%), especially on a commercial scale (United Nations FAO). There has been a 23% increase in overfished stocks over the last 50 years. This means that these fish are not able to reproduce quickly enough to replenish their stocks and keep up with our demand. Considering a large portion of the global population relies on seafood for its primary protein source this is a major issue. Certain fishing methods are also very destructive, like bottom trawls, dredging, or long lines. But, we will discuss this topic in depth in a later post.
In order to ensure we have healthy fish stocks for future generations there are two main things we can do. First, vote and demand strong conservation and management policies from legislators. By strong I don’t mean unnecessarily restrictive. I mean informed policies backed by science. Second, as consumers, we must use our wallets to show that sustainable seafood options are important to us. I’ll post on marine policy in the future but right now I want to focus on where we as individuals can make the most immediate impact… What we choose to purchase.
How to make Sustainable Seafood Choices
Sustainability in fish stocks changes from region to region, by fishing method, and by how it’s raised (wild caught vs farmed). So how do I comfortably and knowledgeably order seafood from a restaurant or purchase from a market?
- In general locally caught seafood is usually best, there are exceptions to this though so do a little research on the area.
- The US has stricter regulations on its farmed seafood so US farmed will almost always be more sustainable than other countries.
- Avoid seafood caught by long lines. Long lines are a very destructive fishing method. Alternatively, hook and line fishing methods are more sustainable since you can only catch a few at a time.
- If it’s considered an invasive species, like lionfish, eat it up! You’re helping the environment!
Do your research before you go!
I know it’s not always an option, but if you know you will be purchasing or ordering seafood take a look at the menu or research what fish are sustainable in your area. If you live in a coastal area with easy access to seafood it’s important to be familiar with what locally caught seafood is most sustainable.
Use these guides below to help you make decisions.
I use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. They have both an App you can download and print out guides to put in your purse or wallet. Consumer guides are updated update twice each year using legitimate science to back their findings. They also have a guide just for Sushi!
NOAA’s Fisheries department has a database called FishWatch where you can search by fish and region to see if your favorites are sustainable.
Don’t be afraid to ask “Where was this fish caught?” or if you’re in a coastal area “is this fish locally caught?”
It’s also good to ask how often they get their seafood delivered, if it was fresh or frozen, if it was wild caught or farmed, and when it was caught if applicable. Most legitimate seafood restaurants and markets should be able to tell you. If it’s a chain restaurant odds are it was frozen, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just don’t be shocked.
Many restaurants will even put on their menu if they serve locally caught fish, since it’s a source of community pride. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I grew up, has its own restaurant certification for locally sourced seafood that allows restaurants to prominently display that certification on their menus and the website lists those places that participate.
The Scoop on Canned Tuna
Greenpeace Rated different brands of canned tuna for sustainability and found Wild Planet to be the most sustainable while Starkist was the least sustainable option. Click here to see how your favorite brand ranks.
Fishing Gear defined:
The quick guide above mentions a few different fishing methods. Hook and line fishing refers to what we usually think of as fishing: a pole with monofilament fishing line, a hook, and bait attached on the end. Other forms of hook and line fishing include trolling and long lining. Trolling uses multiple baited lines pulled behind a boat. Fish are pulled in as they are caught or a short time after. Long lines have multiple baited hooks and are left to soak near the seafloor for a few hours. Fish are collected (often dead or exhausted) after the soak time. Long lining is considered destructive and has major impacts on shark populations.
For More information on overfishing and sustainable seafood check out the resources below:
I highly recommend watching The End of the Line documentary on Netflix to learn more about overfishing. It’s from 2009 but is still valid today, if not more so. You can rent it on Amazon Prime Video below:
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization puts out a report each year on the state of the world’s fisheries
NOAA fisheries discusses the US’s role in sustainable fisheries.
- Basiago, A.D. (1995), Methods of defining ‘sustainability’. Sust. Dev., 3: 109-119. https://doi.org/10.1002/sd.3460030302.
- Alexis Gutierrez and Thronton, T. F. 2014. Can consumers understand sustainability through seafood ecolabels? A U.S. and UK case study. Sustainability, 6(11), 8195-8217; https://doi.org/10.3390/su6118195
- Canned Tuna list https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/oceans/tuna-guide/
- Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has an app you can download or print out guides. Their consumer guides are updated twice each year using legitimate science to back their findings. They also have a guide just for Sushi! https://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/consumer-guides
- NOAA also puts out a database called FishWatch where you can search by fish and region to see if your favorites are sustainable. https://www.fishwatch.gov/?_ga=2.254345352.1223592452.1590784714-1676986630.1590625192
- Marine Conservation Institute Destructive fishing https://marine-conservation.org/what-we-do/program-areas/how-we-fish/destructive-fishing/
- Fisheries Research and Development Corporation: https://www.fish.gov.au/fishing-methods/hook-and-line