How to eat seafood sustainably

Sardines at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Michael Hatch.

Every December my family and I “get outta Dodge” for a few weeks. It is the only month we all have time off at the same time–from the farm, work, and school. We are often drawn to the ocean because we live so far from it in northeast Oregon. In the last few years, we have traveled to Chile, Mexico, Portugal, and this year, down the Oregon and California coast. Each trip we consume as much seafood as possible and learn a lot about the unfamiliar and interesting life on and in the ocean. Last year in Portugal we learned about the Mediterranean sardine harvest and the national love for the tiny fishes. We saw old tide mills used to grind grain and Roman salt ponds along the coast.

This year our trip was down highway 101 and highway 1 from Reedsport, OR to Big Sur, CA. Our kid is a budding wildlife biologist and “animal rescuer,” so we made sure to stop at the Marine Life Center in Charleston, OR and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in CA. I learned three important lessons in Monterey: 1) I want to live in a Mediterranean climate eventually, 2) how to eat seafood more sustainably, and 3) the impact of plastics on our oceans (more in a future post.)

I am not a sea faring lass, and feel out of my depth when it comes to understanding how to eat different fish and seafood species. I know enough to look for the “dolphin safe” label on tins of albacore tuna, but not much else. Luckily, the Monterey Bay Aquarium assesses the sustainability of seafood and provides guides and best practices for eaters. Here are a few things I learned and resources you can use.

1. Leave the tuna/shrimp/salmon comfort zone

In the US, we primarily eat tuna, shrimp, and salmon. If we give other species a try, we give these ones a rest.

Taking this to heart, we bought fresh, local sabelfish at a family-run fish market in Monterey and loved it. I realized that I stay in my tuna and salmon comfort zone because I don’t know what else to try. The aquarium website also has lots of recipes for trying sustainably caught and raised seafood that you may not be familiar with.

squid soup on red ceramic bowl
Photo by Naim Benjelloun on

2. Avoid species that result in bycatch and habitat damage

How fish are caught really matters. Some fishing methods result in a lot of bycatch–that is non-target species that are caught in nets. Dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, marine mammals, birds, and juvenile fish are common bycatch from methods like gill nets, purse seines, and trawls. Dredging and bottom trawls can also damage habitat like coral on the sea floor. Specific impacts can be reduced using better sein and trawl techniques, specifying where dredging can occur, and using other fishing methods. Long lines and jigs, for example, result in less bycatch because they are more targeted and allow the release of unwanted species.

You can learn about fishing methods here, but all you really need is the Seafood Watch consumer guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can download the Seafood Watch guides as an app or as state-by-state printable guides here. I put the guide in my wallet. They even have guides for eating sushi.

You can search specific species here and get a rating for how sustainable they are.

photo of people catching fishes
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on

3. Farmed vs Wild Caught

I have always avoided farmed seafood, but I can’t really say why. I had a vague concept of the pollution and disease that could be spread through aquaculture, but our road trip and the aquarium made me reconsider. I was impressed by the oyster farming we saw in Tomales Bay, and learned more once we got to the aquarium.

Just like agriculture, aquaculture can be practiced sustainably or poorly. Just like in confined livestock operations, waste water treatment at fish farms is very important. You can read about aquaculture here.

But how do you know if seafood is sustainably farmed?

Seafood Watch recommends looking for several important labels that indicate sustainably farmed or caught seafood. ASC-Certified, BAP-Certified, Naturland, Friend of the Sea, Canada Organic Farmed, Certified Sustainable Seafood.

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4. Ask these questions

When you’re at the grocery store or a restaurant, you can ask these questions when you’re making choices about eating seafood.

  • Where does it come from?
  • Is it farmed or wild caught?
  • Does it have a sustainability label?
  • What does the Seafood Watch guide say?

5. In short, the seafood & fish I will enjoy and avoid

Yum! Arctic char, barramundi, clams, lingcod, mussels, sablefish (aka black cod), scallops, sole, oysters, pompano, rockfish, sanddabs, US catfish and US farmed trout.

  • Pacific cod (especially from Alaska) cod but NOT Atlantic cod.
  • Albacore tuna but NOT Yellowfin or Bluefin tuna.
  • US farmed oysters are a better choice than wild caught oysters.
  • US farmed shrimp are better than wild caught or imported shrimp.
  • Northwest salmon is OK but NOT Chinook from Puget Sound.

5. Other random things I learned

We saw seaweed collection and drying on the island of Chiloe, Chile, but I learned on this trip seaweed is also farmed!

“Scallops” (which I love) is just a general term for many species of saltwater clams.

I have eaten Dorado in Mexico for my whole life without knowing it is also called Mahi-Mahi. It is delicious, but not the best choice.

Happy Eating!

Nella Mae

Your grateful farmer