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Natural Awakenings

Choosing Sustainable Seafood: A Sea-to-Table Primer

Jan 01, 2009 03:00AM ● By Barb Amrhein

“Eat fish!” trumpet articles and ads that assure us this bounty from the sea is a boon to our bodies. If only it were that simple. According to the Seafood Choices Alliance, an international program linking the seafood industry and ocean conservation community, more than 75 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited: We are consuming fish and other marine life faster than their populations can replenish themselves.

Fortunately, proactive environmental organizations are working to provide ongoing solutions—but our informed participation is vital. The choices we make at restaurants and markets can help save our seas while benefiting our health.

The criteria used to determine sustainability include:

Status of wild populations.

Native stocks must be sufficient to sustain fisheries. Slow-growing fish that reproduce later in life, such as orange roughy, are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. At less risk are species that grow quickly and breed young, such as sardines and anchovies.

Fishing methods.

Some commercial fishing methods damage the seafloor and/or result in excess bycatch—unwanted fish or animals caught accidentally in fishing gear and then discarded, dead or dying. Most operations suffer from one or both of these drawbacks, including:

• Dredging – metal frames with attached mesh bags, dragged along the seafloor.
• Gillnetting – curtains of nearly invisible netting that trap fish headlong; when they try to escape, they are caught by their gills
• Trawling – cone-shaped nets pulled behind a boat
• Purse seining – netting walls that encircle schools of fish; innovations to this method, which formerly killed hundreds of thousands of dolphins, now allow the mammals to escape
• Longlining – one- to 50-mile-long fishing lines strung with smaller lines of baited hooks, hung at different depths; hooks hung near the surface ensnare seabirds and can catch sea turtles and sharks – deeper longlines and those using circle hooks are recent improvements.

Better methods are harpooning and trolling (a hook-and-line method that allows fishermen to quickly release unwanted catch). Traps and pots, often used to catch lobsters, crabs, shrimp and bottom-dwelling fish, are usually environmentally responsible, but can occasionally trap marine mammals or rake the seafloor.

Aquaculture (fish farming) methods.

According to Seafood Watch, a sustainability program initiated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, nearly half of the seafood we eat comes from farms where fish, shrimp and oysters are raised. In theory, fish farming is the ideal answer to protecting wild species from depletion and avoiding environmental degradation. The reality is more complex.

Large numbers of fish corralled in net pens along coastal waters produce tons of feces that pollute the water, and diseases can spread to nearby wild fish. Antibiotics used to treat the penned fish can also leak into the surrounding waters, creating drug-resistant disease organisms. Occasionally, farm fish escape and usurp habitat from area wild fish. Inland farms, away from the habitats and nurseries of wild fish, may be the better way to raise fish, and many commercial fisheries are exploring and refining this option.

To help us easily make sustainable seafood choices, several environmental and conservation organizations distill their research into handy consumer guides. Each advises which choices are high in heart-healthy omega-3s, and which have questionable levels of mercury, PCBs or other contaminants.

Seafood Watch publishes downloadable regional and national Seafood Watch pocket guides, and a sushi guide, that rate seafood as “best choices,” “good alternatives” or “avoid.” Blue Ocean Institute’s wallet-size Guide to Ocean-Friendly Seafood, available free by email request, rates fish and seafood within five categories. Its wallet-size Ocean-Friendly Sushi Guide is available as a PDF download. Blue Ocean also provides FishPhone, the nation’s first sustainable seafood text messaging service (text FISH and the species name to 30644 for instant information). The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) publishes its Pocket Seafood Selector and Pocket Sushi Selector as free, downloadable guides listing Best, OK and Worst choices.

“Fisheries conservation is one of the most important marine conservation issues today,” notes Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It’s an environmental problem whose solution is in people’s hands every time they buy seafood. We know that, through their seafood choices, consumers and businesses can have a tremendous impact on the health of the oceans.”

For more information and to download seafood guides, visit:;; and


Arctic char (farmed)
Atlantic mackerel
Oysters (farmed)
Sablefish (Alaska, Canada)
Salmon, wild (Alaska)
Sardines, Pacific (U.S.)
Trout, rainbow (farmed)

Chilean sea bass
Orange roughy
Salmon, farmed/Atlantic
Swordfish (imported)
(Gulf of Mexico/South Atlantic)
Tuna, bigeye/yellowfin
(imported longline)
Tuna, bluefin

Source: Environmental Defense Fund;

-Farm raised/wild caught
labels by the country of origin indicate where fish come from, and are government regulated.
Refer to a reliable pocket guide to determine which option is best for a particular type of fish.

-The Marine Stewardship Council certification ( appears on wild fish from sustainable fisheries.

-The Seafood Safe label ( indicates how many monthly servings women of childbearing age can safely eat, based on mercury and PCB levels.

-FishWise labels (, designed for retailers, follow the color code guidelines established by Seafood Watch for sustainability; also indicate where the fish came from and how it was caught. Currently used by a limited number of retailers in a few states.

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