You may have decided to buy wild vs. farmed salmon but finding other sustainable seafood isn’t an easy task. At present the USDA has no organic certification program for seafood (an organic seafood label may mean nothing or that the fish was certified “organic” overseas). For sound environmental information, go the Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch websites. At the fish counter, look for the labels listed below.
Blue Ocean Institute, led by noted marine biologist Carl Safina, has a Guide to Ocean-Friendly Seafood that gives each species of fish a green (good), yellow or red (avoid) rating. For example, green fish are relatively abundant and their fishing or farming methods do little damage to natural habitats and other wildlife; a “red” rank means the species is subject to overfishing or is farmed using methods that harm the environment or wild fish. Search the guide (and download a wallet-size card of it) at blueoceaninstitute.org/seafood—or by entering fishphone.org into your PDA browser.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommends fish based on current scientific data on environmental and health concerns and direct interactions with fishery and fish-farm operators. Visit the website montereybayaquarium.org or access its guides on your cell phone at seafoodwatch.org.
Fisheries and fish farms sporting this label have paid to be certified for the condition of available stocks, the management system and the impact on the environment. Products can be traced directly back to the source.
Eco-benefits: The statistics on global fish stocks are grim: 52 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited, which means that they are being fished at their maximum biological capacity; 24 percent are overexploited, meaning they are depleted or recovering from depletion; and 21 percent are moderately exploited.
Is it regulated? Yes. The agency certification lasts for five years with yearly audits.
Keep in mind: Fish without the label may be equally sustainable but the farms and fisheries from which they came might have chosen not to invest in certification.
This label is for farmed shrimp, catfish and tilapia, raised without antibiotics and in conditions that exceed local environmental regulations. Plants that process the fish employ safe-packaging practices to reduce risk of foodborne illnesses.
Eco-benefits: Historically, shrimp, catfish and tilapia farming have caused considerable environmental damage to the biodiversity of wetlands by disturbing sediment, impacting mangroves where wild fish spawn or, in the case of shrimp, scraping the bottoms through drag netting. Only farms prohibiting practices that harm natural habitats are eligible for the label.
Is it regulated? Yes. Site inspections and audits implemented by the nonprofit Aquaculture Certification Council ensure that farms and processing plants meet environmental and safety standards.
Keep in mind: The label applies only to farmed—not wild—shrimp and fish.
Look for the MSC blue eco label. The independent, nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifies wild fisheries that are well-managed and sustainable. At present it does not look at farmed fish. All fish sold in the U.S. should contain less than the Food and Drug Administration’s safe methylmercury limit of 1 ppm, but not every fish is analyzed. Seafood with this label has been tested for mercury levels and has met Safe Harbor’s standard for that specific species—a threshold that’s lower than the FDA’s 1 ppm “action level” and the average mercury content level for that type of fish.
Health benefits: Reduced exposure to mercury, which may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system.
Is it regulated? Yes. Only fish that have been tested for mercury and meet the standards get the stamp.
Keep in mind: The label does not necessarily mean that the fish you’re buying is low in mercury; it just means it’s lower than average for that species. For example, it’s prudent for pregnant women to avoid all swordfish (which is very high in mercury)—even that which bears the Safe Harbor seal.
Carl Safina’s Blue Ocean Institute (blueocean.org) and Seafood Watch (seafoodwatch.org) have handy wallet-size guides for seafood and sushi that you can download or order.
Text 30644 with the word “fish” followed by a space and the seafood you are considering. In about 10 seconds you will get up-to-date information from the Blue Ocean Institute, which has facts and sustainability ratings for more than 90 species of seafood.