The world’s fisheries are in danger. Depleted by overfishing and pressured by global warming, they’re shrinking even as more and more people are demanding fish as a healthy alternative to red meat. It might be healthier for people, but what about the environment? What do all those sustainability labels really mean? And which fish species are the best choices for you?
Seafood Watch provides an app, constantly updated with new information, as well as a printable pocket guide, two great options to ensure you’re always prepared. They consider criteria like fish populations, the larger role of fish in the ecosystem, bycatch, fishing and farming practices, and human health when developing recommendations, which vary by region. It’s important to be aware of regional issues when reading sustainable seafood recommendations, as your area may have some unique concerns. (For international readers, the World Wildlife Fund has a number of national guides.)
The Marine Stewardship Council is another organization that works on sustainable seafood and consumer issues, although they have been accused of bluewashing — certifying companies that don’t exactly meet their standards. As a consumer, you should evaluate any source of fish, even one that’s certified, with care. Some questions to ask can include how far the fish has traveled, whether you’re seeing the whole fish or only a cut that might make it hard to identify (fish fraud is a growing problem), and what kind of reputation the fish packing firm has on the market.
But you want to get to the good stuff. Which fish are your best options?
These guys grow fast (good news for replenishment rates) and are found in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They’re also immensely fertile, so don’t feel bad about slapping one or two on the grill!
2. Geoduck clams
They look weird, but they’re tasty, and they’re a sustainable shellfish choice in the Pacific Northwest. Geoduck clams mature reasonably quickly and live for a long time, providing lots of opportunities to reproduce and carry on the species. If you haven’t had them, maybe you should give them a try.
3. Striped Bass
A bit of a fisheries success story, these fish were once heavily depleted. Thanks to careful management in their Atlantic home, they’re considered a sustainable choice by authorities like Blue Ocean. Don’t confuse Striped Bass and Chilean Sea Bass, though, which is not a sustainable choice.
This Florida native prefers warm water, and it has fun in the sun, while it lasts. They mature very quickly, which makes them ideal for fisheries management, and they also reproduce abundantly.
This New Zealand fish is a major product, primarily exported to China. Hoki mature and reproduce quickly, gathering in massive spawning groups to trade genes with others, and these groups make them easy for fishermen to target and harvest.
6. Shrimp — Northern, Pink, and Spot!
Shrimp get around, and fortunately a number of species are considered sustainable (in addition to good) eating. One major concern with shrimp is bycatch, a historic problem with the trawlers used to collect them, and that’s changing through legislation, the development of better fishing equipment and more careful practices. The result? More shrimp cocktails for everyone.
7. Albacore tuna
A stalwart inhabitant of the tinned fish aisle, albacore tuna is also a sustainable option. They grow quickly, especially when compared to other tuna, travel in large packs that make them easy to fish efficiently and reproduce rapidly as well. Thanks to careful fisheries management to cap the harvest before depletion becomes an issue, the fishery is stable.
8. Pacific and Indian sardines
Sardines are famous for being tightly packed in tins — and traveling in massive schools — but they’re also a sustainable seafood choice. And they come fresh, too. These rapid growers and reproducers form an important role in the pelagic food chain, but fortunately there are enough to go around, and humans can enjoy them too.
9. Argentine squid
Don’t blink, or you might miss the short life of an Argentine squid. They generally mature, reproduce and die in under a year, which means they’re less subject to strain on their fishery because they’ve already evolved to keep replacing themselves at a steady rate. If you’re a cephalopod fan, these guys should be your jam.
10. Atlantic herring
Did you know that a lot of tinned fish labeled as “sardines” are actually Atlantic herring? The herring fishery is large, supplying bait for other species along with steaks, preserved fish and other options for human consumers. It’s also a good ethical choice, as the fishery is very well-managed with a low possibility of depletion.
If you really want to give the ocean a break, though, there’s another option: swap out your fish with vegetables once in a while.
Photo of hoki by Flickr user Kristin Brenemen.