Fish are an important part of the world food supply and seafood is enjoyed by almost every culture. Throughout human history, many civilizations have subsisted on what they could harvest from the sea. Historically, when the fish populations dwindled, so did the population of people that depended on them. As human populations grow, fishing techniques improve, and refrigeration provides a means to transport fish over greater distances, we have solved that problem. With that solution comes a new problem: We now have the ability to over-fish a population of fish without any immediate penalty.
We should all be eating more fish, but it is important that we eat the right fish. Now, more than ever in human history, we need to be making responsible decisions about how to utilize our ocean resources. Seafood providers can drive this, supported by legislation, but the front-line effort must by driven by consumers. There will always be unscrupulous fisherman, willing to service any demand, right up to the extinction of a species. As consumers, we must make good decisions, but it is not always clear what is a good decision. Below is a list of places to look for guidance, so that you can be a responsible seafood consumer.
This is my primary source of seafood information. It is affiliated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and they pull information from several credible sources. Seafood Sherpa fish profiles all include the seafoodwatch recommendation. If there is not one, our profiles seek other sources to fill in the gaps. The great thing about seafoodwatch is that they are searchable, so a fish with several trade names can be found under any of those names. The advice is trustworthy and easy to interpret. The only negatives that I can find are that the navigation can be a little clunky and there are some species of fish that are not listed.
2. Marine Stewardship Council
This group certifies individual providers of seafood, so if you see the MSC logo on a product, you can be assured you are making a good decision. Look for this logo on canned tuna and don’t buy any canned tuna that is not certified. Certification is not as prevalent on fresh fish, but there are still many providers that are certified. Many of these fish will be tagged with the MSC logo, but not always. You can use the website www.msc.org to look for providers in your area. Because this certification method is so specific, the coverage is not as expansive as seafoodwatch, but it is pretty good. Some products like shrimp are not able to be tagged, so you’ll have to research specific sources before you buy if you want to use this method.
3. Your Seafood Dealer
Some large chains like Whole Foods are committed to selling only sustainable seafood. They use the seafoodwatch recommendation and only sell “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” seafood. Your seafood dealer may operate in a similar way. You’ll have to ask them. The positive side of this technique is that you can get specific information about the source of your purchase, on the spot. It can be very convenient and accurate. The negative is that the person you are asking has a strong incentive to tell you what you want to hear. They may not give you an accurate answer. You will want to validate what they tell you a couple times to make sure they are being honest with you.
4. Leaders in the Seafood Community
People like Barton Seaver and Paul Johnson are great resources for getting educated about sustainable fish consumption.
Barton Seaver is a leader in championing sustainability. His book, “For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking” addresses a wide range of sustainability issues and offers some outstanding recipes. Unlike most cookbooks, this one should be read cover to cover. The environmental topics are well written and easy to understand, regardless of your existing knowledge base. The recipes are written for an intermediate to experienced home cook and may rely on some experience with more advanced techniques. The food is straightforward and interesting and the recipes are clear and concise. I like this book for the breadth of species that are covered and the responsible approach to making food choices in general. My copy has dozens of notes and bookmarks in it. He has a new book out that I haven’t read yet, and I expect it will be even more informative. It’s called American Seafood: Heritage, Culture, and Cookery from Sea to Shining Sea. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Paul Johnson wrote a book called “Fish Forever” which covers a broad range of fish species in alphabetical order. The great thing about this book is that it describes the table qualities of the fish, the nutritional qualities of the fish, and the sustainability of the fish population. For each fish, this is followed by a couple of recipes. Most of the recipes are fairly simple, even for the beginner. This is another cookbook that should be read cover to cover. It is an easy book to use as a reference because of the way it is structured.
These are not the only sources of information on the topic of sustainability, but they are trusted sources and they provide a great baseline to inform your seafood purchasing choices. I recommend spending some time with one or all of these before you make your next seafood purchase.