December 1, 2023 • Blue Habits Tips
Seafood is deeply integrated into human societies worldwide, both as a source of food and as a symbol of cultural significance. Not only does seafood provide daily protein to 3 billion people, but it also supports employment, supports food security, and offers recreational and cultural benefits. However, as the global demand for seafood continues to rise, so do the many issues that plague the industry. These include harmful fishing methods that damage ocean habitats and wildlife, aquaculture practices that can cause pollution and spread disease, and ethical labor concerns, among others. This may leave you wondering: how do you choose sustainable seafood?
Given these challenges, making informed and responsible seafood choices is one of the best ways we as individuals can support ocean health. Fortunately, consumers worldwide are increasingly recognizing the importance of sustainable seafood, and this is reflected in our purchasing decisions. Since 2010, the consumption of sustainable seafood has more than doubled. Currently, 71% of global consumers prioritize sustainability when buying seafood, according to the Marine Stewardship Council.
While these numbers are encouraging, there is still a long way to go. Navigating sustainable seafood choices can be notoriously difficult as there are many variable factors that determine whether the final product was sourced sustainably.
Divers disentangle discarded fishing gear from a coral reef. The global seafood industry is plagued with environmental and social issues, making it especially important to make informed seafood choices. © Shaun Wolfe / Ocean Image Bank
To help you make more informed choices, we have compiled the following list of simple do’s and don’ts to consider when choosing your seafood.
We understand the desire for a straightforward answer on which seafood is considered “good” or “bad”. However, determining this is very complex. That being said, there are certain seafood stocks and species that are consistently regarded as good choices, while others should be avoided entirely. Below are examples:
Avoid overwhelm by getting to know a few common “best choice” seafoods and a few common seafoods to avoid. © Colin Czerwinski
Many products, including seafood, often use marketing terms like “sustainable,” “responsible,” and “eco-friendly.” However, these terms can be loosely- or un-regulated and are often self-declared by the brand without any third-party verification. To ensure credibility, it is important to look for certification labels, as described in the following tip, in conjunction with these terms.
While no system is flawless, sustainable seafood certification programs play a crucial role in determining the sustainability of seafood based on fishing methods and fishery practices. These independent organizations conduct thorough assessments and evaluations of all aspects of fisheries and aquaculture operations, from catch to sale, establishing standards for environmental performance, social responsibility, and food safety.
By actively seeking out seafood with certification labels, consumers can more easily and confidently identify seafood products that have been responsibly harvested and farmed. These certifications prioritize minimizing the disruption and damage caused to ecosystems, preventing the overexploitation of fish stocks, ensuring ethical labor practices, and promoting traceability throughout the entire seafood supply chain.
There are various certifications, guides, and resources available. While they all aim for the same goal, each organization has its own approach and ideas on how to achieve sustainability. Some guides are specific to certain regions, taking into consideration seafood availability and social preferences. Additionally, different countries, states, and regions offer different types of seafood based on their own culinary tastes. We encourage you to explore the different guides and resources to find the one that aligns best with you.
Here are some well-known guides and certification programs:
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: Considered comprehensive and consumer-friendly, they offer downloadable seafood guides and a mobile app, including region-specific and national guides.
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): Certifies wild-caught seafood products – look for this logo in grocery stores and on seafood packaging. Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) has a similar logo and certifies farmed seafood products.
Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP): A comprehensive certification program covering all aspects of aquaculture production, from hatchery to harvest – look for this logo in grocery stores and on seafood packaging.
Friend of the Sea (FOS): A certification program focusing on both environmental and social sustainability – look for this logo in grocery stores and on seafood packaging.
Making sustainable seafood choices can be simplified by following a few key steps. Start by identifying the types of seafood you frequently purchase or order. Once you have your list, consult region-specific sustainable seafood guides to find the most sustainable options for each of those choices and seek out local and domestic suppliers whenever possible—check out these U.S. supermarket seafood rankings and programs like Dock to Dish. To keep track of the best sustainable options available to you, take notes and pictures of the brands you come across for future reference.
When dining out, use seafood guides in restaurants, such as this sushi guide, to help identify sustainable options. You will often need to ask questions of your server about the origin and type of seafood on the menu, like whether it was wild caught and where it came from. If they don’t know the answers, the best choice is to pick something else.
If you are unsure about the source or sustainability of a seafood option, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and avoid it.
The global seafood market is dominated by five types of seafood, namely shrimp, tuna, salmon, tilapia, and pangasius (a catfish popular in Asia), which collectively make up over 60% of the market. However, the growing demand for seafood, driven by factors like population growth and rising incomes, is putting immense pressure on fish stocks that are already under threat.
To tackle this issue, it’s crucial to diversify seafood consumption and consider eating less seafood overall. Relying too heavily on a few popular choices leads to overfishing, harmful practices, and increased demand. By looking beyond the top five seafood options, we can distribute our consumption more evenly and alleviate the strain on heavily fished species while encouraging sustainable practices. Moreover, different seafood species offer a wide range of nutrients that contribute to overall health.
If you discover that one of your favorite seafood choices is detrimental to the environment, use this handy guide to find a sustainable alternative. Who knows, you might even find a substitute that you end up enjoying even more!
Lionfish is an excellent alternative to white fish such as snapper or grouper. They are invasive in the Atlantic Ocean and deplete native fish populations. © Umeed Mistry / Ocean Image Bank
Opting for locally sourced seafood offers many advantages, ranging from environmental sustainability to economic revitalization. When it comes to sustainability, it’s important to consider the carbon footprint associated with seafood. The seafood industry, as a whole, leaves a significant carbon footprint due to transportation on boats, planes, and delivery trucks, as well as processing, packaging, and refrigeration. However, by purchasing locally sourced seafood caught using sustainable methods, you can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of your seafood.
Local seafood also has the added benefits of freshness, higher quality options, support for local economies, transparency, traceability, seasonal variety, community connections, and reduced food mileage.
By supporting sustainable practices, we protect marine ecosystems and ensure the long-term health of our oceans. Moreover, locally sourced seafood helps preserve culinary traditions and promotes food security at the community level.
We understand that navigating the world of sustainable seafood choices can seem overwhelming and inconvenient, especially when making decisions on the spot at the grocery store or restaurant. But please don’t give up. Every purchase, conversation, and effort to understand these issues contributes to the growing movement of people demanding sustainably and responsibly sourced seafood.
In fact, the momentum for sustainable seafood is gaining traction. In 2021, worldwide sales of sustainable seafood reached an impressive $138 billion, marking a 20% increase from the previous year. This growth rate far outpaces the overall seafood market, which only grew by 5% during the same period. The demand for certified seafood is also on the rise. In 2021, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified over 40 million metric tons of seafood, a 20% increase compared to the previous year.
As consumers become increasingly aware of the importance of sustainability and even demonstrate a willingness to pay a premium for sustainable seafood, the market for sustainable seafood products will continue to expand. This, in turn, provides incentives for fishers to adopt sustainable practices and encourages businesses to follow suit. Ultimately, these efforts help protect marine ecosystems, combat overfishing, and enhance the overall health of seafood stocks.
To better support sustainable seafood efforts, learn more about Oceanic Society’s efforts and join the millions of people taking action for ocean health everyday.