How to Buy Sustainable Fish: The Ultimate Guide

How to Buy Sustainable Fish: The Ultimate Guide

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Dennis Kamprad

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Did you know that eating fish that is unsustainably fished is not only one of the biggest threats to marine habitats and wildlife but also negatively impacts your health? And if you belong to the majority (77% of Americans to be precise) then sustainability already plays a role for your shopping decisions. So now to the important question: How can you buy sustainable fish?

To buy sustainable fish, first stay away from the big five overfished species (incl. salmon, tuna, cod, and haddock). Then best go for fresh, unpacked, local fish. Or check the label if you go for frozen fish to ensure that it’s in line with the sustainable seafood guide.

In this guide, you’ll find out:

  • Why sustainable fish is good for you
  • What to watch out for when you buy sustainable fish
  • The best place to get sustainable fish
  • The difference between farmed and wild fish
  • Some of the sustainable fish species to consider
  • Ways to eat fish more sustainably

What Is Sustainable Fishing?

Sustainable fishing is the act of respecting habitats, ensuring that there’s enough fish left in the ocean, and making sure that those who depend on fishing can maintain their livelihoods daily. 

Sustainable fish farms also avoid using dangerous things like hormones, chemicals, and additives when raising fish. The farmers feed their fish on eco-friendly fish feed that mainly consists of vegetarian products for optimal health. Sustainable fisheries also use water responsibly. That involves using a small area and checking the quality of the water. 

Both farmed fish and wild-caught fish are managed under responsible practices as they ensure sustainable supplies are available. 

Why Is Sustainable Fish Good for You?

Sustainable fish means fish that has been farmed or caught with the oceans’ health and future species in mind. But why is sustainable fish good for you? Here are some reasons why you should consume more sustainable fish species.

Ensures You Get a Healthy Source of Micronutrients

Sustainable fish is high in omega-3, minerals, and vitamins. However, unsustainable, overfished species often contain harmful chemicals and contaminants like PCBs and mercury. You’ll find that fish on the high side of the food chain have more chemicals because of bioaccumulation. Having the fisheries managed sustainably means you not only get ample fish to feed the growing population but also restore ocean abundance. 

Sustainable Fish Can Be Affordable

There’s a variety of sustainable fish that is accessible and affordable, which means you can consume it daily without hurting your wallet. Trout and barramundi are some species that are readily available at a reasonable price. You’ll find that most wild-caught fish are expensive, and you may not afford it for everyday consumption.

Support the Local Farmers and Economy

Buying sustainable fish means you get to support local farmers in most coastal fishing towns that depend on small-scale fishing for income. You can get locally-farmed or wild-caught fish to help the fishermen and local economies. 

Low Carbon Footprint

Specific animal-based proteins like pork and beef have a high carbon footprint, which means they are not environmentally friendly. Wild-caught fish requires no arable land for harvesting or freshwater. Research shows that changing our diet could help mitigate the effects of CO2 emissions produced. Substituting fish for beef and pork can reduce the strain on the environment, which promotes sustainability. 

What’s more, sustainable fishing also protects endangered habitats and species. Although the sea was considered an inexhaustible source of fish, the sad reality is that most of the fish are overfished, and some species are extinct. That means that some species like swordfish are at an all-time low and are highly endangered. 

Species like dolphins and whales are caught up and killed due to unintentional by-product of fishing. 40% of the global catch consists of bycatch, which is a massive problem for the ecosystem. Buying sustainable fish helps preserve the ecosystem and protects the people and the environment at large. 

Tips for Buying Sustainable Fish

Whether you’re visiting the farmer’s market or rushing to the grocery store to get fish, here are some tips that will help you buy sustainable fish. 

Read the Sustainable Seafood Guides and Labels

One of the best places to learn more about sustainable fishing is from Seafood Guides. These guides explain terms like handlines and long-lines. Farming and ranching, trolling and trawling. Below are some of the recognized organizations.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch provides a fantastic guide for anyone looking for sustainable seafood in restaurants and shops. This guide gives you the best and second-best options for each species. It also lists the worst choices for each species. Note that the guide focuses on Canada and the US. 

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council focuses on farmed fish and evaluates the whole process starting from the land and feed a farm uses to how the workers are treated. Unlike other organizations with strict criteria, ASC is a bit relaxed as they deem accrediting a company to improve its process. 

Marine Stewardship Council

Getting a Marine Stewardship Council accreditation gives a fish farm a high rating. The council works with fisheries by monitoring them. Having an MSC logo means that a farm obeys local laws and seasons and responsibly catches their fish. 

Friend of the Sea

Friends of the Sea covers both farmed and wild-caught seafood, something you won’t find with most organizations. The organization also covers cruises, shipping firms, and whale watching tours. While this group is considered trustworthy, there has been an argument over not providing independent reviews. 

Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices

The Global Aquaculture Alliance or GAA consists of big seafood companies. As a consortium, the organization is responsible for maintaining the sustainability standard in the seafood sector. The label uses a star system, ranging from a single star to certify the processing plant. A four-star means the whole supply has attained its standards. A product with 3-4 stars is recommended. 

Select From the Safe List

Some sustainable fish species include Atlantic Mackerel, Alaskan salmon, barramundi, Pacific sardines, among others. Squid and Mussels also fall under the sustainable category. When choosing fish, ensure that you avoid the overfished species. Some of these species include swordfish, shark, and Bluefin Tuna as they are overfished and nearing extinction. 

Moreover, they take longer to reproduce young ones, and their population is less likely to get back due to overfishing pressures. 

Moreover, when choosing fish, you need to get fish from sustainable stock. That means the fish should be replacing themselves at a similar rate as they are being fished. It’s recommended not to buy unsustainable fish to allow stocks to build again.

Buy Local Fish

Getting local fish gives you the advantage of knowing the fish’s origin. You can be able to tell if the fish has been raised through environmentally-friendly ways and ask as many questions before you purchase. Buying local fish also supports a diverse food economy, translating into more money for the local economy and keeping food production and farming jobs. 

Fish from other places have to be transported, and also energy is used to freeze or refrigerate the produce. Locally produced fish takes less time in transit, which means you get fresh meat with more flavor and nutrients. Buying local fish also supports the farmers’ markets. 

Some local choices include oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and herring and white fish like pollock, red mullet, and dab.

Check the Label

If you shop a lot in supermarkets, you need to look at the label on tinned, frozen, and fresh fish. Get fish with MSC or Marine Stewardship Council, a blue and white logo placed on fish. There’s also the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or ASC that covers responsibly-farmed seafood. 

Farmed or aquaculture fish are species that are raised and harvested in land-based or ocean-based enclosures. When done correctly, farmed fish uses less land, freshwater, and energy compared to terrestrial farming. You’ll find farmed fish with sustainable seafood certifications like Best Aquaculture Practices. All these labels indicate that the fish is sustainable.

When given a choice, opt for unpackaged and fresh seafood as it’s likely to be sourced locally. Going for the unpackaged fish also promotes sustainability as you won’t contribute to the tons of plastic that caused pollution every year.  

Find Out When the Fish Was Caught

Although most people rush to find out if the fish came in for the day, you should seek to find out when the fish was caught and shipped. For example, a fish that’s three days old, but the fisherman got it directly from the source when it was caught is still fresh. The fish may get to the store today but may have been shipped for ten days. It’s critical to ask when the fish was caught when buying fresh.

It’s recommended to get the U.S. caught fish as the fisheries are managed better than most countries. Note that most of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, which means it’s at risk of overfishing. The fish could also be farmed in environmentally harmful ways or caught under unfair labor practices. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium guide will help you determine where the best sustainable fish comes from. 

Go for Frozen Fish

Fish is seasonal, which means you won’t find the same species fresh all year round. The best thing is that farmers freeze freshly harvested fish to preserve the quality of their produce. Getting frozen fish also means fish has been shipped through environmentally-friendly ways like rail, which enhances sustainability. You’ll find that some fish get better texture and flavor when frozen. That gives you an advantage over someone buying fresh ones.

When getting frozen fish, look for an eco-label on the packaging that shows sustainability. Choose individually vacuum-packed pieces. Check to see if ice crystals form on the outside of the packaging; this is fine. But you need to be careful if you notice ice crystals on the fish as this shows that the fish has been thawed and refrozen before getting to the store.

Check the Nutritional Facts

Ethically-harvested and sustainable fish are exposed to few chemicals and taken care of, unlike unsustainable fish. When you check the nutritional facts, you can tell whether the fish has preservatives, additives, or chemicals.

It’s difficult to tell whether fish has been sustainably farmed or not, which is why you need to look out for signs to show that what you are buying is ethically-harvested. 

Get to Know the Prices

It’s tempting to go for the cheapest fish, but don’t be in a rush. Cheap fish may be farmed in open-ocean pens that do not care about the fish feed or cross-contamination risk between the fish and the environment. Find out first how the fish is farmed and stay away from prices that appear too good to be true. 

Find Out How the Fish Is Caught

Another thing about sustainability is to find out the methods used to catch the fish. Fish that have been caught through bottom trawling are the least sustainable and destructive ways to catch fish. The best thing is to go for fish with hook and line. Some fishermen also use methods like potting or hand-lining. 

That shows that sustainable gear has been used. Don’t be afraid to ask the fishmonger questions about the species of fish, their origin, and how it’s farmed or fished. Letting your fishmonger understand that you like sustainable species over others will ensure you get quality and sustainable fish. 

Note that capture methods differ and can make the difference between a high impact and a low impact on marine life. 

Eat Low on the Food Chain 

Small fish species are short-lived and fast-breeding, which means the stock will virtually never be limited. Moreover, small schooling fish can withstand fishing pressures. 

Stay Away from Red Rated Seafood

Red rated seafood or rated five on the Good Fish Guide represents seafood from unsustainable fish farming methods and fisheries. Most of the farming and fishing methods are harmful to the environment. A good example is the wild northeast Atlantic Halibut. 

Add Variety to Your Fish 

While you may love a specific species like salmon or tuna, it’s recommended to add variety and try other alternatives. The significant causes of seafood depletion are the overreliance on the big five, including cod, salmon, tuna, prawns, and haddock. Try something different the next time you buy fish. Pollock or gurnard are excellent alternatives to salmon and cod. 

Remember to stay away from deep-sea fish as they are slow to breed and take time to breed, making them vulnerable to depletion and exploitation.

What Is the Best Place to Get Sustainable Fish?

You’ll realize that most grocery stores have seafood counters with too many middlemen. That makes it difficult to know if you are buying sustainable fish. The best place to get quality seafood is community supported fisheries.

These fisheries provide a direct way to bring quality and sustainable fish that ensure fair wages to the fishermen. There are various community-supported fisheries worldwide, and you can find one near you from localcatch.org.

Should You Get Farmed or Wild Fish?

One of the main concerns when buying sustainable fish is whether to buy farmed or wild seafood. Aquaculture or farmed seafood is a method of raising fish commercially. Back in the day, wild-caught fish was abundant. These days the stock cannot meet consumer demand. 

Wild fish are often caught using large nets, leading to catching unintended species and damaging the ocean floor. Unfortunately, these practices can be harmful to the fish population and the environment. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 50% of the U.S. fish comes from aquaculture. Farming fish is one of the ways to reduce the overfishing of wild-caught fish. Some of the concerns about farmed fish include water pollution, treatment of workers, high levels of PCBs, and disruption of ecosystems. However, these practices have improved. 

Councils like The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is responsible for overseeing fish farming. They have logos on products from companies that adhere to practices to prevent harm to wild fish, preserve the environment, and use quality feeds. They also check how the workers are treated in addition to their health and safety. 

One thing to note is that wild and farmed fish can be sustainable. You only need to know where it was caught and the methods used to catch the fish. That’s because wild fish that lives in their natural habitat and eats the recommended food will be healthier to humans. 

Fish species like oysters, catfish, and scallops are best consumed when farmed over the wild-caught species. 

Sustainable Fish Species

Below are some of the sustainable fish species that are delicious and ideal for the future of fishing. 

Alaska Salmon

Wild Salmon is famous in most kitchens, thanks to its rich flavor compared to the farmed variety. This type of fish is loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. It’s commonly referred to as Red, King, Chum, Coho, and Sockeye in the market. 

Alaskan salmon is watched and regulated by different agencies. Moreover, the salmon population doesn’t undergo the threat of overfishing. Farmers use environmentally-friendly methods to avoid causing disturbance to the marine environment. You can choose to broil, grill, poach, or smoke the Alaskan salmon. 

Pacific Sardines

Pacific sardines are an excellent source of protein that has little to no impact on the environment. These sardines are fast-growing, and you don’t have to worry about overfishing as their population has made a huge comeback. Sardines can be baked, filleted, or turned into a Mediterranean dish. 

Barramundi

Barramundi is a fantastic alternative for grouper or red snapper. This species is raised in an eco-friendly environment with closed recirculating tanks that are clean. Being a fast-growing fish species means you never have to worry about overfishing. Barramundi is a versatile species that can be grilled, steamed, fried, or barbecued. 

Atlantic Mackerel

Mackerel is a widespread species, especially with Japanese who use it for sushi. The fish species are now becoming popular in the U.S. due to its low mercury levels and high nutritional content. Atlantic mackerel are found in the north-east Atlantic and undergo checks to ensure that it’s environmentally friendly. You can check to see if the mackerel is from sustainable fisheries by looking for drift or handline net fisheries. 

Black Cod or SableFish

Black cod or SableFish has the same texture as the Chilean sea bass and contains extra omega-3 fatty acids compared to salmon. However, you need to find sablefish from the Canadian Pacific or Alaska, where fishing is regulated. Long-line fish from Washington, California, and Oregon are trawl caught, which means you could end up with vulnerable species. The best sablefish is the one produced with commercial marine aquaculture. 

Albacore Tuna

Albacore tuna are smaller and younger. They do not have mercury like other tuna species. You need to find Albacore tuna caught by pole or troll from U.S. Pacific and Canadian waters. These fishing methods reduce the bycatch of other marine species. 

Silver Hake

Silver Hake is an excellent alternative to haddock and cod. The fish is making a comeback in the North Atlantic, meaning you don’t have to worry about overfishing. Silver hake from North Carolina isn’t considered sustainable as the population is yet to recover from overfishing. 

Farmed Rainbow Trout

Farmed rainbow trout is less in contaminants compared to lake trout that is high in chemicals. Opt for trout farmed in freshwater ponds as they feed on a healthy diet and are protected from impurities. 

Farmed Shellfish

Farmed shellfish, including mussels, oysters, and clams, are considered eco-friendly with major benefits for the environment. That makes it a sustainable seafood option to consider when shopping. Shellfish are filter feeders; this means they help improve water quality and build marine ecosystems. You can also consider getting wild shellfish that are diver caught or those caught with hand rakes. 

Should You Be Worried About Chemicals and Toxins?

While most experts believe that eating fish’s benefits outweigh the health risks, you still need to understand that toxins like methylmercury and PCBs may be present in fish. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, consumers are advised to stay away from king mackerel, shark, and swordfish as they have high mercury levels. 

Low mercury species include catfish and salmon and are recommended for regular consumption. It’s crucial to understand that while pollutants can occur in the wild, they are prevalent in fish farms given the closed quarters, vast amounts of fish waste, different fish feeds, and antibiotic use, which can add to the toxin levels. 

When buying fish, you need to get farmed fish grown in a clean environment or go for wild-caught fish from pristine waters. If you are concerned about toxins and contaminants, you can opt for fish lower on the food chain like mussels and sardines, as they don’t have many contaminants.

Ways to Eat Fish Sustainably

Eating fish sustainably may seem like a complicated task. Nonetheless, it’s simple once you’ve recognized some of the sustainable fish species to purchase. Below are a few ways on how you can eat fish sustainably. 

Embrace the Seasons

Back in the day, people would consume fish that was in season before industrial fishing took over. People knew that different fish were available throughout various times of the year. The invention of the commercial fishery means that other fish species can be availed in any season.

You can promote sustainability by consuming fish that is in season and some that have been caught by local fishermen. That will decrease the scale of the system. Choosing fish in season allows you to know where the fish is being harvested and get in touch with the fishermen and markets to understand how they get their fish. 

Some phone apps provide beneficial information on labeling, minimum sizes, and seasonality to help you choose sustainable fish. 

Swap Red-Listed Fish for Sustainable Species

Another fantastic way to eat fish sustainably is to swap the overfished species for sustainable ones. For example, if you like Bigeye Tuna, you can substitute it for Albacore Tuna or Spanish Mackerel. You can try King Salmon in place of Tasmanian Salmon or opt for hand-dived scallops instead of scallops caught using dredges or trawlers. 

Make sure to avoid fish like marlin, shark, swordfish, and grouper as they are not only caught through unsustainable methods, but they are also high in mercury.

The Marine Conservation Society updates its website regularly and lists some of the delicate fish to eat and the species to avoid. You can use this as a resource for what you should buy. 

Work With a Fishmonger

Whenever possible, it’s recommended to find a reliable fishmonger as he knows the fish in season and the methods used to catch the fish. Your fishmonger may also recommend some species to try as they get most of their products from sustainable fisheries. 

Final Thoughts

Buying sustainable fish isn’t a complicated process. All you need is to know where the fish comes from, the methods used to catch the fish (check the label for both), and check for the listed sustainable species on sites like Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and Marine Stewardship Council. Eating sustainable fish species protects the marine ecosystem and ensures that you get a healthy source of protein. 

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