If the planet’s health is top of mind, you’ve likely considered the environmental impact of the food you eat. According to the EAT-Lancet report (download the summary here) global adoption of a flexitarian diet is best for conserving planetary health while meeting our growing population’s nutritional needs. A flexitarian diet is one that includes generous amounts of plant-based foods and moderate amounts of meat, poultry, and seafood.
In other words, replacing animal foods in your diet with plant foods can help us meet the needs of our current population without compromising the future generation’s ability to meet their own. While a flexitarian diet is environmentally sustainable itself, responsible sourcing of its components, especially the animal-based ones, can make an even bigger impact.
Identifying sustainable seafood—an important source of protein, vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the flexitarian diet—can be challenging. Considerations for sustainable seafood include farming practices, fishing methods, and country of origin. Know what to check for the next time you shop for fish or choose seafood at a restaurant.
Make room for seafood
Fish and shellfish are total nutrient packages that deserve a place on your plate. They’re unique from other protein foods because they contain substantial amounts of easily usable and inflammation-dampening omega-3 (EPA and DHA) fatty acids. Omega-3s are an integral component of cell membranes and are involved in the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting and contraction and relaxation of the arteries. This is why you may have heard recommendations to eat oily fish, like salmon or trout, to help lower high blood pressure or maintain healthy blood pressure. The omega-3’s in fish also support normal brain development in children and may preserve cognition and improve memory in older adults with Alzheimer’s. It’s unlikely that seafood is fully responsible for these associations because complete diet, exercise habits, and genetics play a role too. But the consensus from multiple well-respected health organizations is that two 3.5-4-ounce portions of seafood each week support optimal health.
Call to action
Fish harvesting and farming can be rather harmful to the surrounding wildlife and ecosystem when done improperly. Methods that use trawls and dredges destroy habitats and contribute to high rates of unintentional catches, much of which goes wasted. Irresponsible farming practices can produce excessive amounts of pollutants that harm fish and contaminate nearby water supplies.
Supporting environmentally friendly fisheries can help ensure the future health of our oceans and aquatic life. The choices consumers make shape the seafood marketplace. Think of choosing sustainable seafood as a vote with your dollar. Use the tips below to cast your vote.
Wild vs. farmed…Capture vs. Growth
Seventy-five percent of global fish stocks have been fished to maximum capacity or overfished. And for the last 20 years, oceans have supplied the maximum amount of seafood they possibly can, which isn’t nearly enough to meet global demand. This means we need a combination of both wild and farmed fish.
Farmed versus wild is not an indicator of sustainability, but it tells you about where the fish grew and the potential environmental impact of its growth or capture. Either can employ environmentally sustainable or destructive techniques. For example, fish farms have helped rebuild nearby ocean ecosystems, while others have contributed to the spread of sickness when fish escape their enclosures. Similarly, capture of wild-caught shrimp damages the ocean floor, but capture of wild tuna with a pole and line is harmless. Feel confident choosing either sustainably wild-caught or responsibly farmed fish. Keep reading to find out how to identify these options.
Use a reputable seafood guide
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide uses an evidence-based process to categorize different types of seafood as “best choices,” “good choices,” or “avoid” based on where and how it was harvested. The guide is updated twice yearly and best reflects current, unbiased knowledge of seafood and its environmental impact. Using the guide is as simple as searching for a type of fish or locating a sustainable seafood retailer or restaurant near you. Make sure to use the “refine your search” feature when checking on your fish. You can access the guide online or by downloading the free smartphone app (Apple/ Android).
Seek a certification
Look for seals from a sustainable seafood certification or oversight program. Seals from the following organizations can provide assurance that a product is sustainable, caught legally, and traceable. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council program uses science to determine that the fish it certifies come from populations that are healthy, thriving, and able to reproduce indefinitely.
- Aquaculture Stewardship Council(ASC)
- Best Aquaculture Practices(BAP)
- Marine Stewardship Council(MSC)
- Alaska Seafood
- Fair Trade USA
Ask where it’s from
Grocers in the United States are required to label unprocessed seafood products (i.e. fish in the fresh seafood section) with the country of origin. This can be helpful when you become familiar with where sustainable fish originate. For example, you’d know to avoid a Pacific Cod from Japan if sustainability is a concern.
What to ask:
- “Where is the seafood from?”
- “Does this seafood have a third-party certification?”
- “How long has this seafood been on display?” or “when did this seafood arrive?”
Scope out the company
Locate the company name on the packaging of your prepared or frozen fish and do a quick internet search. If they’re committed to environmentally friendly practices, it’s likely they will reference it somewhere on their website. Be wary of companies that provide little to no information.
Join a CSF
A community-supported fishery (CSF) operates much like community-supported agriculture (CSA) where you pay a fee to access a share of a farm’s harvest. With a CSF, you not only gain insight into where your fish comes from, who caught it, and how, but you also support small-scale, sustainable fishermen and bolster the regional fishing economy. Localcatch.org can connect you with local CSFs. If you can’t join a CSF, choose to buy seafood from businesses with high standards for the seafood they sell. The Seafood Watch guide referenced above can help.
The United States is currently a leader in responsible fisheries and sustainable seafood. Often, U.S. sourced fish is a sustainable option. Choose it if you’re in doubt.