The Dish on Fish

Consumers are demanding sustainable seafood and finding out how to get it.

By Susan Cosier

Walk into any grocery store, fish market, or seafood restaurant, and chances are good that sustainable fare is not the most prevalent option available. Many fish cases contain Chilean sea bass, halibut, or swordfish—just a few species that used to abound in oceans before our taste for them lead to significantly smaller stocks.

But lucky for our finned friends, a growing number of people are arming themselves with knowledge about the most sustainable fish before they make their purchases.

With help from seafood guides from a number of organizations, shoppers and chefs are driving stores and restaurants to provide more sustainable seafood. This responsible seafood brigade may be small, but it could have a lasting impact on the seafood industry—and on the oceans.

“Many people have heard that there’s stuff wrong with the ocean,” says Carl Safina, the co-president of the Blue Ocean Institute, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization. “Enough of them have a conscience and want to do something productive.”

The growing number of people focusing on ocean-friendly seafood helps motivate businesses to provide sustainable options.

“A lot of people are alarmed that our top seller, the farmed salmon, is labeled red for sustainability,” says Steve Schafer, director of retail operations for Wild Edibles, a seafood company in New York City. “That’s exactly the response that we’re trying to illicit.”

Big stores are taking notice, and making changes, too. Wal-Mart announced earlier this year that within ten years, the company will only sell sustainable seafood. And just last week, the Marine Stewardship Council certified the first sustainable tuna fishery.

Many stores and restaurants carry at least a few good choices, but identifying them might require asking a few questions, such as: Farmed or wild? Pacific or Atlantic? Caught with a net or a line?

There’s help available for concerned fish-lovers. Ten years ago, Safina, a marine scientist and award-winning author, developed a pocket-sized fish guide to help people make the most ocean-friendly seafood choices. Around the same time, the Monterey Bay Aquarium also created a guide. Since then, other organizations have started printing and regularly updating their recommendations, a practice that is increasing the demand for sustainable seafood.

Consumers can start making responsible choices with their wallets by referring to these fish guides. Currently the Blue Ocean Institute; Monterey Bay Aquarium; Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy non-profit; and Chefs Collaborative, a culinary non-profit; all have guides. Almost all of them can fit conveniently in your wallet, and there are merits to each.

The Blue Ocean Institute’s online guide is more extensive than its pocket version, but both include short descriptions of why each fish is labeled the way it is.

“Our seafood guide gives people the rationale behind the rankings,” says Safina. Consumers can then use that information to tell their friends and explain the choices they’re making, he says.

Wild Edibles recently collaborated with the institute to produce the most recent edition of the fish guide. “Many of our customers are applauding us for taking such a bold step,” says Schafer.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has six guides for different areas of the country and one national guide. The aquarium updates them every six months and so far has distributed more than 21 million.

People can make everyday decisions that can help the environment and help promote sustainable fish, says Sheila Bowman, a spokesperson for the aquarium. “The role of the consumer is certainly hugely important,” she says.

Environmental Defense’s guide is much more simplistic. However, in addition to its consumer guide, the organization paired up with Chefs Collaborative to develop a pamphlet called “Seafood Solutions” for chefs looking to serve sustainable cuisine. The organization is coming out with a revised version next year.

“It’s about providing chefs in the greater food community with information to encourage and foster a more sustainable food supply,” says Chefs Collaborative member Bruce Sherman, chef and partner of North Pond Restaurant in Chicago. “Because there’s an issue with limited supply and stock depletion, we should all be concerned with knowing where the supply comes from.”

Not everyone needs to switch to sustainable seafood in order for stores and restaurants to provide better alternatives to species on the brink of collapse. “It doesn’t have to be a majority to make change; it’s not an election,” says Safina. “If the whole market changes because ten percent of people will only buy sustainable food, it is a total victory.”

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Bravo, bravo! It's about time people started paying attention to this issue, and you have brought it into the light, Sus. Way to go...

Thanks to your information about these guides, restaurant-goers in every city in the country can become more aware of sustainable fish--a good beginning!!

Thanks! I don't eat fish, but will pass the info along to my boyfriend, who does.

In addition to avoiding unsustainable seafood choices, also boycott Canadian seafood, such as snow crab, because of the cruel harp seal slaughter conducted by the fishing industry in eastern Canada. For a list of retailers and restaurants that are boycotting some or all Canadian seafood, visit

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