Awareness about where your seafood comes from and how it’s caught or raised—with the hope of netting more sustainable options—“is, perhaps, one of the most direct ways that a single person can affect the health of the ocean,” says Timothy Fitzgerald, director of the Impact Division at the Environmental Defense Fund. Here are some tips: Before heading to the fishmonger, check with the EDF Seafood Selector (Seafood.edf.org) or the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program (Seafoodwatch.org). These groups can steer you toward sustainable options like sablefish and Pacific cod and away from species like imported shrimp and Atlantic halibut that come with some environmental baggage.
Though farmed seafood often gets a bad rap, many environmental organizations green-light several not-so-wild species. “There are lots of great sustainable and affordable farmed seafood options that people should know about and eat more of,” Fitzgerald says. Prime examples are rainbow trout, mussels, arctic char, and U.S. catfish, which are farmed in ways that minimize negative environmental impact. There are now better-performing salmon farming operations, but overall it is still best to cast your line for wild.
When possible, spend your dollars at retailers that set higher standards for the seafood they sell. When dining out, Fitzgerald recommends surfing over to the James Beard Smart Catch program (Jamesbeard.org/smart-catch-committed-restaurant-page), which has a growing list of restaurants committed to populating their menus with seafood from sustainably managed fisheries. Some food manufacturers, including LoveTheWild, are giving consumers more options for transparent, ocean-friendly seafood meals at the supermarket. Joining a community-supported fishery if available (Localcatch.org), modeled on community-supported agriculture programs, is also an excellent way to know exactly where your fish comes from, who caught it, and how.
More than half the seafood consumed in America comes from just four species: salmon, shrimp, tuna, and tilapia. But Fitzgerald stresses that ocean waters are home to an abundance of other delicious and sustainable fish species like mullet and lingcod. “By choosing to eat under-appreciated species more often we can minimize environmental stressors like overfishing and help support U.S. fisheries,” he says.
As for stuff like mercury that you’d rather not serve for dinner, you can generally lower your exposure by eating smaller-sized fish. “Mercury magnifies up the food chain, so predatory fish like shark and larger species of tuna usually have disproportionately more mercury than that of their prey,” Fitzgerald explains.
And don’t forget that many fish have seasons. Fortunately, blast freezers that quickly drop the temperature of fresh fish brought onboard have changed the game, making frozen sustainable seafood like wild salmon and barramundi a more budget-friendly option and, in fact, sometimes better quality than fish sold “fresh” that’s been sitting on ice a bit too long.