Understanding Sustainable Seafood Guides
Understanding Sustainable Seafood Guides
As if planning a dinner that no one will turn up their noses at isn’t hard enough, now many of us are concerned about the impact of that meal, too. Fortunately, guides and tips are available to help us make better choices. However, they’re generally pretty difficult to follow. This article is here to help demystify even the most complex sustainable seafood guide for consumers.
How to Read the Guides and What they Typically Consider
Because just about anyone can make claims of “clean” or “sustainable” seafood, guides exist to help eaters find the most sustainable fish. Because some of them are a little tricky to wrap our heads around, it’s important to recognize several key areas that are covered by most sustainable seafood guides.
When it comes to issues like overfishing, assessing proper management of the fishery is paramount. Most guides will consider things like fishing quotas, local/national fishing regulations, and the appropriate use of monitoring and record keeping. Ultimately, guides and certification schemes look for fishing practices that prioritize more than just the catch, ensuring that healthy fish will be available for years to come.
Whereas “organic” can provide assurance that food products are sourced with minimal environmental damage, it’s difficult to do the same for seafood—especially just by looking at the package. Fortunately, many guides take this into consideration, looking at the journey that, say, halibut fish made to your plate and considering any environmental impacts from fishing, farming, handling, or processing.
While they do vary based on location and type of fish, there are fishing techniques that are generally considered to be more environmentally degradative and associated with bycatch than others. Most notoriously is bottom trawling, a practice where a heavy net is dragged across the seabed floor, damaging ecosystems and catching anything (intended or not) that’s in its path—especially when done irresponsibly.
In some cases, however, guides will look into where and how bottom trawling is practiced, as it can catch significantly more fish than other methods, which is necessary to feed a growing population of seafood eaters! In this case, organizations will give seafood choices a green light if they’ve been caught by bottom trawlers that ensure healthy fish stocks, limit harm to other sea creatures, and are in line with government regulations.
Speaking of bycatch and harming other sea creatures, overfishing is a serious problem that many sustainable seafood guides take into consideration, particularly when they look at management practices and fishing techniques.
In areas of the world with looser regulation, overfishing may happen as an intentional effort to catch more fish and reap higher profits. Alternatively, unsustainable fishing techniques contribute to the fact that around 40% of the seafood that’s caught is bycatch, or unintentional species that are injured or killed and discarded.
Something that might be overlooked by general consumers, but is often considered for a seafood consumer guide, is the social elements of the food supply chain. In recent years, many social issues in the seafood industry have come to light.
Because of the industry’s use of complex supply chains, transparency is low for many seafood companies. This is problematic because many aspects of the industry—form sourcing to processing—have been associated with human rights issues. These include abusive and exploitative conditions or slavery-like practices that include forced labor, human traficking, and child labor.
Transparent supply chains and the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool are used to determine that seafood doesn’t come at the expense of people.
What Else to Consider
Seafood is one of the most traded commodities worldwide. As such, there are still some considerations that go beyond what makes it into common sustainable fish guides. Fortunately, these considerations are easy to make on our own (no guide required!).
It’s estimated that between 70 and 85% (even up to 90%) of the seafood consumed in the US is imported. This is where a lot of the transparency, environmental, and social issues come into play, as it’s more difficult to trace the journey of the seafood or know what regulations were adhered to.
Fortunately, looking for Alaskan or Pacific-sourced fish is a better way to ensure that it’s been caught sustainably. With some of the strictest regulations in the world, this region adheres to things like Alaska fish counts, which ensures that healthy fish stocks will ensure sustainable populations for years to come. Similarly, Alaskan cod that’s been wild caught from sustainable populations is superior to Atlantic cod, which has been overfished and is very close to extinction.
While there’s no hard and fast answer for whether wild-caught or farm-raised fish are always better than the other, there are a few fish species that are more sustainable when caught in the wild.
For example, in the farm-raised vs. wild caught salmon debate, salmon is the clear winner.
For increased transparency and seafood purchases that are better for people, it’s also important to consider where to source the seafood. Buying directly from fishermen is best, either through an online direct-to-consumer platform or at a seafood market if you live coastally.
What About the Labels?
If you’re in a pinch, looking for certifications can also help to ensure that you’re getting some of the most sustainable seafood out there.
What Certifications to Look for and Who They Are
Some of the most common seafood certification schemes include:
Who Are the Regulators?
Beyond the certifications, governmental organizations, regulators, and other bodies play a role in providing consumers with the information and guidance they need to choose sustainable seafood. These include:
- Environmental Defense Fund (EDF): One of the world’s top environmental organizations, supporting fisheries with science-based environmental solutions (like their Seafood Selector)
- FishChoice: Non-profit organization supporting businesses with tools and resources to ensure that they buy and sell sustainable seafood
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): The US government’s federal agency focused on climate change and marine ecosystems
- Seafood Watch: A non-governmental and science-based organization that has a “Best Choice, “Certified,” “Good Alternative,” and “Avoid” rating system for seafood
- World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF): A global non-governmental organizations with programs and resources to preserve marine life and protect our oceans
Final Thoughts on Sustainable Seafood Guides
Even if you’re well-versed on all of these sustainable seafood guides and know all of the important considerations to make, there are still several caveats that complicate each sustainable seafood decision! To make it easier to get fresh, nutritious, ethical, and sustainable seafood on the table, consider placing an order for fresh-caught, in-season, eco-friendly, wild Alaskan seafood today!