Smarter Living: Shopping Wise
Sustainable Seafood Guide
How to choose delicious seafood that's healthy for you and the environment
Advice on America's Five Favorite Types of Seafood
Here's a look at the five most popular U.S. seafood items, as ranked by the National Fisheries Institute, and the most important question to ask before eating each one:
Ask: Where is it from?
Domestic shrimp is generally better than imported varieties. But wild U.S. shrimp are caught with trawl nets that can also catch and kill lots of other marine life.
Most imported shrimp are farmed in Asia or Central America, where they were likely treated with chemicals or antibiotics and grown in their own raw sewage. These shrimp are often raised in unsealed pools or mesh cages in the ocean, and the contaminants are allowed to flow in and out of the water, polluting the sea.
Imported wild shrimp also have issues. They were most likely caught with trawling nets that clear-cut the ocean floor, catching and killing endangered or overfished species such as sea turtles.
- Spot prawns from Canada and northern U.S. waters
- Wild-caught northern shrimp
- MSC-certified northern pink shrimp (rare in restaurants but can be found in some grocery stores and fish markets)
Ask: What kind is it?
All species of tuna have health and sustainability issues. Many scientists fear they are on the path to depletion. While there is no good tuna choice, some species are doing better than others. Varieties of albacore and skipjack tuna are the best choices.
Ninety percent of the ocean's large predators, including tuna, have disappeared due to overfishing. And most canned tuna, even dolphin-free brands, is caught using destructive practices.
Tuna also has high levels of mercury. Because of its popularity, it is the biggest source of the toxin in humans.
The best choice is to avoid tuna altogether until they are given the chance to recover. But if you can't completely cut it out of your diet, here are a few options that are better than others:
- MSC-certified albacore West Coast tuna
- Canned light albacore tuna, especially if it's pole-and-line caught
- Canned "light" tuna, especially skipjack, which is smaller and more abundant than other tuna and contains less mercury
Ask: Where is it from?
Nearly all Atlantic salmon is farmed, and many wild Pacific salmon fisheries have been shut down due to concerns about habitat loss and unsustainable water management. Wild Alaskan salmon is more plentiful, though, and Alaska does a better job of using sustainable fishing practices.
Industrial farmed salmon presents significant health concerns because it contains up to 10 times the amount of pollutants and chemical toxins as wild salmon. The fish are also given antibiotics and color additives to make them look appetizing. Salmon farming also can have major adverse effects on the environment.
- Sustainably fished wild Alaskan salmon (it's also available in cans)
- If you can only find farmed salmon, look for fish that has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and carries an MSC blue sticker. Whole Foods has some of the highest standards for farmed salmon in the industry.
Ask: Am I eating it now?
You may not think you eat much of this fish, but that's because it's often not labeled. Pollock is used in imitation crab meat, fast food fish sandwiches and frozen fish sticks.
Recent science has indicated that pollock are declining, and fishery managers have cut back the amount of fish that can be harvested as a result. Further reductions may be necessary.
- Wild-caught pollock makes an OK seafood choice, though there are some concerns about the ecosystem impacts in local areas where depletion has occurred.
Ask: Where is it from?
Tilapia is native to the Nile River in Africa, so it is rare to encounter wild tilapia.
Most tilapia is farmed in Asia, where it is treated with antibiotics and pesticides and exposed to carbon monoxide. Tilapia often contains an artificial male sex hormone that is absorbed by humans when eaten. Because male tilapia grow faster and are more lucrative than females, the fish are often treated with the hormone to induce a sex change.
- U.S.-farmed tilapia is the best option because it has higher standards and fewer contaminants. It may still be treated with antibiotics and pesticides, but that practice is less common in America than in Asia.
HOW WAS IT CAUGHT?
Fishing methods go a long way toward determining whether seafood is sustainable.
- Hook and line: This low-impact method of fishing does no damage to the seafloor and lets fishermen throw back the wrong species, usually in time for them to live.
- Pots and traps: Intelligently designed traps have doors that allow young fish to escape. Skilled fishermen can lay pots so that they have minimal impact to the seafloor.
- Midwater Trawlers: These boats drag giant nets below the surface and can unintentionally catch significant numbers of forage fish, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. They do cause less habitat damage than bottom trawlers because the nets generally avoid the ocean floor.
- Longlines: This method involves fishing lines that are often miles long with thousands of hooks. The lines can kill sea turtles and birds.
- Bottom Trawlers: These giant nets clearcut the ocean floor, killing everything from sea urchins, coral and forage fish to 150-year old orange roughy, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. They cause damage to overfished species and young fish, decimating the prospects for the future.
Advice On The Go:
Consult one of these guides for on-the-spot information:
- NRDC Wallet Guides: Print out our handy guides to mercury in fish and sushi.
- FishPhone: An instant text messaging service with advice from the Blue Ocean Institute. Message 30644 with the word "fish" and the name of the seafood you want to know about in the body of your message (for example: "fish salmon").
- Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch SmartPhone App explains the most sustainable seafood choices on-the-go
Related NRDC Webpages:
last revised 6/4/2009