How to Make Sustainable Seafood Choices at the Fish Market

By Carl Safina, "Sea Change," March/April 2010

The seafood we eat has an enormous impact on our health today and the health of our oceans tomorrow.

"Thanks for a great article. Sure hope lots and lots of people read it. I've been eating sardines all my life (am now 74) and doctors are always amazed at how good my good cholesterol is. I tell them it's all the sardines I've eaten -...

Pledging to Eat Right

This may take a sea change in how we eat. Last fall, more than two dozen top chefs, including Alton Brown, Rick Bayless, John Ash and Barton Seaver, pledged not to serve any fish on Seafood Watch’s red “avoid” list. That means no more farmed salmon. Goodbye to Chilean sea bass and red snapper. Orange roughy and monkfish are also off their menus. Walmart, which currently spends $259 billion on sustainably sourced seafood, has pledged that it will purchase all wild-caught fish for the U.S. market from Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified fisheries by 2011. It will also work with Global Aquaculture Alliance and Aquaculture Certification Council, Inc. to certify that all foreign shrimp suppliers adhere to Best Aquaculture Practices standards in the U.S. Gradually, food-service giants, such as Sysco, Compass Group and Aramark, are making the shift too.

Will It Work?

It has before. In the late 1990s, when Atlantic swordfish reached an all-time low, environmental groups and high-profile chefs began working together to promote a ban on eating swordfish. They reduced demand enough to soften the price and bring commercial fishing groups to the bargaining table. Environmental groups also won a lawsuit to close fishing areas where juvenile swordfish congregate. Consequently, swordfish numbers are about 150 percent of what they were in the mid-1990s. The population is rebounding and may soon be sustainable again.

Around that same time, a conservation magazine asked me to create a list that evaluated popular seafood from most sustainable to least. Before that, a piece of fish was simply a piece of fish. You didn’t think about it, you just ate it, like a piece of bread. Today that database has grown and spawned various regional sub-lists, making it easier for consumers to make the right choices.

And America’s fisheries have gotten better, realizing that their own future livelihood is at stake. Though they still have problems, they also have some of the better management rules in the world. U.S. fisheries must now be evaluated biannually, and since 2006 federal fishery managers have been required to establish annual catch limits that allow depleted populations to begin rebuilding. Better yet, they’re required to end all overfishing in U.S. waters this year. Alaska, the state with the highest seafood landings, has perhaps the best-managed fisheries in the world, with tight quotas, strict environmental regulations and close monitoring so that fisheries are closed before they exceed critical limits.

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