The Challenge of Eating Sustainable Seafood

It's not all that easy to determine sustainability

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By David Hammond

Our preference is to eat sustainable fish. Once we eat a fish species to extinction, it's gone forever.

To figure out what fish are sustainable, we use information provided by Shedd or Monterey Bay Aquariums. This information is distributed via pocket guides and iPhone apps (Monterey Bay has an excellent app: Seafood Watch. It's free).

Monterey Bay's guide indicates which fish are fish are unsustainable and thus ones we should avoid. The "Avoid" category includes such fish as Red Snapper and Chilean Sea Bass.

During a recent visit to Fortune Fish in Bensenville, I found out, alas, that it's not all that easy to determine sustainability from pocket guides or apps.

Mark Palicki of Fortune Fish explained that although Red Snapper, for instance, is listed as "Avoid" on the Monterey Bay site, there are some fisheries that are harvesting Red Snapper in ways that ensure they'll be around for generations to come.  So, Palicki explained, "Let's celebrate those fisheries that are doing it right. If we don't buy fish from them, they won't produce the fish." And that will be bad not only for those of us who like Red Snapper (and I'm on record as appreciating Lalo's Huachinango a la Veracruzana) -- but it will also be bad for the species.

And though Monterey Bay also tells us to avoid Chilean Sea Bass, a notoriously popular and thus over-fished species, Fortune Fish carries the same species of fish, but from sources that are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, the gold standard for determining which fisheries use sustainable practices and are thus worthy of our support.

So figuring out whether seafood is ethical to eat is not easy.

But if you're a person who cares about eating sustainable food (and, personally, I think you should be), Stacy Schultz, formerly of the Shedd and currently Seafood Sustainability Coordinator at Fortune Fish, gave me a few simple steps to ensuring the seafood we're served is sustainable:

1. Purchase seafood from a knowledgeable and trusted fish monger/supplier.

2. Ask questions!  Where did the seafood originate from?  How was the fish caught or raised?

3. Consume a variety of seafood.  Most underutilized and by-catch fish tend to be the most sustainable.

4. Use the seafood ratings and certifications as a guide, not as an absolute.  There are a lot of fisheries and farms out there working towards sustainability that need to be encouraged and supported.

Even though these very sensible rules will not guarantee that you will always be eating sustainable seafood, they're a start. And the more people who make an effort to eat only sustainable seafood, the more likely it will be that some at-risk species will live beyond this generation.

Reader Comments

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: September 14th, 2012 3:25 PM

Yep, They need salt water! Sustainability is a challenge.

Fish Eater from Oak Park  

Posted: September 14th, 2012 2:18 PM

Do you realize the farms are not isolated but in the ocean? I try to buy the line caught stuff not on Shed's avoid list but it's basically twice as expensive. It's almost anti-American to spend a little more and get a little less in the name of quality. So, I doubt it will catch on. We just eat a little less but feel good because we feel we are being more responsible.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: September 14th, 2012 2:01 PM

I support strongly the efforts to sustain fish in the wild, and endorse the fisheries who are breeding fish to support sustainability. I also am dubious about those who make judgment on the diets of sustainable fish. Fish farms have existed for centuries all over the world. If we want to keep eating fish while sustaining fish in the wild, then we have to be absolutely certain that the fish diets are dangerous to humans. That is, certify the fisheries and advise the public of those that are dangerous.

Fish Eater from Oak Park  

Posted: September 14th, 2012 12:44 PM

We try hard to eat sustainable fish and appreciate your difficulties. The problem with farmed fish, which in theory would be sustainable, is that the farms use feed that make the fish harmful to humans. So, that leaves us very limited in our choices.

Tj Tate from St. Augustine  

Posted: September 12th, 2012 1:20 PM

Here Here! regarding the intelligent comments about Red Snapper. I always knew I liked Mark. All you have to do in the Gulf of Mexico is look for the Gulf Wild tag!

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