How to Make Sustainable Seafood Choices

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

How do we pick out seafood for our families that's healthy, safe for the environment, and economical? Emily shares some useful tips!

When choosing seafood we have many choices: farmed or wild-caught, fresh versus frozen, local or seasonal, to name a few. How do we pick something that’s healthy, safe for the environment, and economical? 

For those of you who have seen the show Wicked Tuna, you know that beyond the occasional (okay not so occasional) bleeped out bad language, it’s essentially a reality show about catching enormous Bluefin tuna…using rod and reel only.

Reruns are streaming on Disney+ which is how my children discovered it.

And while the questionable language sometimes has my husband and me covering their ears, we are all glued to the screen to find out who will catch the big one this week.

Through this show, the kids have become dialed into fishing styles, proper fishing practices, and how fish is sourced; it’s been a great learning opportunity for all of us. And while I’m not purchasing a giant Bluefin tuna from the supermarket, it got me thinking about how and where we all buy fish and the choices we make for our dinner table.

How do we navigate which sea life is sustainable, healthy, and fair in practice?

First, where to shop?
Thankfully, Greenpeace does a lot of the legwork for us on this front. They rank grocery stores based on their commitment to sustainable seafood, which includes the seafood counter, frozen seafood, and canned seafood in the aisles. At the very least, it helps us know what we are walking into. And luckily, for those who live locally – or in other towns with the following stores – these are the highest rated grocery stores:

  • Whole Foods ranks on top, over others, specifically because they carry the most ocean-friendly canned tuna products of any major U.S. store and supports sustainable fishing practices. They also no longer sell live Maine lobsters (because of questionable fishing practices).
  • Wegman’s is a close second, but gets points docked for offering less sustainable store brand canned tuna in their aisles, and live lobsters.

How do we know which fish to choose?
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program (MBA) uses a color-coding system to label fish based on sustainability. Supermarkets often adopt this signage to help consumers make choices. Considerations for labeling include fish population, fishing practices, and impact on the environment.

Green indicates “best choice,” blue denotes “certified,” yellow signifies “good alternative,” and red means “avoid.” The same type of fish may be categorized differently depending on the region where you are shopping and whether it is for sushi grade. This type of labeling over the past few decades has helped get fish back into the sustainability ranges, so it’s a great resource to follow.

The nutritional value of frozen seafood, especially when it’s flash-frozen right after being caught, will be similar (if not the same) to fresh fish. This is a great convenience item to keep in the freezer and is especially beneficial for those who don’t live near water.

What if there are no signs where I shop?
Ask questions! MBA developed a guide to help prompt consumers to ask questions about our seafood.Their pocket guide is also helpful when dining out. 

There may not be sustainability signs up at local seafood markets, but sometimes those behind the counter are even more knowledgeable than the fish counters at larger supermarkets – and they love to share what they know. If you live, or are visiting, a coastal town, supporting local fisherman is also a good option!

Another good practice in supporting fish stocks and biodiversity is to eat a varied diet. Instead of always eating one type of seafood, switch it up, because this helps to reduce the pressure on certain fish stocks. It also provides a more varied nutritional profile in terms of fat and vitamin content.

Beyond a variety of fish, you could also try seaweed or seaweed salads. Algae are usually a safe choice and are also a vegetarian source for Omega-3 fatty acids.

Wild or Farmed?
There are many different farming methods, as well as methods for catching fish in the wild. Because of this, it’s not clear-cut which one is better in general because it depends on many factors.

Farmed seafood accounts for more than 50% of the seafood we eat today, and this number will only get higher over the next 10 years, according to MBA. So farmed is quite common and available year-round. On the other hand, similar to peaches or heirloom tomatoes, wild fish shifts dramatically in flavor and availability over the seasons. This is helpful to keep in mind.

What about salmon?
Salmon is a popular choice for it’s high levels of Omega-3s meaty flesh, and easy cooking.

Wild salmon is seen as the better choice because it’s lower in contaminants. Keep in mind it’s not free of pollutants, as they exist in  the open waters, and it has been overfished. It is also pricier than farmed salmon.

Farmed Atlantic salmon is more likely to contain higher levels of pollutants from the water where they live and also from what they are fed. On the other hand, it is also more accessible to those who would like to incorporate Omega-3’s into their diet but can’t afford wild.

Additionally, there are ongoing innovations in the world of farmed salmon, and farmed fish in general, that are improving the quality of farmed fish, which is exciting!

What about mercury?
Mercury is a toxic metal and is harmful when ingested in excess. It exists naturally (from volcanoes, for example) and due to human pollution. Large fish tend to be the highest in mercury because they are around the longest and eat the small fish that pick up trace amounts of mercury.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has an interactive guide and categorizes fish by mercury levels as well as eco-friendly levels. For example, swordfish is listed as eco-friendly if hand-caught in the US, but not if imported. However, all swordfish have high mercury levels. 

Since everyone is different, and fish have different levels of mercury, generic guidelines for fish consumption aren’t perfect. But a good rule of thumb is that two servings per week of lower-mercury fish can provide benefits without an overload of toxins. Taking skin off fish, even before cooking, can also reduce the load (though ironically, this is where the most Omega-3’s are!).

The FDA has this handy advice chart that covers guidelines for children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Bottom line though, is that the benefits of a baby’s growth and development from eating low mercury fish outweigh the risks. So, do not avoid seafood out of concerns for mercury poisoning, but do monitor weekly intake (8-12 ounces per week for pregnant or breastfeeding women) and be mindful of those fish to avoid altogether.

Similar recommendations and considerations go for polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB’s), or other environmental contaminants from the past (though outlawed for years, they remain in our waters) that is considered carcinogenic.

Be kind to yourself!
If you choose seafood that’s considered unsustainable or high in mercury, don’t be hard on yourself. This will happen sometimes, and it’s OK. The concern is when high mercury fish, or fish on the “avoid” lists, are eaten regularly and the levels build up over time.

Key Takeaways
We have a lot of seafood choices these days, and there isn’t necessarily one right or wrong choice for everyone. Helpful guidelines posted in markets, as well as the resources linked in this article, can make choosing sustainable, healthy seafood pretty straightforward. By varying intake of sustainable seafood, we can minimize our impact on individual species and reduce our intake of harmful toxins.

🎣What have been your challenges in picking out safe and sustainable seafood? Let us know in the comments section below, we love hearing from readers!

Leave a Reply

Make it? Rate the recipe:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *