Sourcing Sustainable Seafood?

June 26, 2007

This may seem like a strange subject to broach in the midst of my first week being a mom, but as I watch my little daughter squirm with delight as she reaches for her puree of purple potatoes and purple carrots (served from a purple spoon, no less) we bought together at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I can’t help but realize how important food sources have become to me and (when she’s asleep), take a moment to dig a bit deeper into the subject. P6120500

I recently spent several hours researching shrimp and scallops for a dinner party, trying to find sustainably caught ones that I could feel good about serving—from both health and socially-responsible perspectives. I finally gave up, frustrated and confused. 

It seems the more I learn about what I “should” and “shouldn’t” buy, the more befuddled I become, and when I finally feel like I’ve got a handle on the whole thing, it turns out I can’t find the “shoulds” anywhere in the vicinity. I know fish and shellfish are a vital part of a healthy diet (heck, how many articles have I written stating just that?), but when I feel reticent and fearful about tham as ingredients, I tend not to gravitate towards them in the store, and I’d imagine a lot of people feel the same way.

So here’s what I’ve learned so far and a few of the places I’ve found to source healthy, sustainably-caught, or farmed, seafood online. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the local thing—and during the summer, I buy my fish exclusively from a fisherman at the Farmer’s Market (there’s a recipe for ceviche in my future, I can feel it). But when I don’t know where my local fish stores are getting their catch from—and even they can’t answer me—I’m willing to look elsewhere to someone who can.

Wild or Farmed?

The correct answer is, it depends. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, “The ecological impact of fish farming depends on which species are raised, how they are raised and where the farm is located.”

Think about it this way. If the seafood being farmed eat plankton and plants, and if they’re in an environment that is self-contained and clean, then they’re a good choice for sustainable farming. If the fish feed on wild catch, and if they’re farmed in overcrowded open nets in coastal areas, then they may not be the best choice.

Why Are These Good?
In the case of fish like tilapia, which eat plants and are farmed in tanks, they don’t require additional food (which is often made from wild fish, thus negating the sustainable benefit of farmed fish) and they don’t pollute surrounding waters. Fish like catfish and arctic char are farmed in contained ponds—their native habitat—or tanks and are mostly vegetarian. Farmed mussels and oysters can actually improve water quality with their filtering mechanism, and the places they’re farmed are protected and clean.

Why Are These Bad?
Seafood like shrimp and salmon, on the other hand, are often farmed in huge open coastal areas that are “corraled” with nets. This can wreak havoc on the ecosystem in a number of ways. First, the food for these species are mostly made from wild fish (it takes 2–3 pounds of wild food to raise 1 pound of wild salmon . . . again, negating the sustainable benefits of farming). Second, overcrowding can mean unhealthy and/or overmedicated fish that can taint the wild supply if they escape. Third, discharge from these farms can contaiminate the nearby coastal waters with waste, which affects the population of wild fish and worse. Health-wise, these fish tend to contain a higher amount of contaminants, like PCB, than their wild or inland-farmed counterparts.

What’s the Bottom Line?

There’s no super-simple answer, so the bottom line is to choose wisely. But here are some guidelines to help (remember, these are generalities — if you know a source to be sustainable, go for it!):

Instead of Farmed Salmon or Atlantic Salmon | Buy Wild Salmon, Pacific Salmon or Alaskan Salmon, or Farm-Raised Arctic Char | Why For the reasons stated above

Instead of Imported Shrimp | Buy Farm-Raised Freshwater Prawns, Trap-Caught Spot Prawns or Domestic Wild Caught Shrimp | Why Ditto

Instead of Longline or Wild Tuna | Buy Troll– or Pole-Caught Tuna | Why Tuna caught on ‘longlines’ bring with it a large amount of other fish, called bycatch, that can threaten their population

Instead of Wild Sturgeon | Buy Domestic Farmed Sturgeon | Why Wild Sturgeon is close to extinction, and Farmed Sturgeon is raised in a self-contained habitat that is environmentally friendly

Instead of Atlantic Halibut | Buy Pacific Halibut | Why Atlantic Halibut are in dangerously low supply, while the fishing of Pacific Halibut is protected by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, ensuring low bycatch and minimal damage to the habitat

Instead of Snapper | Buy Farm-Raised Tilapia, Striped Bass or Arctic Char | Why Snapper is being fished out, Farm-Raised Tilapia, Arctic Char and Catfish are good, environmentaly friendly alternatives

Now here’s some incentive to enjoy your sustainable catch . . . enjoy!

{ Asian Marinated Striped Bass }

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 (6-ounce) striped bass fillets
Cooking spray

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large zip-top plastic bag; add fish to bag. Seal and marinate in refrigerator 20 minutes, turning once. Remove fish from bag, and reserve marinade.

2. Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add fish to pan; cook 4 minutes on each side or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Remove fish from pan. Add marinade to pan; bring to a boil. Cook 30 seconds; serve with fish.

Serves 4

Sustainable Seafood Sources and Resources

Where to Buy

Lauren Farms — Farmed freshwater prawns

Alaska Wild Salmon Company — Just what it says

Dave’s Albacore — Various types of sustainably caught tuna, halibut and more

Isis Arctic Char — Farm raised, all-natural without using antibiotics or hormones. A relative of the salmon, and a good substitute.

Where to Learn

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch – lots of information, a video, and a print-out pocket guide.

Ocean’s Alive Seafood Selector – an informative, in-depth database of all kinds of fish along with a print-out pocket guide.

Marine Stewardship Council – Information on an organization that has set global standards for sustainable fishing practices. Also includes a list of where to find sustainable seafood.

If anyone has any other resources or sources, please share and I’ll add them to the list!

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11 Responses to “Sourcing Sustainable Seafood?”

  1. AB Says:

    The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit that provides a solution to overfishing. The MSC developed an environmental standard for sustainable wild-capture fisheries. Fisheries are assessed against this standard by independent certifiers. If the fishery meets this standard the seafood may carry the MSC’s blue eco-label.

    MSC-labelled seafood is available on over 600 seafood products in 27 countries around the world, from independent retailers to major international chains. You can find out where to buy MSC-labelled seafood near you by checking

  2. lia Says:

    Fantastic! Thank you. That was one lingering question for me while writing this — how do you know if a fishery is following sustainable practices? It’s good to know that MSC’s label is an easy-to-identify sign that a fishery is.

    As a quick encapsulation for those who are curious, MSC evaluates fisheries on three principles before awarding them certification:

    Principle 1
    The condition of the fish stocks
    This examines if there are enough fish to ensure that the fishery is sustainable.

    Principle 2
    The impact of the fishery on the marine environment
    This examines the effect that fishing has on the immediate marine envirionment including other non-target fish species, marine mammals and seabirds.

    Principle 3
    The fishery management systems
    This principle evaluates the rules and procedures that are in place, as well as how they are implemented, to maintain a sustainable fishery and to ensure that the impact on the marine environment is minimised.

    For those who want to know more, check out their website —

  3. Rosemary Says:

    Thank you, Lia. This answered questions, and did not raise new ones, which happens! It is clear you really did spend hours.

  4. Erika Says:

    What a wonderful post Lia! It’s amazing how having children changes the way we look at what we eat. We have recently discovered that our children love fish, so this couldn’t have had better timing.

    Your daughter is beautiful by the way. 🙂

  5. lia Says:

    I’m so glad you all found this helpful (I know I found the research helpful!). Erika, I’m glad too for the timing. Now I have a question for you . . . what age do you think kiddos can start eating fish? I’ve heard mixed answers, and I’d LOVE to be able to start Noe on fish while the summer Farmer’s Market guy is around. I’d appreciate your thoughts, from a mom whose kids love fish . . .

    PS — I made Noe pureed chicken, carrots and sweet potatoes and she liked it so much she downed it all and then licked the table 🙂

  6. Erika Says:

    Hmm. It’s been a while since I had to worry about when to introduce food, but I really don’t see why you couldn’t try a simple white fish(cod, haddock, tilapia,etc). I clearly remember one of our baby cookbooks having fish recipes, and I just kind of skipped them over. Serve them with something you know she already eats well so you can keep an eye out for allergies. Sounds like she’s a fantastic eater- I doubt you’ll have any problems. I think the big concern with fish is to make sure you’ve gotten the bones removed, and I recall it being permissable in the 7-12 month category.

    I really enjoy your blog, would it be okay if I put a link to it on mine?

  7. Jim Says:

    Take a look at Isis Arctic Char – It is farm raised in West Virginia and sustainable. It is raised without using antibiotics or hormones and it is all natural. The product is a preferred choice on Arctic char is a relative of the salmon so if you do not want to eat farmed raised salmon, try Isis Arctic Char.

  8. lia Says:

    Great advice Erika — I’m going to try it this week! My fish guy had halibut cheeks (who knew halibut had cheeks?) this week, which I turned in ceviche (mmmm). But next week, I think they’d be perfect for Noe.

    I’d love to have you put a Swirling Notions link on your blog — I’ve been enjoying yours too!

    Thanks Erika,

  9. foodette Says:

    I don’t want to sound like a broken record with my comments, but again, excellent post. I just watched a few specials on PBS about the state of our oceans, and it has me rethinking my love of fish. I am so happy to know there are resources out there for a thinking, fish-lover. Thanks for the post.

  10. lia Says:

    Hey, you can repeat THAT message as many times as you like ;-). I’m so glad you’re enjoying Swirling Notions. This is a subject I’ve been wanting to write on for a long, long time. I contribute to a number of mainstream magazines and thus far, they’ve stayed away from the message that things are in dire straits in the fish world. So I’m glad to have had a forum for this piece, and that it’s clearly struck a chord.

    Please spread the word about Swirling Notions and I’ll look forward to seeing you here often!

  11. lia Says:

    Jim, I swear you were in on a conversation my mom and I had the other night. She said she’d had Arctic Char at a restaurant last weekend and loved it, and asked me what it was. I failed her (I said it was something like a trout), so I’m glad you set me straight. I’ll most certainly give it a try — thanks for the tip!

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