fish for sale on table at fish market

How and why to buy sustainable seafood

Apr 4, 2018 | Sustainability


How sustainable is that fish on your plate?

Have you ever stood in the grocery store looking at the fish selection and been paralyzed?  Am I supposed to buy wild or farmed? Salmon or halibut? The truth is that the world of sustainable seafood is a confusing one.

At the most basic level sustainable seafood is fish or shellfish that come from healthy populations and are caught in environmentally responsible ways.

Why is eating sustainable important? The quick answer is we are eating too much, we catch or farm in a destructive way, and there are lots of places along the supply chain for mislabeling and illegal activities.


We have a long history of taking too many fish out of the sea. You’ve likely heard things like “80% of fish stocks are depleted or overexploited.” What does that mean? A fish stock is typically a population of one species of fish in a certain location, for example, Alaskan Salmon or North Atlantic Cod.

The long-term goal is to catch just enough fish that the population can continue to sustain itself and we can keep fishing it forever. But figuring out how many fish we can remove each year is not easy. In fact, there are thousands and thousands of fishery scientists working on it all the time.

When more fish are removed (fished) than are needed to maintain population growth, the stock becomes overexploited and eventually will crash if fishing practices are not changed. 

Harvesting fish sustainably is important for both the fish and the fisherman. When the Northwest Atlantic Cod stock collapsed in the early 1990’s thousands of fisherman lost their livelihoods, significantly affecting the economy of the area.

The most common way we manage fish stocks is by setting limits to:

1) the number of fishermen that can fish

2) the total number of fish that can be caught

3) the type of fishing gear that can be used

4) when they can be fished or

5) where they can be fished.

Effective management relies on close logging and reporting of the where, how, what and how much was caught once the fisherman is back at port. And unfortunately, because much commercial fishing occurs on the remote high seas, illegal fishing occurs. The use of onboard independent monitors, and recent technological advances including satellites that track fishing vessels and the use of Artifical Intelligence to identify species caught are improving our ability to monitor fishing practices.

Habitat damage.

How fish are caught has a big impact on the amount of damage done to the environment.

Bottom trawls: A large, weighted net is dragged across the seafloor. As these trawls are drug along the seafloor they destroy the habitat and catch whatever is there – including species that are not of interest, commonly called by-catch.

Purse seines: Large nets that are deployed around schools of fish and scoop up everything in it.

Gill nets: a vertical net that is set in place, and fish swim into it and get stuck. 

Purse seines and gill nets are also problematic because they catch unintended species including sea turtles and dolphins. Do you recall the “dolphin-safe tuna” movement years ago? That movement came about because dolphins were getting caught in purse seines when fishing tuna.

Handlines and jigs: These both are single lines (with many hooks) that are deployed from the ship. They are considered more environmentally friendly and sustainable because there is virtually no bycatch or habitat damage.

Human rights violations.

Sadly, human trafficking and enslaving migrants on fishing vessels are not uncommon practices. 

So let’s farm them instead!


The percent of fish farmed in aquaculture has grown rapidly in the last few decades and many see aquaculture as a way to help meet the increasing demand for seafood while relieving pressure from overfished wild populations. Shellfish, salmon, carp, and tilapia are common aquaculture species. However, aquaculture is not a silver bullet.

Aquaculture raised fish are kept in either submersible net pens open to the ocean environment,  constructed ponds that enclose fish in an inland body of water or large recirculating tanks.

Disease and pollution. With so many fish living in close quarters, there is often the risk of disease. If wastewater from the open ponds or nets is not filtered it pollutes the nearby waterways.

Habitat damage. Traditional aquaculture ponds in many tropical countries are created by cutting down coastal mangrove forests. Mangroves are super important because they are nursery habitats for young fish, stabilize shorelines and protect coastal communities from erosion and storm surge. Mangroves are also great at sequestering carbon and are important to mitigating climate change.

Escapes. Sometimes aquaculture fish escape into the wild habitat and can spread disease, compete for food, or genetically alter the wild population through breeding.

Given all of these environmental considerations, you need to know at least three things to choose a good, sustainable seafood option.

1) what species it is,

2) where it was caught or farmed, and

3) how it was caught or farmed.

Easy, right?

Unfortunately, not.




Supply chain woes

Imagine the next time you go into the supermarket. You whip out your Seafood Watch app and decide on your order. 

You ask the fishmonger, “Is this salmon wild?

He says, “I dunno. I think so.

Well, where is it from?

Uhhhh. Alaska?

Well, was it caught with a line or net?


One of the main problems and a hot topic in the sustainable seafood world is the traceability of fish throughout the supply chain.

A simplified supply chain for seafood is typically:

Fisherman —> Processor (where the fish is prepped and packaged) —> Retailer —> Consumer

In order for you, the consumer, to know that the fish you are buying was caught in a safe area with a sustainable method that information has to be passed along with the fish through the entire chain. But mislabeling and species fraud abounds. In fact, multiple studies show that one in three fish is labeled and sold as a different species!! 

The global supply chain is complex and weakly regulated and illegal fish can penetrate the supply chains quite easily. Once intermingled, illegal products are very difficult to detect.

World Wildlife Fund

Here’s a quick scenario to demonstrate some of the difficulties in the supply chain.

Fisherman A catches fish in a sustainable way. He catches only his allotted amount of the correct species from the right location and uses appropriate fishing methods.

Fisherman B catches his fish using unsustainable means.

When they get to the processor plant the fish from both fisherman get thrown in the same crate. They are now indistinguishable.

What incentive does Fisherman A have to continue to do things sustainably?

Even if processors separate and track the fish correctly, retailers may buy from multiple processors and comingle the shipments. There is little incentive for any one player to do the right thing unless the entire industry is onboard.

Now imagine there was a demand from consumers, retailers, and restaurants for a sustainable fish. The processors would be more inclined to be able to source and differentiate the fish from Fisherman A and Fisherman B.

This is why consumer demand can be a very powerful thing.

Future of Fish has a series of short videos that demonstrate the difficulty in creating a traceable and sustainable seafood supply chain. Check them out here.

So how do you buy sustainable seafood?

With all the issues in the seafood industry, it can seem impossible to find an easy way to buy sustainable products. Luckily, organizations like Seafood Watch, Future of Fish and FishWise are making advances in making certified and sustainable seafood options more available. Here are 6 easy ways you can source quality and sustainable seafood. 

1. Download the Seafood Watch guide or app to see what seafood choices to eat or avoid. 

2. Look for the blue MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified label on fish that you buy.

You can also search the MSC website by retailer name to find sustainable fish products at your preferred retailer.  Stores including Target, Walmart, Whole Foods and Costco carry MSC certified products.

3. Find a CSF in your local area. Community supported fisheries (similar to the CSA vegetable box you may be familiar with) are growing in popularity for coastal communities. By buying directly from the fisherman you can know how, where, and when your fish was caught.

You also support the local economy and reduce the carbon footprint of shipping seafood around the country. Simply Google CSF and your hometown to find one near you OR use Local Catch’s seafood finder. 

4. Don’t live near the coast? Order sustainable seafood from Vital Choice. Vital Choice carries a wide selection of seafood certified by MSC or the Seafood watch program ready to ship to your door.

5. Eating out? Find a restaurant that serves sustainable seafood by searching FishChoice’s map of all restaurants participating in one of their partner’s sustainable seafood programs. 

6. Create the demand. Request sustainable seafood choices from your local stores and restaurants. Consumer demand for sustainable options will help promote better business practices within the seafood industry.

Check out the infographic below or download it here.

Want to know more?

Here are a few great resources to learn more.

Seafood Watch

Future of Fish


Marine Stewardship Council – one of the main sustainable certification agencies.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) is the main international governing body tasked with managing and monitoring fisheries and aquaculture. 

Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish is a fun and fascinating read on the reality of the seafood industry.

How and why to buy sustainable seafood

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