Sustainable Seafood Hook Up: The Details

Salmon, shrimp, tuna - they're among our favorites on the grill. But before you head to the seafood counter, arm yourself with important information on both ecological and health fronts.

The information below comes from Monterey Bay Aquarium's (MBAYAQ) Seafood Watch program and Oceans Alive, a seafood program of conservation group Environmental Defense (ED).

Seafood rated "eco-friendly" encompass various criteria, but here are a few terms to get you up to speed at the seafood counter:

No By-catch:
By-catch is a term referring to fish that are caught unintentionally (remember the hubbub over dolphin by-catch during tuna catches?)
Some or all of it may be returned to the water, but by that point, it's often dead or dying. An estimated one fourth of the worldwide fishery catch is discarded each year as by-catch, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). What a waste!
Trawling nets are a big culprit, particularly with imported shrimp.

Fish that are being caught faster than they can reproduce, which depletes ocean supply, affecting the future of the marine ecosystem. An example of an overfished fish that continues to be caught: the popular Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian toothfish)


Of the five species of tuna we might see in this country, the highly lucrative bluefin (popular for sushi) is overfished and severely depleted. International quotas are often ignored. A big fat NO.

Mercury, and not just for bluefin. Yellowfin and bigeye are susceptible as well.
Environmental Defense advises no more than one tuna meal per month, with extra caution for women of child-bearing age and children.

"It's [the bluefin tuna] the biggest and longest living of all tunas," says Tim Fitzgerald, a scientist at Environmental Defense. And? according to an article in the FDA Consumer Magazine, a publication of the? U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Larger fish that have lived longer have ?highest levels of methylmercury because it has accumulated over time."

Yellowfin tuna - proceed with caution. Consider the Atlantic mackerel, a relative of the tuna, which is not only less toxic but has rebounded from responsible fishing.



90 percent of shrimp in the US is imported, mainly from southeast Asia and Central and South America.

The issue for both imported and domestic shrimp is method of fishing, which results in enormous by-catch and in certain cases, endangerment of sea turtles and mangroves.

Keep an eye out for black tiger shrimp from southeast Asia, which are particularly known to be fished irresponsibly.

U.S. shrimp -- mostly from Gulf of Mexico and southeast -- has by-catch issues as well, but on a smaller scale. Wild or farmed shrimp is okay.

To date, no contaminants have been reported, according to MBAYAQ and ED. It's also key to know that shrimp, a smaller species with a shorter life span (about 12 months) is fairly low on the food chain and therefore less toxic.

Buy domestic -- wild or farmed. Ask the fishmonger the origin of the fish. If available, Northern shrimp (available in New England) and spot prawns (available in Pacific Northwest) are best eco choices.


Wild: Yes. Copper River salmon, one of the most sustainable species, has begun to arrive from Alaska for its three-month season. King is usually the first to arrive, followed by coho, sockeye, chum and pink varieties.

Caveat: Current cost of about $30 per pound for king, due to increased demand, small populations and rising fuel costs that impact both fishing boats and jet transportation. See Walter Nicholl's report on the price of wild salmon.

Farmed: No. On average, 2 ½-3 pounds of wild fish (for feed) are required to produce one pound of farmed salmon. Other complicating factors include open-net farming, allowing for waste to pass into natural waters and escape of farmed species into the wild, which causes concern for interbreeding.

Wild: Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. Because of Alaska's strict fishery regulations, salmon remains relatively pristine.

Farmed: Advisory for PCBs, pesticides and dioxins. ED recommends no more than ½ salmon meal per month.

Farmed Arctic char, related to both salmon and trout. Although not as rich as salmon, its pink color and meaty flesh might satisfy salmon eaters. Farmed in closed tanks, rather than open nets, which allows for better population control of population and waste treatment.

Grill-able fish that get the red alert on both eco and health grounds (mercury advisories for all) include
Orange roughy, red snapper, Chilean Sea Bass (aka Patagonian toothfish) and swordfish.

Although swordfish and Chilean sea bass have been the focus of two successful conservation campaigns over the past several years, they both remain in jeopardy due to pirate fishing and lax international fishing restrictions.

Try mahi-mahi/dorado or farmed striped bass, which pose fewer contaminant risks. Again, this is for grilling options, not for seafood as a whole.

Other than farmed tilapia (which can be tasteless), you may want to consider farmed shellfish, particularly bivalves -- oysters, mussels and clams -- which are good choices on both ecological and health accounts.

Some general rules of thumb
Diversify and rotate your seafood menu, a good idea on both eco and health accounts.
Choose smaller fish, which are likely to have fewer contaminants.
Ask where the seafood is coming from and how it is caught.
Hook/Line-caught: Good choice
Trawl (net) caught: Usually means by-catch


Seafood shopping cards:

Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch (now available by region)

Pocket Seafood Selector from Environmental Defense

Seafood Guide from Blue Ocean Institute is a non-profit dedicated to methylmercury contamination in seafood and offers a mercury calculator on its Web site based on body weight and seafood choice

To get a sense of what the government is saying about these issues:

EPA Fish Advisory

FDA Fish Advisory

By Kim ODonnel |  May 31, 2006; 12:00 PM ET Seafood
Previous: Catch of the Day, Part One | Next: Caviar Dreams


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Thanks for highlighting these issues with seafood. I've been a user of Monterey Bay's list for a while now and have found it extremely helpful. I had not known about the option of choosing farmed Arctic char. I'll have to give that a try. Does anybody know of markets that carry it?

Posted by: Austin Hill | May 31, 2006 2:40 PM

You list "Hook/Line Caught" as "Eco Friendly" yet long line boats do have large by-catch of protected and threatened species. Purse sein nets which have been largely eliminated due to marine mammal protections actually had the least by-catch, now we have long line boats setting 10 miles of line with a baited hook every fifty feet that does not discriminate.

Posted by: Richard | May 31, 2006 6:23 PM

Richard, thanks for commenting. Actually, it depends on what's being fished. For example, with shrimp, hook-and-line fishing is preferable over trawl nets can reduce amount of by-catch. You touch, though, on how complicated it can get in this discussion of fishing methods, as you mention with the purse sein nets. Happy to keep this conversation going, as I remain a student of this topic myself.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 1, 2006 7:44 AM

Hi Kim. Thank you for this important article. In this country we are pretty far removed from the origins of our food. With seafood this is especially relevant, as there is a tendency to forget that we are eating WILD animals, not like chickens, cows, etc.. How we catch things, and how many we catch has a tremendous impact on overall ocean health, on the futures of marine animals, and ultimately on our own future food security and health.

You're right that it's difficult to know what you're buying / eating and what's good or bad. There has been a lot of resistance to labeling seafood origins, and little government support for this. Only recently have I started seeing the country of origin listed in the glass case at the supermarket. In order for consumers to be able to make good choices we need better labeling of the origins of our seafood. A fish is not a fish is not a fish! I personally believe it is a basic right of consumers to know where their food comes from, and I think we should all be putting pressure on the FDA to make this mandatory. Arguably our greatest power in this world is through what we consume, and it is important to be selective. Thanks for the opportunity to submit a comment.

Posted by: Brian | June 1, 2006 5:41 PM

I also wanted to respond to the discussion on fishing methods... Is there really such thing as hook-and-line caught shrimp? I know there is such a thing as trap caught shrimp (a rare thing), and obviously trawl caught, and farm-raised, but I don't think you can catch shrimp on a hook. The term "hook and line" often refers to small-scale hook fisheries, such as pole-fishing...the kind you would do off the back of a boat or dock. Longline fishing is usually categorized separately and with the industrial fisheries. That technique is used principally to catch swordfish, tuna, and sharks, and indeed is among the most destructive. So yes, it depends on the species being fished. And yes, it is confusing.

Posted by: Brian, again | June 1, 2006 5:50 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company