Sustainable Seafood: What It Is and How to Choose

With more people ‘voting with their fork’ and choosing foods that align with their environmental and social values, many of us are looking for sustainable seafood. This article will discuss exactly what sustainable seafood is and how to choose the most sustainable seafood options. 

Why Seafood Sustainability Becomes a Concern

We can summarize the need for sustainable seafood with just two simple facts: there are more than one billion people that rely on seafood as their top source of protein; and roughly 90% of global fish stocks are either fully- or overfished. 

Our growing population and the world’s rising levels of affluence, mean that people are eating more animal protein—and this includes seafood. Simultaneously, our world’s oceans are dealing with the impacts of our changing climate. Acidification, pollution, and industrial pressures are damaging marine ecosystems and threatening future fish stocks. 

Combine all of these factors and you get a serious concern regarding seafood sustainability. 

What is Sustainable Seafood?

Sustainable seafood is seafood that is caught in such a way that it doesn’t jeopardize ecosystems or fish stocks so that future fishing needs can be met. 

Simply put, the goal is to eat seafood sustainably now so that future generations will have access to this healthy, nutritious, and delicious protein source for years to come. 

Helping consumers make better choices, certified sustainable seafood has come about in recent years. 

Certifications in Seafood Sustainability

Marine Stewardship Council

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

Likely the biggest and most recognizable certification out there, MSC-certified seafood provides assurance that the fish was sourced from a well-managed, sustainable, wild-capture fishery. Using international best practice guidelines, the MSC standard ensures three core principles are met:

  1. Sustainable fish stocks are maintained.
  2. Environmental impact is minimized and other species and habitats remain healthy.
  3. The fishery is well managed and complies with relevant laws. 
Ocean Wise Seafood

Ocean Wise Seafood

If a seafood product bears the Ocean Wise Seafood symbol, it will mean that the product has met four criteria:

  1. The species comes from an abundant fish stock that is considered to be resilient to fishing pressures. 
  2. The species is well managed, and has been supported with a comprehensive management plant that’s based on scientific research. 
  3. The harvesting method ensures limited bycatch for non-target and endangered species.
  4. The harvesting method ensures that limited damage has been done to aquatic habitats and doesn’t negatively impact other species. 
Seafood Watch

Seafood Watch 

While not a certification scheme, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch ratings help customers make the best decision when purchasing sustainable seafood. Baked on rigorous science, their standards and scoring methodology set the bar for sustainability.

  • Best: Seafood is sourced or farmed in a way that causes little or no harm to the environment or other wildlife. Sources are well-managed.
  • Good alternative: Most guiding principles are met, but there might be some impacts on wildlife or the environment. 
  • Avoid: Seafood is caught or farmed in a way that has a high risk of causing harm to wildlife or the environment, or there’s a critical conservation concern. 
  • BAP

    Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) Certification

    This certification ensures that farmed seafood is responsibly sourced. The BAP certification covers every step in the production chain and is based on four pillars of sustainability:

    1. Food safety
    2. Environmental responsibility
    3. Social accountability
    4. Animal health and welfare

    Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) Certification 

    This is the world’s leading certification scheme for farmed seafood, and considers all potential impacts of aquaculture—feed, disease, water quality, animal welfare, fair treatment of workers, and impacts on communities. Standards vary for different species, but include both environmental and social measures. 

    Things to Consider When Choosing Sustainable Seafood

    #1. Fishing techniques

    There’s one big problem with conventional fishing techniques: bycatch. It’s been estimated that out 40% of fish caught are actually bycatch, non-target species that have little to no commercial value, and are generally harmed or killed before being discarded back into the water. 

    Bycatch feeds into the biggest problem facing our oceans today: overfishing. Overfishing jeopardizes healthy fish stocks and indirectly harms other species up the food chain. It also impacts people, like the millions of people who rely on seafood for their livelihoods. 

    Poor fishing management is the top cause of overfishing. Fortunately, fishing rights and methods that reduce bycatch can help us ensure sustainable fish stocks and limit the amount of unintended species captured. 

    Generally speaking, rod-and-reel or hook-and-lining fishing, where just one or a few fish are captured at one time (instead of hundreds) is the best way to avoid overfishing. Longlining and purse seining are also generally regarded as sustainable fishing techniques. In fact, purse seining can have bycatch rates as low as 1% when done properly. 

    #2. Habitat and ecosystem

    Many fishing methods have been associated with significant habitat and ecosystem damage. Two particularly concerning methods are trawling and farmed seafood grown in open-net pens. 

    Trawling requires dragging heavy nets along the seafloor. These nets can weigh more than several hundred pounds and when dragged along the seafloor generally destroy everything in their path—rock gardens, sea grasses, and coral reefs. Worldwide, trawling is also responsible for more than half of all bycatch. 

    Damaging surrounding ecosystems in a different way, open-net aquaculture farms can spread disease and pollution into local waters, harming a range of marine species and coastal communities. 

    Alternatively, sustainable wild caught seafood isn’t associated with pollution and diseases like farmed seafood, nor does it rely on destructive fishing practices like trawling. Especially in the United States, where science-based fishery management plans are well-established and enforced, wild-capture seafood is generally a sustainable choice.

    #3. Supply chains involved

    The seafood supply chain is long, and sometimes very difficult to trace. While the supply chain starts with the fisher and ends with the consumer, there could be several other steps that fall between. 

    For instance, there may be a buyer, like a supermarket chain or restaurant. There could also be a number of mid-chain players, like aggregators, traders, primary processors, dealers, distributors, or transporters. When the supply chain has more players and more complexity, there’s a greater risk of fraud

    One of the best ways to mediate that is direct trade or direct to consumer (D2C) options, where sustainable seafood delivery can come straight from the fishers, bypassing the convoluted and often-problematic supply chain.

    Is Sustainable Seafood More Expensive?

    Eating sustainable seafood doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Yes, some species (especially fresh, wild-caught fish) will cost more than fish fillets in the frozen section at the grocery store. However, it’s important to consider that most seafood is imported from China, Thailand, and Vietnam—where regulations are lax and sustainability isn’t often a focus. 

    As they say, you get what you pay for. And if you want quality seafood that was sourced in an ecologically- and socially-sound manner, it’s advisable to spend more for fewer meals, or look for sustainable seafood that tends to be cheaper (like herring, or white-fleshed fish like cod or haddock). 

    Top 10 Most Sustainable Seafood to Get

    There are several sustainable seafood guides available from organizations like the Marine Conservation Society, Oceana, and MSC. These ten fish commonly make the list for consumers in the U.S:

    1. Abalone (farmed)
    2. Pacific cod (wild-caught in Alaska)
    3. Arctic char (farmed)
    4. Atlantic mackerel (wild-caught)
    5. Haddock (wild-caught from the north-east Arctic, Iceland, and the North Sea and Irish Sea)
    6. European hake (wild-caught)
    7. Pacific salmon (wild-caught in Alaska)
    8. Haddock (wild-caught in Scotland or Norway)
    9. Pacific halibut (wild-caught)
    10. Atlantic herring (wild-caught)


    Fortunately, we don’t have to cut out some of our favorite foods to eat consciously—we just have to make a few considerations about how and where it’s been sourced. Seafood is an essential protein source for many around the globe, and it’s enjoyed elsewhere for its unique flavor and nutrition profile. 

    We hope this article encourages you to take some time to find the most sustainable seafood for you and your family—either by sourcing seafood that’s backed up with a certification or directly from the fishermen themselves!







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