How to Navigate the Waters of Sustainable Seafood

July 14, 2015 by Catherine Willett

Seafood–it’s delicious, versatile, and great for you. Or is it mercury-laden and terrible for the environment?

It seems like every other day we’re bombarded with conflicting news and advice on whether we should eat seafood, and which species are ok to eat.

This is understandable–fishery management is complicated, and best choices vary from region to region. That said, there are a few simple rules that you can use no matter where you are:

1. Eat low on the food chain.

Carnivorous fish like salmon, swordfish, and tuna rely on a bounty of of smaller fish to reach adulthood. They also tend to be the most vulnerable populations, and they live longer, which means they accumulate the most toxins (like mercury). Seafood that is low on the food chain–like shellfish, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies–reproduces faster. This means these fish contain less mercury and can be more sustainably harvested.

2. Eat plenty of farmed filter feeders.

Shellfish like mussels, oysters, and other bivalves filter naturally occurring microscopic phytoplankton from their environments, making them a great option for farming because they don’t require feed. These shellfish are versatile in the kitchen, as well–you can eat them alone, in sandwicheswith fries…the list goes on.

3. Eat American seafood.

The United States, along with a handful of other countries like Norway, Iceland, and Canada, has fishery management practices that align with conservation goals, as a recent New York Times article mentioned. Though all countries have room for improvement when it comes to fishery conservation, wild fish from the United States is generally one of the most trustworthy options (of course, there are exceptions, like overfished Atlantic cod). So while wild US mahimahi ranks as a ‘Best Choice’ for New Yorkers, Seafood Watch lists imported mahimahi under ‘Avoid’. Same goes for Best Choice US farmed shrimp and the ubiquitous, but worst choice, imported shrimp.


Still confused? When in doubt about a particular fish, you can always look it up on one of Seafood Watch’s regional guides–available to print or download here–or download their app to make informed decisions on the go.

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