Rules to follow when you buy wild seafood

Sustainable fishing exists, but it can be complicated

Published December 18, 2022 1:30PM (EST)

Display of fresh fish at a fish market (Getty Images/Gary Yeowell)
Display of fresh fish at a fish market (Getty Images/Gary Yeowell)

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Sustainability is rarely as simple as a yes or no question, and that's especially true with seafood. Seafood is the last major source of wild-harvested food in our diets, which comes with some complications: there are hundreds of edible species, and each has its own role in marine ecosystems. And because fish populations vary from year to year and place to place, and because how fish was caught is a major factor in its sustainability, keeping track of what fish are best to eat is difficult for even the most educated consumers.

Thankfully, there are some rules that can help take the guesswork out of seafood without needing to learn about every fish in the ocean.

Sustainable fishing does exist, and by understanding the way that fisheries in the United States operate, we can develop simple rules to guide the our seafood purchases. FoodPrint's latest report, produced in partnership with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), identifies the key characteristics of sustainable seafood, explains the environmental, economic and social problems facing the industry, and offers suggestions for navigating the complicated world of seafood available to American consumers.

Here are the top takeaways:

Support local fisheries

If you live near a coast, and have access to a fish market where locally caught seafood is sold, buying there is a great way to support local, sustainability-minded fishermen.

Buying local seafood also helps avoid some of the potential pitfalls that come with buying seafood. Supply chains for seafood often get long and complicated, pulling resources away from communities and into the hands of corporations and investors. Especially as seafood crosses international borders, information about the catch gets more and more scarce the farther you get from the source, and the chance that there are serious problems in the supply chain— labor violations, seafood fraud and more — goes up dramatically.

If you live further from a coast, try to keep your purchases domestic: there are still problems, but the U.S. has better regulated fisheries than most other countries. Buying seafood that's labeled as domestically caught is still a safer bet than buying international seafood that inherently comes with less information.

Try ordering direct

Buying sustainable seafood doesn't always have to mean choosing it from a case at the market or the store. More and more options exist for buying seafood in a way that takes the guesswork out of sustainability. In many coastal areas, community supported fisheries (CSFs) have adopted the successful model of community supported agriculture, assembling boxes of locally caught, sustainable seafood for pickup or delivery. Typically, you don't choose exactly what fish you receive in your subscription, but that allows fishermen to sell what's most abundant, fresh and sustainable rather than what will sell the best at a store.

If you live far from the coast but still want to support sustainable fisheries, an increasing number of small-scale fisheries provide direct-to-consumer deliveries through the mail or internet. These are often flash-frozen to lock in quality and texture, and are comparable to fish that you might find at a high-quality market without the guesswork about where they came from.

graphic guide to buying wild seafoodClick here to view a larger version of this graphic

Stay open to frozen or tinned

Fresh fish out of the seafood counter might seem like the best option when it comes to quality, but the reality is that most of the fish you see at the supermarket have already been frozen at least once and then thawed out before sale. When it comes to quality and sustainability, other options can be just as good. Many small-scale fisheries make use of flash freezing to lock in the catch's freshness right out of the water, so whether you find these options online or in the store, you can be assured that they're good quality.

Fish in tins and cans can also be a sustainable and delicious option, with far more choices available than the cans of tuna many of us grew up with. Many of the small species that come in tins, like sardines and anchovies, are very sustainable because they come from lower rungs of the food chain, meaning they are more plentiful and have a smaller footprint than bigger fish. Even for popular species like salmon, tins can be a great way to get sustainably-harvested product far from the ocean or out of season.

Pay attention to how fish was caught

The type of fishing gear and the scale at which it's used have a big impact on the environmental footprint of the fish. That's why you'll see labels and claims that say things like "line caught" or "pole caught" (these turn up on tuna cans a lot!).

Some fishing methods catch too many other fish along with the target fish, and that fish gets discarded (this is what's known as "bycatch"). Some fishing methods disrupt the ocean floor. Some can be very fuel intensive, dramatically driving up the carbon footprint of your meal. The scale of a fishing operation can also make a big difference: overly intensive methods of catching fish can depopulate entire schools at once and cause serious imbalances in marine ecosystems. `

When you follow guidance advice from programs like Seafood Watch or Whole Foods' rating system, you can find out which fishing methods were used and which ones are most problematic. If you buy from a local fishery you can ask them about their practices and what steps they're taking to minimize bycatch and other ecosystem damage.

Look beyond the most popular fish

Many of the most popular fish, like tuna, eel and cod, are in such high demand that their populations are under stress. This is especially true for species that come from international waters where they may not be under careful monitoring and regulation.

Even when these populations are under stress, fishermen still feel pressured to bring them to market. Many consumers are intimidated by unfamiliar species that may be much more plentiful in their area, even if they can be cooked exactly like more popular options.

By asking your fish seller for their recommendation of what's most plentiful, you'll get exposed to a far wider variety of underutilized species. You may find some new favorites along the way!

If you can't talk to the fishermen, it's a good idea to look up an unfamiliar species through a reputable third party organization like Seafood Watch. While no perfect rating system exists, these can be a good indicator of whether or not a fish you haven't seen before was caught sustainably.

By FoodPrint


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fishing Food Foodprint Seafood Sustainability