7 Questions You Should Ask About Your Seafood Before You Buy It
Finding healthy, sustainable seafood at the supermarket can be a difficult task. The problem isn’t that there aren't any good options; it’s that recognizing the best choices is tricky. For example, is farmed fish a good thing or a bad thing? What does it mean if the package says organic? Here's what you should consider when buying seafood, and how to choose the catch for that’s best for the ocean and your family.
At first glance, wild-caught fish sounds like the more sustainable, natural option, but that’s not always the case. Everything depends on what kind of fish you’re talking about, the fishing or farming method used, and where the fish comes from. For example, wild-caught Pacific cod from Alaskan waters is considered a solid, sustainable choice, but wild-caught Pacific cod from Japan and Russia are on the don’t-buy list due to overfishing.
The same goes for all wild Atlantic cod. But farmed Atlantic cod, on the other hand, is a good choice because it's raised in closed tanks, which have fewer issues with disease and water contamination than fish raised in open net pens.
Sound confusing? Absolutely. To make navigating the waters of seafood shopping easier, download the Seafood Watch app. You easily search for the type of fish you’re buying to find the most eco-friendly option. The app can direct you to reputable fishmongers in your area, too.
The environmental nonprofit group Food and Water Watch has named the “dirty dozen” worst seafood choices you can make. These are fish that fail to meet two or more of the group’s criteria for safe and sustainable seafood. Red flags include species overfishing, pollution from farming methods, and contamination concerns, such as high mercury levels. Among the worst offenders are caviar, imported farmed shrimp, and Atlantic bluefin tuna. Read more about the 12 fish you should never eat.
Yes, fish fraud is a real thing. Sometimes unethical sellers will try to pass off cheaper fish for expensive, more desirable varieties. Often this is a case of swapping a more abundant, usually less-sustainable fish for a rarer one, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, such as mislabeling farm-raised salmon as wild-caught Alaskan salmon or pretending talapia is red snapper. The EDF advises looking out for prices that seem too good to be true, out-of-season fish (like fresh wild Alaskan salmon in winter), and outright false labels (like wild Atlantic salmon, which is endangered and not available at all
According to the World Health Organization, eating seafood is the number one way people are likely to be exposed to mercury. Mercury is toxic to the nervous system, and even small amounts can cause serious health problems, particularly for fetuses and children. If you’re wondering how mercury even ends up in fish in the first place, it’s largely due to emissions from coal-fired power plants, according to the United States Geological Survey. Burning coal releases mercury into the atmosphere where it combines with water particles. Rain carries the mercury into oceans and rivers, where algae, fish, and other organisms absorb it from the water.
The best rule of thumb for avoiding mercury is that small fish contain less mercury than big fish due to the principle of biomagnification; when a big fish eats a smaller fish, the mercury gets passed up the food chain, so large predators accumulate more. Check out this handy chart from the Natural Resources Defense Council to see which fish have the least amount of mercury and how often it’s safe to eat them.
The Marine Stewardship Council is an international nonprofit that gives its seal of approval to fisheries that protect our oceans by using sustainable fishing practices. In order to earn the seal, fisheries are independently certified using the MSC’s criteria, which looks at whether the target species is healthy and if fishing practices are harming other sea creatures. However, there have been criticisms from various environmental groups that the MSC has actually certified fisheries even if the target fish are in trouble or despite minimal information on how the fishery is impacting the environment. Still, the label does ensure that the fish you’re buying is really what the label says it is and can be traced back to a legal fishery, according to DNA data released by the MSC.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported from countries with lax fishery management laws, like China. Due to the lack of restriction, many species are overfished.
There’s also the issue of bycatch—when unwanted species like dolphins or whales are captured in fishing nets. In the US, fishermen must take precautions to protect marine mammals, but these kinds of rules are not always enforced abroad.
Imported fish increasingly come from under-regulated factory farms, too, which are associated with heavy antibiotic use, high levels of chemical exposure, and environmental destruction.
In most cases, you should buy fish from US waters; you’ll be able to spot it thanks to mandatory country-of-origin labeling.
If you see “organic” seafood, it’s an import. The USDA currently does not have organic standards for fish (though they are currently under consideration). Part of the issue is that, when it comes to the sea, organic is very hard to define. For example, wild-caught fish are excluded from any future organic label because it’s impossible to know what wild fish are eating. So can organic farmed fish be fed wild fish? It’s a complicated question. If you see fish claiming to be organic in the supermarket, they’re likely from Canada or the EU, which have their own organic seafood standards.