Practical Tips to Make More Sustainable Seafood Choices

The UN and FAO predict that our population will be 9 billion by 2050. This estimate has raised understandable concerns about the global food system's sustainability. As perhaps the healthiest source of animal protein, seafood is a crucial source of nutrition for over 3 billion people. However, just like other animal-based industries, seafood is not always sustainable. Here are seven practical tips to help you make an informed decision at the seafood counter.

Eat Lower on the Food Chain

Many species of smaller fish reproduce very quickly. As a result, their populations are much more resilient to fishing pressure than larger, often carnivorous fish. Anchovies, sardines, mackerel, catfish, and tilapia are at the bottom of the food chain. When raised on a fish farm, they do not require other fish as feed. Therefore, they are less resource intensive than swordfish, tuna, salmon, and other popular choices.

Vary Your Seafood Intake

One of the biggest obstacles to sustainable seafood is overfishing. In the US, most people eat the same species all the time – shrimp, tuna, salmon, haddock, etc. Not only are some of the more popular fish high on the food chain, but they also may require long-distance transport to arrive at your local market. Instead, try to find information on fish native to your area and eat them in season. It will reduce demand for some of the overfished species while supporting your local economy.

Favor Quality Over Quantity

There is no such thing as a free (or cheap) sustainable lunch. When you see a lower price tag on seafood, you will usually have to pay a hidden cost to make up the difference, and it can be an environmental, societal, or ethical one. For example, preferring South American farmed salmon because it is half the price of Alaskan wild-caught may seem like a sound financial decision. But unfortunately, the cheaper fish may have more antibiotics than factory-farmed steak, could have been harvested with slave labor, or may have been raised in a facility that displaced acres of mangroves.  

raw fish
Look for Certifications

Independent certifications can be an excellent way to ensure you make the best choice for your health and the planet. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label is well-regarded and has high standards for wild-caught fish. On the farmed seafood side, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) also has transparent requirements. 

Consider Eating Frozen Fish

It is a myth that frozen fish is of inferior quality to a catch that has not been frozen. Modern flash-freezing techniques, where the fish is frozen on the boat immediately after coming aboard, preserve all the flavor and nutrients. It is also a more sustainable choice in many circumstances. For instance, without freezing, Alaskan salmon would have to travel quickly by plane to Boston. However, frozen salmon can make the journey by truck, which has a smaller environmental impact.

Use Online Resources

Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is a phenomenal resource for learning about which species and methods are sustainably sourced. The database makes color-coded recommendations: red for avoiding, yellow for some concerns, and green for sustainable. In addition, the NOAA FishWatch can provide information about seafood harvesting in areas around the US.

Buy Direct from the Fisherman

As with land-based livestock, buying directly from the source is one of the best ways to land sustainable animal protein. Without any middlemen for processing and distribution, it's easy to learn everything you want about how fish are sourced by asking the fisherman. They are generally proud of their sustainability practices and more than willing to discuss them. If you don't live in a coastal area, you could join a community-supported fishery (CSF) program as an alternative. 

Key Takeaways
  • Localize – Always remember that one of the keys to environmental, social, and economic sustainability is trying to keep things local. So whenever you source food locally, you keep money in the community and help your neighbors earn a fair wage.
  • Do Research – In addition to the online resources above, most large food retailers publish their sustainability goals on their corporate websites. So a little digging can yield plenty of info about how your grocery store ensures they get their seafood from an ethical, environmentally safe supply chain.
  • Press Pause – Flash freezing allows us to enjoy the full nutritional benefit of sustainable seafood year-round, not only when it's in season. Dedicate some room in your freezer to fish when they are in season. It will keep you from making a less sustainable purchase later on.