A Consumers’ Guide to Eating Fish Sustainably

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Guide To Eating Fish Responsibly

Many of us like clear cut answers. But when it comes to eating fish sustainably, it is a complex matter that deserves contemplation.

Fact: Wild fish populations are being depleted throughout the world’s oceans.

Fact: Wild fish are less prone to disease, free to roam, and in their healthiest most natural habitat.

Fact: Farmed fish are more prone to disease, often necessitating antibiotics and pesticides.

Fact: The antibiotics, fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants involved with concentrated farmed fish populations may end up contaminating our oceans and waterways.

Fact: Innovations in aquaculture can minimize contamination and pollution, and protect wild populations of marine life.

One can see why it isn’t always easy to determine if you should be consuming farmed or wild fish. 

Either way, diversifying one's consumption of fish will put less pressure on fewer species. Additionally, eating domestic, wild fish caught in season will mean that you are sourcing from fisheries that are under strict and responsible management. Eating fish seasonally allows species’ to reproduce and naturally maintain a healthy population.


So what does a responsible consumer need to know?

  • What wild fish species are either endangered or vulnerable? 
  • What are the different methods of catching wild fish and what are their environmental implications?
  • What are the different methods of farming fish (aquaculture), and what are the environmental implications?
  • Ways to diversify their fish consumption.
  • The overall state of the ocean’s health

Let’s take a look at some of the most common fish we consume:

CATFISH

  • Generally considered a sustainable option, when not sourced from China.
  • Look for: U.S caught or farmed
  • Avoid: Farmed in China or Vietnam
  • Read More >>

COD

  • Two main species available for consumers: Atlantic and Pacific
  • Look for: Atlantic Cod farmed via recirculating tanks with wastewater treatment, or Wild Pacific Cod from Alaska
  • Avoid: Pacific cod from Japan or Russia is vulnerable, wild caught Atlantic Cod is considered vulnerable and recuperating from extensive overharvesting.
  • Read More >>

HALIBUT/HIRAME

  • Bottom dwellers of the North Pacific and Atlantic oceans 
  • In the flounder family
  • Atlantic halibut fisheries are extremely depleted, and considered an endangered species
  • Look for: Farmed indoor in recirculating tanks, or handline California halibut
  • Avoid: Atlantic caught or Mexican caught

LIONFISH

  • Native to the Indo-Pacific region, and now a troublesome invasive species found in the Carribean and East Coast of the U.S
  • A sustainable solution to prevent the invasive species from spreading further is to eat them
  • Look for: U.S caught lionfish
  • Read More >>

MAHI MAHI / DOLPHINFISH

  • Found throughout the world in tropical and subtropical oceans, like the gulf of california, and off shore in the atlantic from New Jersey to Florida. 
  • Look for: U.S Atlantic caught - handlines, trolling lines, hand operated pole-and-lines
  • Avoid: Imported

POLLOCK

  • All wild caught, never farmed
  • Not considered the most environmentally friendly fish option
  • Avoid: There are no sources of pollock that are considered a great choice. Seek out other options
  • Read More >>

ROCKFISH

  • Refers to almost 100 species, mostly found in the kelp forests of Central to Northern Pacific
  • Overall an environmentally friendly choice.
  • Look for: caught in the U.S
  • Avoid: Canadian & British Colombia caught
  • Read More >>

SALMON/SAKE

  • The most commonly eaten fish in the U.S
  • Look for: Farmed with recirculating tanks with wastewater treatment, wild caught pink or sockeye with lift nets from Northeast Pacific (Washington, or Alaska), or New Zealand sourced
  • Avoid: Atlantic salmon is endangered, Salmon from Norway, Chile, or Scotland. Chinook from the Puget Sound
  • Read More >>

SEABASS

  • There are many different types of sea bass
  • Chilean sea bass is not a true sea bass, and is endangered.
  • Giant sea bass off the coast of california is also endangered
  • Look for: Farmed seabass - especially from recirculating tanks that treat wastewater
  • Avoid: Giant californian seabass, chilean sea bass, and black sea bass from Florida or the Gulf of Mexico
  • Read More >>

SNAPPER

  • Snapper includes a variety of fish including Red Snapper, Yellowtail, Mutton, Blackfin, and Gray
  • Confusingly, some fish is sold as snapper, that isn’t truly snapper
  • Look for: U.S caught
  • Avoid: Most imported snapper
  • Read More >> 

SWORDFISH

  • Look for: Handline or hand operated pole-and-line caught in Pacific or North Atlantic

  • Avoid: Imported caught with drift gillnets or longlines

  • Read More >> 

TILAPIA

  • Native to Africa, though now farmed throughout the world
  • Look for: Farmed via recirculating tanks with wastewater treatment, raceways or ponds. Best sourced from U.S, Peru, Ecuador, Canada
  • Avoid: Sourced from China
  • Read More >>

TROUT

  • Mostly freshwater dwelling group of fish, with 11 species in the U.S
  • Look for: Wild caught Minnesota, U.S farmed, or globally farmed with recirculating tanks with wastewater treatment
  • Avoid: Farmed in Colombia, Wild caught in Wisconsin
  • Watch >>

TUNA

  • Found throughout the world’s oceans. Most are found in the tropics, though albacore and bluefin are also found in temperate waters. 
  • 15 different species, many of which are endangered or vulnerable
  • Look for: Albacore or Skipjack from trolls or pole-and-lines
  • Avoid: All bluefin is critically endagered, yellowfin (ahi) from imported longlines, and skipjack form imported purse seines
  • Watch >> 

Other commonly eaten fish to avoid:

  • Sardines
  • Most anchovies
  • Orange roughy 

Other commonly eaten fish that are environmentally friendly options:

  • Any fish that is farmed in indoor recirculating tanks that treat wastewater
  • Sole from the west coast
  • Arctic Char from Canada’s Cambridge Bay, or farmed in raceways from U.S, Canada, or Iceland
  • Sanddabs from the west coast
  • Wahoo from the U.S Atlantic coast caught by pole-and-line, handlines, or trolling lines

Fishing Techniques

Gillnets & Seines: 

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

  • Both of these methods involve using large nets to capture a mass of fish at one time, intended for schools of fish.
  • Cons: Catching so many fish at one time often leads to overfishing. Gillnets have a very high chance for bycatch - making it not environmentally sound

Bottom Trawling & Dredges:

Photo: Fix.com "The Three Biggest Threats To Global Fisheries"

  • Both methods involve dragging equipment along the ocean floor
  • Cons: damages the ocean bed, high chance for by catch, damages coral reef systems and leads to overfishing 
  • AVOID !!!

Midwater Trawls:

  • Pros: no damage to ocean floor as compared to bottom trawls.
  • Cons: high chance for bycatch, leads to overfishing, can catch at-risk species, can harm sea birds
  • Avoid when possible

Trolling Lines and Pole & Line:

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

  • Both methods involve bait on hooks on fishing lines.
  • Pole-and-line is generally one hook per line, while trolling lines are lined with many hooks.
  • Pros: The lines get pulled relatively quick once there is a bite, and the unwanted bycatch can be released into the ocean with little harm. Overall, this method is much less invasive and damaging than trawling and dredges. Hand operated lines, especially, do not lead to overfishing.

Longlines:

  • Baited hooks dote these lines that are often miles long - up to 62 miles!
  • Cons: The bait used can lure at risk animals like endangered sea turtles. Overall, not a very sustainable method for catching fish. Contributes to overfishing.

Handlines & Jigs:

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

  • An often environmentally sound way to catch prized species.
  • Fishermen from small boats lure fish with a baited hook and by moving the jig around.
  • PROS: Small chance for catching unwanted species. Little to no environmental disruption.

Farming Techniques (Aquaculture):

Pens

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

  • Fish are more susceptible to disease.
  • Antibiotics, pesticides, sewage, and other toxic ingredients pollute the ocean
  • Used to raise salmon, fresh and saltwater trout, tilapia

Raceways

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

  • Often the waste water leaves the facility and pollutes surroundings.
  • In recirculating raceways, water is treated and reused and does not enter nor contaminate the surrounding environment.
  • Used with salmon and rainbow trout

Recirculating Tanks

Photo: Ausfish Aquaculture

  • Water is treated and recirculated for continual use so no environmental contamination occurs.
  • Used with salmon, arctic char, striped bass, sturgeon
  • A very environmentally friendly way to farm fish

Ponds

  • Ponds were traditionally built near natural bodies of water.
  • Crowded shrimp and fish are often fed antibiotics
  • The dirty and polluted water from the ponds used to be released into the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine life and destroying over 30% of the world’s mangroves. Mangroves are a critical ecosystem that many species depend on for food and habitat.
  • Advances in shrimp farming and pond aquaculture have been put into effect in some instances. More advanced systems include above ground, closed loop systems that do not contribute to contaminating our waterways. Water is treated and used for multiple cycles.
  • Used for shrimp, tilapia, and catfish

The future is aquaculture

Photo: The Nature Conservancy

The future of fish consumption is rooted in aquaculture. The demand for fish and shellfish simply cannot be met in a sustainable manner with only wild caught populations. Innovative technologies and sustainable systems will create aquaculture methods with minimal ecological footprint. There is already so much ingenuity within the field of sustainable aquaculture, with methods ranging from “marine permaculture” to systems in which fish waste is turned into a usable energy source. 

Conclusion:

What it comes down to is this - there are sustainable ways to catch wild fish or to farm fish, and there are harmful ways to do either as well. Make sure to be aware of what fish species you consume, and how it was caught or farmed. By rotating between a wider range of species, and by eating seasonally, you can have a smaller ecological footprint. 

Do what you can to support ocean conservation:

  • Eliminate single-use plastic
  • Wear reef-safe sunblock
  • Play in, and honor the oceans
  • Understand the interconnectedness between healthy forests and healthy oceans - check out this informative blog post.
  • Eat more perennial plants! They require less pesticides, less fertilizers and less water, meaning our planet stays healthier. Check out our free perennial cookbook with seasonal recipes
Resources:
  • Documentaries to watch: Artifishal, The Cove, Sharkwater, The End of the Line
  • Stay tuned for our Guide to Eating Shellfish Responsibly. And until then, avoid farmed shrimp from Asia

References:

All fish illustrations and research is from Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch.

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