Seafood watch pocket guide.


The seafood watch program was started in 1999 by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and has now spread throughout the United States and Canada, as it has been supported by every AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) facility and other environmental organizations. The idea behind it is that as major consumers of seafood, if we support only fisheries that are harvesting their food in a sustainable manner, then we can direct the market towards more ocean-friendly fishing practices.

This is a pretty important conservation concern right now, so I am going to occasionally write a post about sustainable seafood.  I’ll be discussing the following topics:

1. What is sustainable seafood?

2. How do I know which seafood is sustainable?

3. Why is choosing sustainable seafood important right now?

4. What are some ways seafood can be harvested sustainably? How does this effect fisheries?

5. What progress have we made?

Today I will discuss number 1: What is sustainable seafood?

Three criteria have to be met for a fishery to be deemed sustainable.  This first is that they cannot overfish a particular fish or population.  Overfishing specifically means that we are harvesting substantially more of a particular type of fish than is being replaced by reproduction.  An example of a type of fish caught in a manner that does not meet this criterion is the Chilean Seabass, also known as a toothfish.  Chilean Seabass grow slowly and take a long time to reach reproductive maturity, so these fish can take a long time to recover population size from the effects of overfishing.  An example of a fishery that does meet this criterion is the wild-caught Alaskan Salmon fishery.  Fish-populations and the fishery are closely monitored and managed and the results are astounding (I will discuss this more in later posts.)

The second important factor in fishing sustainably is limiting the amount of bycatch. Bycatch refers to animals that are accidentally caught in fishing gear, but are not the target seafood of the fishery and because the they either lack the permits or space, they simply throw the dead or dying seafood back into the ocean.  Bycatch represents 40.4 percent of global marine catches, according to this study published by Marine Policy. They estimate that 38,505,242 tonnes of fish are discarded annually-and I mean fish, this estimate does not include invertebrates, mammals, sea turtles or seabirds. These estimates are considered to be low, given that fishers being observed are more likely to follow better fishing practices than those not being observed.

An example of seafood caught with high amounts of bycatch is imported wild-caught shrimp.  Outside of the United States, shrimp trawls drag along the bottom of the ocean to find the lovely crustaceans.  However, they end up finding a lot more than that. They catch fish (including sharks), sea turtles and other invertebrates.


bycatch from a shrimp trawl

Bycatch from a shrimp trawl. Image taken by Elliot Norse.


On average, outside of the United States shrimp trawls catch 5-6 pounds of bycatch for every 1 pound of shrimp they collect and the range is from between 3 pounds of bycatch to 15 pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp. But, notice how I keep saying outside of the United States. An example of a shrimp fishery that limits the amount of bycatch is the Oregon Pink Shrimp fishery. The trawls they use are fitted with bycatch reduction devices (which have been shown to reduce bycatch by up to 40 percent) and are designed to be less damaging to the bottom of the sea floor. All shrimp trawls from the United States must meet higher environmental standards than shrimp trawls from other nations, so therefore if Oregon pink shrimp is not available, non-imported shrimp is still much better than imported shrimp.

Last but not least, the third criterion for sustainable fishing is limiting other detrimental impacts to the environment. An example of seafood that does not meet this criterion is imported farmed shrimp. Farmed shrimp has a wide range of environmental problems, including clearing acres of mangrove forests to make room for shrimp farms to not treating waste water and dumping shrimp waste into local peoples’ waterways. Again, shrimp farms in the United States have to adhere to stricter environmental standards than most foreign countries, so non-imported farmed shrimp is considered better than imported farmed shrimp.

Alright, so that is how we define sustainable seafood.  There are many good examples of seafood that is harvested in a sustainable manner, so we don’t have to destroy our oceans to get our healthy, tasty seafood.

For more information, please check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch information and download a free seafood watch pocket guide or get a free seafood watch app in your iPhone, iTouch or blackberry. Also, you can look for future posts on this topic on this blog.