Earlier on, I began a 5 part discussion on the hows and whys of choosing sustainable seafood. Part 1 defined sustainable seafood as seafood that:
1. Was not overfished
2. Was harvested in a manner that minimized bycatch and
3. Was harvested in a manner that minimized other negative environmental impacts
and examples were given of fisheries that have met these criteria and of those that haven’t. Now I would like to move on and discuss the second question raised. How does a consumer know which seafood in the market is harvested sustainably?
I wish this question had a simple, easy answer. But the fact is, sometimes it’s not easy to tell. And sometimes it is. The Monterey Bay Aquarium pocket guides and apps are a really good place to start. These guides, down-loadable free on their website, are regional guides that place fisheries into one of 3 different categories. The green category indicates “best choice” seafood, or seafood that is harvested sustainably. The yellow category indicates fisheries that are not the worst, but still have room for improvement and they are labeled as a “good alternative.” Lastly, there is the red “avoid” column, indicating fisheries that are not using sustainable practices and are not meeting one or more of the criteria listed above. An asterisk located by a particular seafood indicates an excess of contaminants, such as mercury, and consumption should be limited for your health.
As a side note- it is not a coincidence that the seafood listed in the avoid column tends to have more contaminants than those listed in the other columns. Contaminants, such as mercury and PCB’s accumulate in fish that live a really long time, or that are at the top of the food chain. These same fish are the ones that reproduce slower and take a long time to reach reproductive maturity and are therefore more susceptible to the effects of overfishing.
Anyway, with a straightforward guide like this, how can it be difficult to know if seafood is harvested sustainably or not? Well, there are a few reasons. First off, not all seafood types offered in an area are listed on this guide. Secondly, some types of fish are listed in multiple columns. This is because the same type of fish might be harvested in a number of different ways, and how the fish is caught can make a big difference in terms of the amount of bycatch caught by the fishery, so you have to investigate to find out which method was used. Lastly, some types of seafood is marketed under different names (often names that sound more appealing).
So, what to do about these issues. Well, you can find out about fish not listed on this guide and find what other names a fish is marketed under at the Seafood Watch website. Also, if you have an iphone, itouch or blackberry, you can download the seafood watch pocket guide apps, for free, which also list other common market names for different types of seafood.
Another thing you can do is to look for this symbol:
If you see this symbol, you know that the seafood in question was independently assessed and certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and met minimum standards of sustainability.
In terms of what to do if a type of seafood is listed in multiple columns and you’re not sure where it is from, all you can really do is ask. I have been surprised more than once by simply asking. My first thoughts were that no waitress in a chain restaurant is going to know how their seafood was harvested or where it was from. But often they can find out for you if you simply ask. If they can’t, then maybe (usually) there is another seafood option that is not listed in multiple columns to be sure.
Another thing you can do is patronize stores and restaurants that sell only certified sustainable seafood, or clearly indicate which seafood they have that is sustainable, to make it easier for you. For example, I have seen the Marine Stewardship Council’s logo printed on some menus next to the seafood options they have that are sustainable. There are many good restaurants that are doing this now.
These are some of the ways you can find out if the seafood you’re eating is harvested sustainably. Stay tuned for part 3, which will discuss why choosing sustainable seafood is important.