A Fine Kettle of Fish: How to Find Safe & Sustainable Seafood

Fish can be slippery little suckers, in every sense of the word. When it comes to figuring out what seafood’s safe and sustainable, the issue is infinitely complex.

Many commercial fishing practices and fish farming have a devastating environmental and social impact. From exploitative child labor practices in Bangladeshi shrimp farms to chain-dragging ocean habitats for rock shrimp, we’ve been abusing our seas and its species in much the same way we’ve been razing rainforests and melting polar icecaps. It’s just harder to see, because it’s, uh, underwater.

Unfortunately for eco-conscious seafood lovers, knowing this makes it difficult to enjoy the treasures of the sea sans guilty conscience. Eating out is particularly tricky: Ask your server if his menu’s seafood is sustainable and you may get a baffled expression, or worse, a hearty serving of greenwashing. It’s enough to make you wonder if you need a degree in marine biology to make sense of it all. Happily, sustainable seafood expert Patrick Glennon of Santa Monica Seafood comes to our rescue with these dining out tips:

  • Always ask your server if the fish is sustainable. If it’s on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (check their printable pocket-sized guides), avoid it — unless the fish comes from a particular fishery with responsible practices. “Monterey Bay Aquarium is currently revamping its list,” explains Glennon. “Some of the data is 20 years old, and in some places it lists fish as unsafe when certain small producers are, in fact, using good practices. We want to encourage those practices.” So if it’s a forbidden fish but the chef can explain it’s sourced responsibly, give it a chance.
  • For a finer-tuned resource than Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list, ask for fish that comes from Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries, processors and distributors. The MSC is the international gold standard for sustainable fishing practices. They even certify entire restaurants, if those restaurants are fully in compliance with sustainability guidelines. By asking for MSC-certified fish, you send a message to restaurateurs that the public demands responsibly-sourced seafood.
  • When a restaurant serves especially problematic fish — like bluefin tuna/toro (fished almost to the brink of extinction by Japanese fleets), Bangladeshi shrimp (processed using child labor) or rock shrimp, popular at many chic LA eateries but which are dredged from delicate, irreplaceable coral beds using nets weighted with chains (destroying the fragile ecosystem), explain that you won’t be ordering it and why. A good chef will respond to customers.

 To make an informed decision about your seafood choices, you must first understand the issues.

Fishcabulary 

Biomass: This refers to how many fish are in the ocean. Are there enough fish to propagate and exceed annual catches? At their respective rates of reproduction, can they withstand the annual fishing season? How many tons can be safely fished before there isn’t enough of the species left to propagate adequately before the next fishing season? Fears of this sort have actually prompted the complete shutdown of this year’s salmon season on the west coast of the U.S., likely prompting bears throughout the Pacific Northwest to rejoice.

Ecosystems: While some scallops are farmed sustainably (set quotas aren’t exceeded and species adequately propagate each year) the methods used to harvest them are often not sustainable, i.e. machine dredging the seabed, ripping it apart and destroying the ecosystem. “Bycatch” is other sea life that’s caught up as nets attempt to pull in a catch of, say, tuna. Whole species — which we don’t eat and end up as waste — are decimated by the bycatching process. Much of the Canadian fish industry is culpable in the mass annual slaughter of harp seals in the Arctic and is supported (financially and politically) by Canada’s fishing industry, making Canadian fish significantly unsustainable. Forget blood diamonds: “Blood cod,” anyone?

Social impact: Ruthless labor practices in Southeast Asia violate basic human rights, while overfishing in regions of South Africa (mostly by fishing boats from China and Japan) has destroyed the livelihoods of entire coastal towns and damaged the prosperity of entire nations. Fishermen and processors often lack safe, humane conditions as well as safe boats.

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