When I was a kid, the best part of celebrating Christmas at my grandparents’ home was stuffing my face with the seemingly endless supply of poached shrimp. I’d park myself next to their walnut coffee table and tease my uncles, dunking shrimp after shrimp in horseradish-zippy cocktail sauce, and there was something about the sheer amount I’d consume that made it all feel special.
What I didn’t realize at the time was why there was so much shrimp—shrimp was relatively cheap. And up until the day I read the AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 investigation into the abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia, I didn’t fully understand the true costs of that cheap shrimp.
But it’s not just shrimp: The big business of seafood is a quagmire of all kinds of ethical triplines.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, over 3.3 billion people around the world rely on seafood as a primary source of protein, and as our population and catching efficiency have rapidly grown, seafood populations have become endangered due to overfishing and other questionable practices. Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s advocacy program for sustainable seafood, notes that fishing industries are pushing an eye-popping 90 percent of fish populations to their sustainable limits—and fish stocks have plummeted from 90 percent of biologically sustainable levels in 1974 to 65 percent in 2017. Farmed seafood, which accounts for 50 percent of all seafood eaten today, presents its own host of problems, as some farming methods can negatively affect the environment.
If you want to use your purchasing power to address the problem directly, Seafood Watch rates some 300 different species with 2,000 recommendations, which you can search on their website or reference in their wallet-sized guides for the most popular options by region (Alaskan cod: Best Choice! Gilnet-caught Pacific cod: Avoid!). For my beloved shrimp cocktail, for example, I switched from big, cheapo bags of shrimp of questionable origin to beautiful American-caught beauties from a seafood counter that’s certified sustainable. Sure, they’re more expensive, but they’re leagues tastier, too, and I’ve learned to savor them instead of gulping them down.
But there’s a whole world of seafood choices beyond shrimp, and the many recommendations can be a lot to take in when you’re rushing to pick up stuff for dinner.
“Protein sources from the sea are much more complicated than species from the land,” says Ryan Bigelow, Seafood Watch Senior Program Manager. I talked to him to suss out some simple ways to think about buying sustainable seafood.
Look for Sustainable Certification
If you have difficulty remembering whether the better choice is Atlantic cod or Alaskan cod, striped bass or farmed bass, or Florida blue crab or Maryland blue crab—it’s the latter choice in each case—your best bet is to shop at a store that displays sustainable seafood certifications.
“You want to go to a store that has a publicly available commitment to sustainable seafood,” says Bigelow. Seafood Watch recommends certifications from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Friend of the Sea, Naturland, Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practices, and Canada Organic Organic Aquaculture Standard as being equivalent to its own ratings of “good choice” seafood. Whole Foods, for example, relies on both MSC certification and Seafood Watch recommendations to ensure its seafood is sustainably and responsibly sourced.
Certification programs are designed to incentivize seafood producers to adopt better practices, and, as such, each certification has guidelines for how to display their logos prominently to customers. If you don’t see any certification logos on the seafood selection at your store, it can actually help to ask whether any of the seafood options available at are certified sustainable. “We found the most important thing a consumer can do is to just ask for sustainable seafood,” says Bigelow. “One of the chief reasons that businesses make sustainable changes is that their customers are asking for it. Your voice matters.” Any one dinner, says Bigelow, is a drop in the bucket, but urging your local grocery store to switch to responsible sourcing has market-level repercussions.
Make Shellfish Your Go-To
“Shellfish are great,” says Bigelow. “Not all perfect, but [generally] very sustainable.” Clams, mussels, and oysters, as well as scallops and cockles, are all farmed sustainably in the US. Bivalves grow quickly and easily, don’t require waste-producing fertilizer or feed, and filter nutrients from the water. “They leave the environment cleaner than it was, they take up very little room,” says Bigelow.
Be Wary of Shrimp, Salmon, and Tuna
Some of the most popular species are, for that very reason, often the most complicated to buy. Conscientious shoppers therefore have to be much choosier. “If a deal is too good to be true, that’s a red flag, especially with cheap shrimp,” says Bigelow.
If you’re trying to buy sustainably harvested salmon, look for wild-caught salmon or some kind of certification for farmed salmon, which too often has issues with disease, overuse of chemicals, and environmental impact.
For tuna, you’ll want to pay close attention to the Seafood Watch and MSC recommendations. For example, pole-caught skipjack tuna is a sustainable option, while bluefin tuna—drastically overfished—is one of the worst options for conscientious shoppers.
And if you can’t tell whether the tuna, shrimp, or salmon you’re buying has been sustainably raised or caught, it’s best to simply walk away and choose something else for dinner.
Pay Attention to Harvesting Method
There are many ways to harvest fish from the ocean and, as a general rule of thumb, if the method is highlighted prominently at the store, it’s likely a sustainable practice. Conversely, if there’s no information about the catch method, it’s likely unsustainable or environmentally damaging.
The main concerns about fishing methods are the amount of bycatch they produce—the marine animals caught alongside the fish being harvested for the market—and the damage they inflict on marine habitats. Bottom trawls (cone-shaped nets) that are dragged along the seafloor to harvest large quantities of fish, are particularly bad offenders on both fronts; bottom trawls alone catch 4 million tons of bycatch annually.
Seines (long nets) dragged behind boats and gilnets (invisible netting that can drift or be stationary) both have bycatch issues, while gilnets and longlines (lines with baited hooks buoyed by floats that can extend for 50 miles) can end up catching endangered species, like sea turtles and sharks. However, since there are ways to mitigate the amount of bycatch produced and the extent of the environmental damage, those extensively researched certifications can come in handy.
Two age-old fishing methods are your best bets today: the harpoon and the pole-and-line with a hook and bait. Only a single fish can be caught at a time with these methods, and they don’t damage marine habitats. Trolling lines, where multiple fishing lines are dragged behind a moving boat, are almost as good; fishermen can quickly release any unwanted species they happen to catch.
Aquaculture Can Be Sustainable or Destructive
While aquaculture may seem like a good sustainable source for seafood, the devil is in the details. For example, growing fish like tilapia in open ocean pens may be sustainable if they’re managed properly, but crowded pens can produce a fair amount of waste and can also result in the proliferation of diseases and parasites that then spread to other ocean life. Another issue is that some farms use wild fish to feed farmed fish, which increases the overfishing pressure on wild fish.
Here, again, it’s best to look for those well-researched and vetted certifications for farmed seafood products instead of hoping that “farmed” label on a piece of fish at the store necessarily means it was sustainably raised.
Eat Sea Vegetables
“Seaweed farming is a great thing,” says Bigelow. “I wish Americans consumed more.” While some fish aquaculture focuses on mitigating its own environmental pollution, seaweed actually improves environmental health by sucking up greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus from the water and using it to grow. It can also help de-acidify the ocean. Start incorporating more seaweed salad, miso shiru, and miyeok-guk into your diet and you won’t just be minimizing the devastation of fish populations, you’ll be helping out the planet.