How to Buy Sustainable Seafood with 5 Simple Tips

Fishmonger weighing fish at the market; sustainable seafood concept
Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN, pens a sustainable seafood guide that looks after your own health, as well as that of our oceans and marine wildlife at large. There are no two ways about it: Fish is one of the most nutrient-dense protein sources available. While fish and shellfish pack a protein punch, many varieties also contain essential omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. However, modern fishing practices don’t always make it the most sustainable protein option. Many fish are in danger of overfishing, which is the practice of catching too many fish and destroying natural ocean habitats in the process. You can simultaneously help protect our oceans and improve your health by making responsible decisions about the type of fish you buy and where you buy it. 3 poke rice bowls featuring fresh, sustainable seafood options

A 5-Step Sustainable Seafood Guide

Here are five tips on how to buy sustainable seafood to boost your own health while protecting that of marine wildlife.

1. Talk to the fishmonger behind the counter

Your fishmonger behind the counter is there to help you, so utilize this amazing resource! Oftentimes, they’ll know the most sustainable (and freshest) options available for purchase. Plus, it’s important to read the signs carefully. A lot of “fresh” fish are actually previously frozen, meaning you can’t refreeze them. You also must eat them quickly to prevent food waste. Unsure of what to ask? Consider some of these questions:
  • Do you have sustainable seafood options?
  • What are the most sustainable fish options available today?
  • When was the fish caught?
  • How far did the fish travel to get here?
  • Was this fish previously frozen?

2. Look for credible stamps of approval

These days, there are many organizations responsible for tracking sustainable seafood and vetting fisheries. Three popular organizations that prioritize seafood sustainability include:
  1. Aquaculture Stewardship Council
  2. Marine Stewardship Council
  3. Best Aquaculture Practices
Each organization has a label that sustainable fisheries can apply for to conveniently show consumers that their fish is a more sustainable choice. When buying frozen seafood, it’s especially important to look for at least one of these stamps of approval to ensure you’re choosing a sustainable option.

3. Consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

One of the best resources you can consult to ensure you’re buying sustainable seafood is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. This organization categorizes fish into three groups: 1. “Best Choices” have the green light for you to buy and enjoy. Best Choices include fish like farmed Arctic char, scallops, and barramundi from the US. 2. “Good Alternatives” essentially means “you can buy this, but beware that the farming and fishing practices may not be the most sustainable.” Good Alternatives include most types of cod from the Atlantic and Pacific, wild clams, and domestic swordfish. 3. “Avoid” fish have a red light. Experts recommend that you say no to buying these seafood species, including orange roughy, foreign cod, shark, and wild Atlantic halibut. It’s important to note that different species can have different ratings based on their location, wild-caught versus farm-raised status, and more. The Monterey Bay Aquarium currently offers free guides for different geographic areas in the country, as well as a convenient sushi guide. Couple at fishmonger buying fresh fish

4. When in Doubt, Choose domestic Seafood

As opposed to foreign importers, domestic fisheries are tightly regulated. As a result, they’re often a more sustainable seafood option in contrast to foreign fish. If you don’t see any credible stamps of approval or can’t speak to your fishmonger, opting for domestic seafood is typically a smart option.

5. Diversify your seafood choices

Experts say that most people buy the same types of seafood on repeat. The most popular types of seafood include the likes of:
  • salmon
  • shrimp
  • canned tuna
  • tilapia
I know these are the frequent fish in our home, too. However, as a result of their popularity, they’re at risk of overfishing. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, “wild” is not always the superior option when it comes to buying sustainable seafood. Wild-caught fish signifies that fish come from the open ocean. However, they’re at risk for overfishing and exposure to high levels of ocean pollutants. Conversely, farm-raised fish come from a more controlled environment. As we discussed above, there are many responsible fisheries that now employ sustainable aquaculture practices. Moreover, you may want to focus on supporting local fisheries and buying local seafood. If you regularly eat fish, community-supported fisheries are a great place to start. Like community-supported agriculture, community-supported fisheries ensure that you know:
  • where your fish comes from
  • who caught it
  • which methods are used
Man grilling fish over a campfire

5 Types of Fish to Avoid

Now that you know how to buy sustainable seafood, you may also want to consider species of fish to avoid due to:
  • overfishing
  • sustainability concerns
  • heavy metal toxicity
On account of these concerns, they’re all on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Avoid” list. 1. Sharks are one of the larger fish in the sea. Bigger fish, like sharks, eat smaller fish, leading to an accumulation of heavy metals. (Note: It’s especially important to avoid fish with high levels of mercury and other heavy metals when pregnant and/or breastfeeding.) 2. Imported catfish are known to be raised in poor farming conditions. In fact, the US and Europe have turned away thousands of pounds of catfish due to drug contamination, which can contribute to antibiotic resistance. 3. Eel (aka unagi) is often overfished due to its rising popularity in sushi restaurants. Moreover, it often contains chemical contaminants. 4. Swordfish is also known to be high in mercury, which is why it’s especially important to avoid when pregnant and/or breastfeeding. 5. Unknown local caught fish is often gifted by friends or family, making for a lovely gesture. However, it’s not always the safest. Local-caught fish may contain high levels of heavy metals or other potential contaminants. It may also turn out to be an overfished species.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to look out for and buy sustainable seafood, you also want to be mindful of the most nutritious options. When shopping for sustainable fish with the most nutrient bang for your buck, I recommend opting for smaller fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most Americans don’t eat enough of these essential fatty acids, so try to include more oysters, herring, sardines, and anchovies into your diet.
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