Sustainable Eats: 9 Tips for Making Sustainable Seafood Choices

In part one of this series on sustainable seafood, we discussed how the good food movement has made significant strides in raising awareness about sustainability issues surrounding land-based food, but we’re still waiting for similar progress in the realm of fish and seafood.

Since it’s tough to navigate without any sustainable guideposts, below I outline nine practical tips for consumers to make more informed, ethical seafood choices – whether at the fish market, the grocery counter, or a restaurant.

1) Know Your Fish, Know Your Fishers: You probably already know that buying your produce and/or meat from the farmer’s market allows you to develop relationships with producers, as well as build trust about the quality, safety, and value of the food you’re purchasing. The same principles apply to fish and shellfish: the most reliable way to ensure you’re getting high quality fish, caught using sustainable methods, is to buy directly from the person who caught it. You can do this by participating in a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) or purchasing at a fish market that sources exclusively from local/regional boats. The short supply chain of direct-to-consumer sales reduces the risk of fraud and mislabeling that is endemic in the long and complex industrial seafood supply chain.

2) Ask Questions at Retailers and Restaurants: As ethical consumers, we care about where our food comes from and how it is produced. This gives us a responsibility to ask questions about our food and based on the information provided, decide whether or not to make a purchase. The essential questions to ask are: What species of fish is this? Was it caught wild or farm raised? and Where is it from? A retailer or restaurant that takes pride in their sourcing will be able to provide this information. Hesitation, vague or incomplete answers should be a red flag to the consumer. This applies whether we’re at a fish market, a grocery store, or in a restaurant.

I encourage you to also consider asking What type of fishing gear or aquaculture method were used? Who caught this fish? and Were they paid fair wages and treated fairly? The responses to these questions provide even more clues about how much a fishmonger or chef knows about their supply chain and, perhaps more importantly, signals a growing consumer desire for transparency.

3) Eat Seasonal and Regional, or at least USA: As is true for land-based food, the most sustainable seafood choice is usually to eat what’s in season in your area, harvested from local waters or the broader region. In the DC metro area, we are fortunate to be just 50 miles from the Chesapeake Bay and at the mid-point of the east coast, with many fisheries just a few hours north and south. Typical species from our region include: Blue Crab, Oysters, Clams, Perch, Croaker, Drum, Flounder, and Rockfish (also called Striped Bass or Striper). From the northeast, we can also get Lobster, Scallops, Mussels, Dogfish, Haddock, Hake, Quahogs, and Mackerel. From the southeast, we can get Mahi Mahi, Grouper, cobia, Monkfish, Amberjack, Swordfish, Sheepshead, Yellowfin Tuna, and several types of Shrimp.

If you want to keep it SUPER simple, just abide by one seafood rule: always eat fish and seafood from the United States, never imported. The United States has some of the best marine fisheries standards in the world, thanks to the Magnuson Stevens Act. Imported seafood is not held to the same catch limits, environmental protections, or labor regulations. Eating only U.S.-sourced products will help you steer clear of many of the sustainability issues around seafood.

4) Eat a Greater Variety of Species: On average, Americans eat 16.5 pounds of fish and shellfish per person per year, mostly from just a few species – Shrimp, Salmon, Tuna, and Tilapia – even though there are more than 100 species harvested from U.S. waters. Such narrow consumption puts intense pressure on those few popular species, which can result in overfishing and potentially, population collapse, as happened with Bluefin Tuna. Fisherman won’t catch what they can’t sell, so the power really lies with you and other consumers to diversify demand. The ethical choice is to expand your palate, try something different, and help create a market for a diverse range of fish.

5) Eat Lower on the Food Chain: As we move up the food chain, ten times more energy is consumed at each level between plant and carnivore (also referred to as the trophic scale). This means that predators at the top of the chain, such as Tuna and Swordfish, consume huge amounts of smaller fish to grow their body mass. Even medium sized Salmon are still voracious carnivores; the feed to food ratio for farm-raised Salmon can be as high as 14:1, meaning 14 pounds of smaller fish feed every one pound of Salmon filet sold to consumers. Given the intense amount of energy required to sustain large, carnivorous fish, a responsible consumer should choose smaller species lower on the food chain. Anchovies and Sardines are great choices. Filter feeder, such as Crab, Oysters, Clams, and Mussels, are even better.

6) Pay for Higher Quality, Eat Less Quantity: You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating: cheap food is not cheap. That is, the true costs to society and the environment of cheap food are not reflected in the sticker price but instead, transferred indirectly to other actors in the system. We’ll use salmon as an example: farm-raised salmon from Chile costs $8.99/lb, whereas wild Alaskan Salmon goes for $19.99/lb. What’s the difference?

Wild Alaskan Salmon is harvested using environmentally sound methods in coastal communities by fisherpeople who are paid fair wages. In contrast, farmed Chilean Salmon has drawn criticism for using more antibiotics than some factory-farmed beef, and for situating huge, multi-million animal operations in pristine glacier areas. In short, the price of the Salmon reflects the true value of the resource.

Similar comparisons can be made between Chesapeake Blue Crab at $32/lb (exacerbated by work visa shortages) and its imported competition from Southeast Asia, India, and South America at $12/lb. Shrimp harvested from North Carolina or Gulf Coast waters typically fetches $15/lb, whereas major industrial operations in Southeast Asia that degrade mangrove forests and are known to use slave labor, can sell their product for just $10/lb. The additional costs of lost coastal livelihoods in the United States, the negative impact on the environment, and deplorable labor conditions are not reflected in the lower retail prices.

Rather than purchasing the cheaper (but costly to society) product, the ethical choice is to buy higher quality, even if that means consuming less of it. My friend and fellow seafood advocate, Kevin Scribner of Salmon-Safe, likes to ask “why are we willing to spend $5 for a latte but we’re not willing to spend $5 per meal, per person for the highest quality fish in the world?!”*

7) Don’t Be Afraid of Frozen: The technology for freezing fish has drastically improved in recent years. Fresh catch can be immediately processed and frozen at very low temperatures, often right on the boat. Some consumers still think that buying frozen fish sacrifices flavor or quality – on the contrary! Buying frozen fish from trusted sources is a great way to get high quality fish at reasonable prices.

8) Get Familiar with Seafood Guides: Reliable information is essential for informed, ethical food choices. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides is an industry leader and provides easy to use guides for each region, including one for navigating a sushi menu and an app for your phone. But even with these tools, you as a consumer must still gather key pieces of information about the fish (as outlined above): What species is this? Where is it from? and Was it farmed or caught wild? According to Seafood Watch, species marked Red should be avoided entirely, Yellow means a Good Alternative (but there are some concerns), and Green indicates a best choice.

For consumers interested in learning more about the fish species that are harvested in their region, NOAA FishWatch is a good source.

9) Look for Eco-Labels: Lastly, consumers can look for eco-labels, though these should be considered an indicator, rather a guarantee, of sustainability. Currently, there are at least seven sustainable seafood certification labels, each with varying standards and criteria. The Marine Stewardship Council, which focuses on wild caught fish, or its newer affiliate the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which evaluates farmed fish operations, are both good resources. However, consumers should be aware that even grocery store chains are creating their own seafood labels with claims of sustainability. Many do not have independent verification methods, causing further confusion for consumers about credibility and which label they should look for. As an ethical consumer, it is better to know your source than depend on a label or certification.

Stay tuned for the third article in this series next month, for a list of seafood retailers and restaurants in the DC metro area that Slow Food DC believes are sourcing most sustainably.

By Lauren Parnell, SFDC Board Member and Slow Fish Liaison

* 16 oz. in a pound and 4 oz. per portion of fish => 4 portions x $5 each = $19.99, the market price for most wild Alaskan salmon.

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