The Guide to Buying Sustainable Seafood

Trying to determine the sustainability of your seafood at the market can be like solving a math equation on a master's level. There isn't always a clearcut sign that what you're purchasing is sustainable. It's not a Portlandia episode where you can get a background profile of your selection and go visit the fishery to ask all the questions about the seafood choices your heart desires. Knowing the sustainability of your fish requires you to delve into some research before you hit up your local fishmonger. That's where our sustainable seafood guide comes in.

With options like farmed, fresh, and various countries of origin, from Mexico to Japan, it can get confusing. Not too mention that each species has its own set of rules that should be considered when making a purchase to reduce environmental impact. Luckily, we are here to help. Taking the guess work out of the equation, we put together the must-knows on choosing sustainable seafood. When making your selections at the seafood counter in the market, here are some things to consider.

Why Buy Sustainable?

When we consume fish, we inevitably leave our mark on the ecosystem, whether it's from sustainable fisheries or destructive harvesting. What we once viewed as a vast array of an endless food source, we have now realized is not as resilient as first thought. Overfishing and overexploitation have caused seafood populations to dwindle - and even put some fish species on the endangered species list.

Unethical practices have polluted the ocean and destroyed marine habitats, in turn destroying fish populations and other marine life. Even farming methods have lead to water pollution, excessive fish feed, and our own consumption of filth and harmful antibiotics due to poor farming practices. This isn't just a single coast problem, it affects both the Atlantic Ocean along the East Coast and the Pacific Ocean along the West Coast all the same.

In the US, more than 90 percent of what we consume is either farm raised or wild-caught seafood from another country. With Americans eating over $4 billion pounds of seafood a year, an average of one seafood meal per week, that's a big carbon footprint. By eating sustainably, we not only ensure the safety of our own food, but we also replenish the ocean and ensure a thriving blue ocean ecosystem.

Know Your Source

Knowing the country and fishery where your seafood is coming from is key to knowing your product. Frozen products are a bit easier to research since the package tells you what company it's from, and hopefully clearly, the origin. While there isn't always a clear cut label on some fresh products, ask the seafood counter what they know about the product. It's best to buy from a fishmonger that knows the product and where it's distributed from.

Be aware of misleading labels such as "prepared in", "packed by", or "imported by". These terms can fail to offer the original source of the seafood. Rather, show where it was processed. Knowing the exact origin is key to knowing if it's sustainable or not.

Buy Local

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If conditions are right, always buy local. Local products reduce the carbon footprint and encourage sustainable practices. Try and buy on your coast, and in the USA. Species like Atlantic cod, mahi mahi, and other wild species along the coasts have long been a part of a sustainable seafood movement here at home, meaning

If you see anything from China or Vietnam, it's best to steer clear. The regulations in some Asian countries - as well as others - are not as strict as they are in the U.S. Overfishing, bycatch, and unsanitary farming practices are common. The filth of the farm lead to pumping the fish with dangerous chemicals and antibiotics - many of which are banned in the United States. Wild-caught is not much better given the pollution of the water.

When in doubt, always buy local. The best app to help you in your purchasing is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program app. You can also go online and download their consumer guide to become a more environmentally friendly consumer and seafood selector. It lists state by state what you should and shouldn't be eating.

Farmed vs. Wild

When it comes to buying farmed versus wild caught seafood, there can be a whirlwind of confusion. The term farmed automatically raises assumptions that the fish are overcrowded and being pumped with chemicals. That, however is not always the case. Some of the farms are, in fact, sustainable and are a better choice when selecting that particular seafood. Certified fisheries in particular are excellent for wild fish populations and act as a sustainable source.

Take oysters, for example. Oysters are the filter feeders of the sea, so the water they live in faces strict regulation in the USA. They also purify the water around them, making oyster farming a thriving sustainable seafood source. In fact, U.S. fisheries for oysters have made huge strides in recent years, especially in the Chesapeake Bay.

If you are buying farmed, search out the company to see if they meet the demands of sustainability. Those that don't practice sustainable methods lead to habitat destruction and water pollution, use more wild fish for feed, and have higher levels of antibiotics in their seafood.

If you don't know about the farm, that's when it may be best to opt for wild as a good alternative to make environmentally friendly choices. For more information on the practices of aquaculture, check out NOAA fact sheet.

Eat Other Species

Marine species like tuna, salmon, and shrimp rank amongst the most popular seafoods in the US. Opting for other species that are in abundance can alleviate some of the strain on these populations. Smaller fish in the food chain like sardines reproduce faster and are often more abundant. They also contain less mercury than the larger fish. Shellfish like oysters, mussels, and clams, filter pollutants in the water and are amongst the most sustainable.

Resources like Eat These Fish! funded by the Environmental Defense Fund can help guide you in making sustainable choices. The campaign features 12 sustainable fish that have made a comeback from destructive fishing practices, with the stories told by fishermen. You can feel good eating alternatives like Yellowtail Rockfish and Red Grouper that are on their list.

Avoid species like Bluefin Tuna that are on the decline. Bluefin is one of the most sought after fish - the highest sold at $1.76 million - making overfishing and illegal practices become more common with its high price. To learn more about what species are on the endangered, check out the NOAA list here.

Buy MSC or ASC Labels

While there is no universal seafood labeling system, the blue Marine Stewardship Council label is pretty darn close. The MSC is an international nonprofit organization that has set the criteria for what makes a wild fishery sustainable. Their fishery certification program ensures that any company receiving their label is caught responsibly. Their signature of approval, the MSC label, is the most recognized sustainable label for wild caught seafood.

Like the MSC, the ASC - Aquaculture Stewardship Council - is a nonprofit organization that certifies and labels sustainably farmed fish. Their label tells you that the fish was a product of responsible aquaculture practices.

In the case of making your purchase, it is best to know before you go. At the very least, consult the Seafood Watch app when making your selection.


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