Making Sense of Sustainable Seafood

Amanda Fiegl

"Sustainable seafood" is a buzzword these days, but as I've said before, it can be confusing for consumers. Even if you carry around a list of which species to avoid buying—like the handy pocket guides published by Monterey Bay Aquarium—it's difficult to keep track of all the details, caveats and alternate species names. There seems to be nothing clear-cut; take salmon, for example, which I ate last night.

As I approached the seafood counter at Whole Foods, I tried to remember what I knew about salmon. I remembered that farm-raised Atlantic salmon should be avoided, because the coastal pens where they are raised in concentrated populations can spread pollution and disease to wild fish. But there are some exceptions to that rule; the company CleanFish sells "sustainably farmed salmon" from a few producers in Scotland and Ireland.

So, wild-caught Pacific salmon seems best, but again, it depends where it comes from: wild Alaskan salmon is a "best choice" in the Seafood Watch guide, while wild Washington salmon is rated one level down, considered a "good alternative."

One way to cut through such confusion is simply to look for the words "MSC certified" when shopping for fish; the Marine Stewardship Council's standards are strict. I noticed this label on the wild Alaskan salmon on sale this week, and I asked the man behind the counter if they had anything else with this certification.

"Just that and the Chilean sea bass," he answered, which baffled me.

Chilean sea bass (a.k.a. Patagonian toothfish)?!? I thought that was one of the only species that's an obvious no-no because of severely overfishing; it's on the "avoid" and "eco-worst" seafood lists and there was even a national "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign a few years ago. Yet here it was, not only on sale at a store that emphasizes sustainability in its core values; but certified by the MSC.

Clearly, I'd missed something. And now I see what it was: the news, a few years old now, that a lone little fishery in the South Georgia and South Sandwich islands (near Antarctica) has found a way to harvest Chilean sea bass without wiping it out or harming seabirds in the process.

Now that I know this, maybe I'll try the sea bass next time. But I can't help but wonder how many consumers miss the fine print, and simply conclude that since a chain with a reputation for sustainability sells Chilean sea bass, the species must not be in trouble any more—even though it is. And with growing demand for the South Georgia fishery's product (Wal-Mart now buys from them, too), how long can they maintain sustainable catch levels? The MSC just renewed their certification, so apparently this isn't something they're worried about yet.

As an aside, there is one fish species I'm aware of that truly is a clear-cut case from a sustainability perspective. Atlantic bluefin tuna is so overfished in the wild that scientists have advocated a zero-catch policy, warning that the species is on the edge of extinction. (The agency in charge has just reduced the catch quota by one-third, but many fear that is not enough.) Keep that in mind next time you're ordering sushi.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.