Your Guide to Eating Sustainable Seafood

Jane Marsh - January 31, 2024

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There are so many types of seafood to choose from — fish, lobster, clams, and more. Then, you have to pick between farm-raised or wild-caught specimens. Finding sustainable seafood can feel so overwhelming that it’s helpful to have a guide! Here’s how to navigate the complicated waters of eating seafood. 

Buy From Specific Countries

One way to help you find more eco-friendly seafood is to look for products from certain countries. Although it’s not a foolproof method, choosing seafood from nations with strong farming and fishing laws is a great starting point.

For instance, the United States has the National Aquaculture Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act in place. Between all of them, these regulations crack down hard on unsustainable fishing and farming practices. 

Other countries with tight fishing regulations include Australia, Iceland, Norway, and New Zealand. 

Use the MBA Seafood Watch as a Guide

The Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) publishes a reputable seafood guide on its website. The Seafood Watch — often considered the gold standard for seafood labeling — uses a color-coding system to rate products according to their sustainability. 

The labels take into account current fishing practices, the environmental impact of harvesting a species, and how well each species is doing overall. The same variety of shellfish or fish may have a different status depending on where it comes from or whether it’s sushi grade. 

Next to each species is a fact sheet about how the animal is fished and where it comes from. The site even lists alternative common names you might hear a species called. For example, it explains that the Almaco jack is also known as Hamachi. 

You can sort through different species by which ones you’d like to avoid or purchase. You can also use the search bar to look up species by name, or narrow the search by harvest method, body of water, country, or region.

Browse the GoodFish Sustainable Seafood Guide

The Australian Marine Conservation Society operates GoodFish, a comprehensive sustainable seafood guide that helps consumers make smart choices. This guide rates species all the way from green — which means they’re good choices — to red, which advises people not to eat them. 

You can sort through species by cooking method, location, and capture method. Clicking on an animal opens up a page of key facts, recipes, and more information about it.

Check Out the Good Fish Sustainable Seafood Guide

U.K.-based Marine Conservation Society’s similarly named Good Fish Guide is an excellent sustainable seafood guide. It gives each type of seafood a rating to help you decide whether you should eat it. If you click on the species’ names, the site will give you a detailed breakdown of where you should buy each one and how they should be caught. 

Try Different Kinds of Fish

In the United Kingdom, 80% of all seafood people eat comes from just five species — salmon, tuna, haddock cod, and prawns. That can put a lot of pressure on their wild populations. Why not try a different type of fish, instead? 

Determining which species are sustainable depends on where the species came from, how it was caught, and where you live, since shipping factors into sustainability as well. Use seafood guides to help you find a new type of seafood to try. Who knows? You might just find your new favorite food!

Look for Third-Party Certifications

A brand may claim to be eco-conscious, but don’t rely on a company’s own labeling to decide if a product is sustainable. Many companies use terms like “humanely raised,” “sustainable,” and “organic” on their packaging, but these phrases often have no legal definitions. This type of greenwashing can mislead customers into believing they’re eating sustainable seafood. 

Instead, look for third-party seals from reputable organizations to help you make sustainable choices. Certifications from the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) organizations mean a product is environmentally friendly. 

Dine on Farmed Mollusks

One of the most sustainable types of seafood you can eat is farmed mollusks. Also called bivalves, this seafood category contains clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops. In contrast to many other seafood sources, bivalve aquaculture — raising mollusks in large baskets or cages in the ocean — can actually be good for the planet. How?

Mollusks absorb excess nitrogen, which often enters the ocean via wastewater or agricultural runoff, and prevent it from polluting the water. Coupled with seaweed farms, bivalve aquaculture can remove 575 pounds of nitrogen per acre. 

Be sure to choose farmed mollusks rather than wild-caught animals when shopping for seafood. Because bivalves live on the seafloor, catching them in the wild often requires dredging, which involves dragging a huge net across the ocean bottom. This technique is ecologically harmful — it catches a lot of unwanted fish and destroys coral. If your oyster chowder came from a farm, however, you’re probably in the clear. 

Choose Local or Flash-Frozen Fish

The species you choose to eat is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. Another quality to look for is how far fish has traveled, since transporting fish entails shipping it in fossil-fuel-powered trucks. Ideally, look for seafood that comes from a nearby body of water. 

If you don’t live near a fresh fish market, look for flash-frozen seafood. Fish that have been flash frozen — that is, frozen quickly at an extremely low temperature — are usually more environmentally friendly than fresh fish. 

That’s because transporting fresh fish to the store requires a refrigerated truck, which consumes considerable energy. But drivers often transport flash-frozen seafood in insulated containers rather than a fridge. 

Flash-frozen seafood also usually has a longer shelf life than fresh fish, too, which helps cut down on food waste. The extremely fast freezing process maintains the fish’s original flavor and texture. 

Finding Sustainable Seafood

Because there are so many varieties of seafood, it’s helpful to use a guide to find the most sustainable options. In general, some ways to choose eco-friendly seafood include buying farmed mollusks, looking for new types of fish you wouldn’t normally try, and buying from countries that impose strong fishing regulations. Using these methods will give you a leg up when deciding between barramundi and banana prawn. 

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.