Is There Such a Thing As Sustainable Seafood?

A few years ago I was in attendance at a panel discussion concerning sustainable fishing (this is just the kind of thing I do to pass the time) and the overriding question of the day was, “what fish can we eat without feeling guilty about depleting endangered populations or feeling sick with fear that we are slowly poisoning ourselves?” I think everyone in attendance halfway expected to receive an answer to this nagging compound question by the days end. Sadly that didn’t happen. What this panel of expert chefs, aquaculture experts and junior level scientists essentially conveyed was something far more dubious and unsatisfying. Essentially, the message (and I paraphrase) was that eating seafood in a healthy and sustainable way requires unyielding vigilance, as that goal is an illusive moving target.

The widespread campaigns to bring consumer awareness to the concept of sustainable seafood has gained significant traction and serves as a major influence in how retailers and restaurants market and ultimately sell their seafood wares. Stop by any well-stocked fish counter and you will see organically fed this, or sustainably harvested that. However, according to an article by Nic Fleming in The New Scientist, the advice given to consumers over sustainable seafood is inconsistent at best, and at worst, misleading. There is little consensus on what constitutes a “sustainable” fishery, and this presents an open window for an orgy of mislabeling, misleading information, as well as inconsistencies from producers and marketers alike. The concern is that all of this confusion surrounding sustainable fish (this doesn’t even address concerns over mercury and other contaminants) could be cynically exploited to sell products that do not meet rigorous standards, and fall far short of being what they say they are. The result, like the bandied about term “Greenwashing” gives rise to the oceanic equivalent, “Bluewashing.”

Right about now I could hear the sound of everyone collectively throwing up his or her hands while reaching for a nice 8-ounce seared bluefin tuna steak. Not so fast, while it is hardly a transparent market for seafood enthusiasts out there, there are obvious changes and modifications (not to mention sacrifices) to be made to ensure the longevity of fish populations as well as our own population. There are the fairly obvious and well reported tips like, don’t eat Chilean seabass, orange roughy, and the previously mentioned bluefin tuna, and stay away from imported fish of dubious origins and questionable farming practices. The Monterey Bay Aquarium operates Seafood Watch, with frequently updated reports on the sustainability of available seafood, and the Seafood Choices Alliance provides much needed info and advice for food professionals and restaurants alike.

But considering our options, we are still somewhat vulnerable to misinformation and consumer confusion. Is this a fight we should hand over to our government(s), pushing them to take the lead in preserving depleted sea animal populations and implementing truly sustainable standards and practices? Can we get enough done through consumer awareness and activism, or should we just stop eating fish and seafood for a decade or so? Have you made a personal choice on the matter?



Lisa R.
Lisa Ragsdale5 years ago

Except for one restaurant that is almost right down the street from where I live and trust implicitly, I have quit eating all fish. Up until last fall I was still eating sardines from California. Then I read somewhere that "not even the lowly sardine is safe anymore" due to overfishing. As long ago as the mid-1990's, PBS broadcast a program warning us about the long-lines and illegal fishing by various countries. When I brought this up at a nonprofit organization meeting and dinner, people laughed and asked if I was going to stop eating plants as well. Huh?

Rita White
Rita White6 years ago

Thanks for the article

Linda O.
Linda Owen6 years ago

I wish there were an easy answer.