Eco-conscious consumers are finding many ways to tread lightly on our planet. There’s been a strong growth in farmers’ markets as “buying local” is seen as a way to support regional producers while reducing carbon pollution. Others are buying foods in season – even better if it’s local too!
A growing segment of the U.S. population is actively seeking out environmentally responsible foods; whether these are organic, free-range, naturally raised or sustainable, green consumers are finding ways to improve their own health and that of the environment.
When it comes to making seafood choices, however, the navigation becomes somewhat trickier since we don’t have the labels we generally use when shopping for other groceries, or when reading a restaurant menu.
Free-range cannot truly apply in the aquatic farm environment, and while approximately half of all seafood consumed worldwide is farmed raised, there are currently no organic standards for seafood in the U.S. Some even argue that the same principles which apply to land-raised animals and produce cannot apply to fish raised in pens.
So what’s the green seafood consumer to do? Over the last 10 years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has distributed over 32 million of its Seafood Watch pocket guides – a handy tool to help in the decision making when it comes to eating seafood.
With seafood there’s no simple rule of thumb – or should that be fin? But there are simple steps to help you find out exactly what you’re buying.
It’s important to know where your seafood is from and whether it was farmed or wild-caught. Knowing if a product is imported or from the U.S. can help you make a better choice. In general, U.S. regulations for both wild-capture fisheries and fish farms mean that your choice could be a better one than a similar imported product.
That said, in the case of seafood, local is not always better. While the carbon footprint may be lower than that of a fish transported across the country, that’s of little comfort if the fish you’re buying is older than your grandmother and from an endangered population!
That’s where the consumer guides to sustainable seafood really come into their own. The average consumer cannot be expected to know that fish which appear to be plentiful – after all, they’re found on every menu and in every fish counter – are in fact from depleted stocks, or from farms where they’re fed more fish than they produce.
Behind each of the recommendations you’ll find on a Seafood Watch guide is a peer-reviewed scientific report that gathers the data on the population of the species, how it’s fished or farmed and what the consequences are of continuing to consume it.
If you choose from the green or yellow list then you’re supporting healthier fisheries or farms; voting with your wallet, if you will. By avoiding red-listed items you are sending a message to the producer that you would like them to fish or farm in more responsible ways.
There are a number of sustainable guides to seafood available to consumers outside the U.S. While a number of species are common around the world, many are regionally specific and so finding the right guide for you is key. Even in the U.S. there are a number of regional variances, which is why the Monterey Bay Aquarium has six guides to choose from (and a national sushi guide too!)
But did you know that a staggering 80 percent of all the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported? That has a lot to do with our three favorite seafood items: tuna, shrimp and salmon. Sadly, much of the shrimp and salmon we eat comes from overseas farms that negatively impact the surrounding environment and are usually to be found on the red “avoid” list.
Doing the right thing isn’t always easy. Sometimes a trip to the market can seem like a full-time job if you take the time to gather all the data needed to make a responsible choice. But be proud of the fact that you know that all the small things you do truly make a difference.
Look for guidance like the blue eco-label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for certified sustainable fisheries, and use a pocket guide or a Seafood Watch iPhone app to help you fish for solutions!
Businesses frequently tell us that when their customers ask them about their buying choices, it does encourage them to change. At the end of the day, they’re here to serve you. Let them know you want sustainable seafood.
photo credit: istock
by Alison Barratt, The Monterey Bay Aquarium