Sustainable Seafood: 3 Easy Questions to Ask When You Buy

Recently, I wrote that to protect wild fish, we should eat wild fish. Granted, we shouldn’t eat too much, and we should choose fish that are relatively abundant. So that begs the question, which seafoods are sustainable, and how do we find it and buy it?

There’s no single answer, which is why things have gotten quite confusing. You can’t just walk up to the dude at the seafood counter who makes $11 an hour and expect him to lead you to the promised land on his own. That’s the general problem that most people run into at their supermarket seafood counters – a lack of information. No bueno.

Yes, you can download the Seafood Watch app to your phone, but some people want something more than that – something that engages them with the source of their food, instead of searching for a label or looking back and forth from their phone to the counter.

To buy more sustainable seafood, you don’t need an advanced degree in marine fisheries (though that helps). You just need to ask: What? Where? How?

Any reputable seafood counter, fishmonger, or hell, even a package label, should be able to answer those three simple questions. If they can answer these questions, they’ve put at least a little thought into what they carry, and that bodes well for your decision. If they can’t answer, it’s because they don’t care  or don’t know this matters (if you run into this, it’s time to find a new place to buy your fish).

These won’t guarantee that 100% of your purchases are sustainable, but a general rule of thumb is that sellers who have taken the time to educate themselves on their seafood’s origins did so because they care – so when you follow suit, you’ll be right far more often than you are wrong.

1.) What kind of fish is it and who do you buy it from?

This might seem obvious, but it’s a serious problem. At last glance, one-third of seafood counters and restaurants mislabel their fish. That’s crazy! A big reason behind this is that most grocery stores and restaurants buy through wholesalers, instead of directly from fishermen – this decreases the transparency of their choices, which is passed on to you, the consumer. It’s criminal at worst and negligent at best. You can’t know that what you’re eating is sustainable if you don’t even know that it is what they say it is.

2.) Where did they catch it?

Where your fish is caught is important. If the person or store you buy from doesn’t know where the fish came from, they aren’t very closely linked to the person who caught the fish.

U.S. fisheries are more heavily regulated and therefore more likely to be sustainably managed. Foreign fisheries are not always held to the same standards. Buying domestic seafood also keeps your dollars circulating through local fisheries and decreases the miles your seafood travelled to get to your plate, all of which adds to the sustainability quotient.

3.) How did they catch it?

The method of catch is also an indicator of how much your seafood purveyor knows about the source of their food. Responsibly-caught seafood tends to be selective and targeted, such as line-caught fish. Less selective methods of catch result in more bycatch of non-target fish and can also damage the physical ocean environment.

That’s honestly most of what I do when I buy. Occasionally I’ll brush back up on the topics, but I find that I can learn an enormous amount by just asking questions – what, where, and how – seriously, that’s it.

At the end of the day, I feel like mass sustainability is all about making directionally correct choices. Being perfect can be exhausting, and unless you’re passionate about sustainable seafood, these are easy questions to ask where you’ll be almost guaranteed to make better choices than you did in the past. That in and of itself would represent a sea change. 

If you’re curious about the best places to shop for sustainable seafood, check out my article here: The 5 Best Places to Shop for Sustainable Seafood (Coming Soon!).


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