Choosing Sustainable Fish
July 1, 2012

Atlantic Cod photo from The Guardian

During the summer months, my family seems to focus on only two things: beaching and eating. The beaching part is fun and easy, but the eating part can be a bit of a challenge with so many different dietary requirements. Like many families, we like to grill outdoors as often as possible. The vegetarians in the house throw on veggie burgers, veggie dogs, and kebabs. The carnivores, as I call them, like my son, husband, and pup, Jupiter, love their humanely raised burgers, steaks, and chicken. But they especially like grilled fish. Recently, I got to thinking about the origins of that fish and the ramifications of making the right choices for my family.

When I was a kid, almost all of the fish we ate was fresh and caught locally. Growing up in New England meant that we ate a lot of cod, flounder, and clams. As time marched on and fishing practices became more technologically advanced allowing for larger hauls, more fish were caught and more species began to show up in the supermarkets, like blue fin tuna and swordfish. Additionally, better methods of refrigeration and transport allowed for fish to be flown in from great distances. This allowed for fish like Chilean Sea Bass and Red Snapper to become readily available to consumers wanting to try something new and tasty.

But what happened in some circumstances was that, over time, we got really good at fishing. State of the art fishing boats, GPS devices, and huge dragging trawler nets have caused us to over-fish some of the species that were once so abundant. Efficient boats that can also process fish on-board, refrigerate or freeze them, and ship abroad have become commonplace. All of this, coupled with global warming, habitat disruption and erosion, pollution, and a public with a seemingly insatiable appetite for seafood has put many species in peril. Our once abundant cod is now listed as “vulnerable,“ threatened,” and “endangered” in most areas of the planet.

In the past decades, one reaction to the problem of freshwater and ocean overfishing has been an increase in farm-raised fish. While this has resulted in the abundance and affordability of many types of fish, like salmon, tilapia, and shrimp, it has a number of drawbacks. First of all, farm-raised fish are often reared in large numbers in a small, unnaturally-sized area—usually in tanks or other enclosures. As it is with factory farming of other animals such as chickens and cows, aquaculture does not foster normal behaviors to exist in species. Also, the amount of waste produced by such overcrowding of animals often makes for unhealthy water conditions in which the fish live. And to get the biggest fish possible for market, the fish are often fed unnatural foods in large amounts, resulting in big fish that are not necessarily healthy. Because farm-raised populations live so unnaturally and in such confinement, the fish are also exposed to a wide variety of parasites and bacteria that threaten their health.

We should all think before we buy so as to allow for suffering populations of fish to rebound and flourish once again. If you do choose to eat fish, you should strongly consider sustainable fish—ones that are not raised in the harsh conditions of fish farms, ones that are caught in sustainable quantities, and ones that are allowed to replenish populations through healthy levels of reproduction. Fish are animals, too! They need to be respected and treated humanely.

Three things you can do to help:

1.    Learn which fish species are the most sustainable!  Each year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium produces it’s “Seafood Watch” list, which categorizes fish species by area into groups of “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives,” and ones to “Avoid.” It is a great list that is current and handy as a downloadable pocket guide. See:
Today, many grocery stores will label fish as “wild-caught” or “farm-raised,” so pay attention, and know your facts!

2.    READ! There is a great abundance of material online and at your library about aquaculture and ichthyology (the study of fish). Visit your local aquarium to get up-close and personal with our ocean friends. There is much to experience with our gilled friends!

3.    Teach others! As crazy as it seems, some people don’t regard fish as animals. But, fish are indeed fabulous, feeling creatures entitled to a peaceful existence and humane treatment from all of us. Share your knowledge of what you learn about sustainable fish with friends and family. Teach others about the benefits of choosing wisely.

For more information:

The Atlantic

Monterey Bay Aquarium

New England Aquarium

NOAA Fish Watch

TIME Magazine:

World Wildlife Fund (WWF):