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How to Support Sustainable Fishing: Eco Fish to Eat

Updated on April 24, 2012
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You want to be an eco-friendly shopper, and not add a bit of extra guilt to your dinner plate. Maybe you’ve heard this or that about how our fishing practices are emptying the oceans, or how polluting our fish farms can be. If you don’t have a handy pocket guide with you (see my article 5 Resources for Selecting Sustainable Fish at the Grocery Store), there are a few principles you can keep in mind when searching the seafood section.

Where should it be sourced from?

The consensus among environmental groups seems to be that consumers should favor American farmed or caught fish, because we have stricter farming and wild caught standards than they do elsewhere. (I know, I was surprised too.)

Eat your anchovies!

Eat smaller fish that are lower on the food chain (i.e. not carnivorous), such as herring, anchovies, and sardines. These small fish are dredged out of the ocean at unsustainable rates and ground into livestock feed. It is estimated that fully one-third of the world's catch (about 30 million tons) are these little fish that are fed to pigs, chicken, and farmed fish. Such an inefficient use of resources when you consider that it takes many pounds of these little fish to make one pound of the carnivorous animals that get to our plates. (Bill Nye "the science guy" spoke out about this unsustainable practice!)

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Wild or Farmed?

Unfortunately this is not so clear- cut. For every fish the rules are different and it might depend where it was farmed or caught. Here I will just mention the rules for three of the more popular seafood choices in America: shrimp, salmon, and tilapia.

For shrimp, the verdict is to buy domestic (US), wild, trap-caught shrimp. Trap caught because this leaves less of an environmental impact than the alternative used: dragging nets along the ocean floor.

As for salmon, wild salmon is better, especially from Alaska. This is because salmon farming practices generally include the heavy usage of chemicals and antibiotics. Unfortunately, wild salmon also have a high level of contaminants (from industrial pollution) so it is recommended that you limit your intake.

Tilapia, however, are better to buy farmed, as they are often raised in closed loop inland systems and are vegetarian – therefore there is no pressure to feed them wild caught fish from the ocean.

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Choose frozen fish

Not only does frozen seafood retain its nutrients and freshness, it also has a lower carbon footprint because it doesn't have to be air-shipped to where it will be sold.

Labels: what to look for

Eco-labels should be taken with a grain of salt. A recent study threw into question whether eco-labeled fish were actually greener than non-labeled. However, it’s good to know what’s out there. And my personal logic with eco-labels is (feel free to dispute) – though we don’t want to support greenwashing – at least by buying the product with the eco-label you show the supermarket and food producers that there is a market for actual green products.

Look for a Marine Stewardship Certified (MSC) label. They are global independent certifiers of environmentally conscious catching and raising standards. Their standards focus on biodiversity protection and workers rights. (Stay tuned for an Aquaculture Stewardship Certification label currently in the works.)

Soil Association Certified. The Soil Association is a UK sustainable agriculture group. You will see this label on farmed fish only. Their standards are considered to be the strongest and most encompassing, regulating things such as stocking densities of fish, chemicals used, and the content of the fish feed.

Other labels to look for include the Food Alliance, Dolphin Safe (found on tuna), and Best Aquaculture Practices. The Natural Resources Defense Council also provides a very useful Label Lookup for researching the meaning and legitimacy of many international certifications.

Which grocery store: Whole Foods v. Safeway

Having said all this about fish eco-labels, I did a little “field research” and took a trip to my local Whole Foods and Safeway to see what labels could actually be found.

The only eco-labels I spotted at Whole Foods was the – surprise – Whole Foods label and the Blue Ocean Institute yellow label.

The Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium rank fish as green (ok to eat, sustainably sourced) yellow (some problems exist) and red (avoid eating, this fish is not doing well).

Whole Foods has established their own eco-label for fish, of which some approve, and some are skeptical. But one thing I can say for Whole Foods is that you get the fish’s resume, down to their hobbies and childhood memories. Something I learned on my field trip: tuna is sometimes blasted with carbon monoxide after being harvested to keep its color looking fresh. (Side note: this is one more reason to not choose food based on looks. Fruit is covered in wax to make it shiny, organic produce and livestock often aren’t as big as conventional, farmed salmon is dyed pink, and do you know how many vegetables just get left to rot in the fields because they are a weird shape?? It’s better to use your brain and possibly your nose to buy food.)

At Safeway I only found the MSC seal on a few products. Rather underwhelming, and yet, in Greenpeace’s 2011 Supermarket Scorecard they found Safeway to be number one in their sustainable seafood offerings, while Whole Foods came in fourth! Greenpeace attributes this to Safeway’s strong sustainable seafood policies, while Whole Foods has recently let a few no-no species through the cracks.

Where is the organic label?

Why is “organic” farmed fish not listed as an eco-label option? Currently there is no US organic seafood standard (if you do happen to see an organic seafood label it's a European certified standard). The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in the US has been developing organic aquaculture standards for years. Per usual, there’s been a conflict between industry and environment on what should constitute ‘organic’ fish.

Wild fish, they all agree is not organic because what wild critters consume is not under our control. But what’s really got the goat of environmental groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch is that some of NOSB’s latest new proposed standards would allow a portion of the organic fish’s diet to be wild caught fish (like anchovies, etc...). This is a sustainability issue because it further puts pressure on dwindling wild fish stocks.

Additionally, under the new proposal organic fish could be grown in ‘open-net’ pens – nets located offshore in the ocean. This also gives one the environmental heebie jeebies because none of these nets are 100% secure – fish do escape from time to time, sometimes becoming invasive species and again placing pressure on wild populations. Also, the overcrowded open net conditions lead to a messy build up of fish fecal matter, uneaten food, and any drugs or chemicals given to the fish. All this oozes out into the surrounding ocean, tampering with the local ecosystem.

Summary of principles

Let's sum up this exploration of the seafood section with a few sustainability principles:

1) Take a guide with you

2) Choose American farmed/caught

3) Choose little fish low on the food chain (anchovies, herring, sardines)

4) Choose frozen

5) Look for the MSC label

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    • Tara McNerney profile image
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      Tara McNerney 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      You're definitely right WD Curry! Tilapia are not by any means a silver bullet aquaculture species. It definitely can be an issue that they are invasive - I hadn't heard about the omega 6s so thanks for sharing!

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 5 years ago from Space Coast

      This is a very informative hub. I live in Florida. I am a member of the Florida Conservation Association and I write for Coastal Angler Magazine.

      Tilapia are an invasive exotic. They can survive in deplorable water conditions. They have more omega6 than bacon, and are bad for heart patients. I don't mean to contradict you, but we are trying to get the truth out about tilapia, and it is difficult to fight their marketing and distribution machine.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      I thought I knew everything there was when it came to buying sustainable fish, and I most certainly knew that it was better to go for smaller, herbivorous fish, and that wild salmon was more sustainable than farmed salmon, but there were a lot of surprises in here. I had no idea, for example, that American-caught fish are desirable- it really is a surprise that fishers from the U.S. adhere to more rigorous environmental standards on average, and who knew Safeway was actually a decent place to get sustainably caught/farmed fish?!

      This is so useful. Thanks for sharing your tips!

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