Your local seafood market may seem like it is intent on causing you a headache. Have you compared two seemingly identical fillets of salmon or tilapia, one wild-caught and the other farm-raised, and wondered how to decide between the two before appearing indecisive in front of the fishmonger? There is good reason to be confused. The diversity of species we consume and of farm- and commercial-fishing practices means that no rule of thumb for sustainability applies across all seafood. However, my defined sustainable health categories—human health, ecosystem health, and community health—can help guide your decision.
From a human-health perspective, the largest concerns reside with farmed fish and the conditions under which the fish are raised. Most local fish markets should be able to provide information regarding their seafood vendors and their operations. Key indicators to consider when assessing the quality of your farmed-fish source are freedom of movement of the fish, the refreshing of habitat water, and the fishmeal used to feed the fish. The Global Aquaculture Alliance administers a best practice certification—BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices)—that can help guide your decision.
From an ecosystem-health perspective, the number and complexity of pressures that fishing or harvesting practices exert on an ecosystem is too much for a consumer to assess. Even within a single important ecosystem-health indicator, like stability of population size, there can be disagreement among trained scientists. If you prioritize ecosystem health, the most assured way to decrease your environmental impact is to simply reduce the quantity of fish that you consume. You may also look to certifications such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard for sustainable fishing practices.
From a community-health perspective, it is important to recognize that the growth of farm fishing may displace a local wild-caught industry. For example, if you travel through Alaska, which is known for its carefully regulated salmon fisheries and economy, you will likely come across a T-shirt or bumper sticker that reads “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish.” If you are concerned about community health, try to get to know the community where your seafood comes from. You may be lucky enough to live close to a seafood share that operates like a farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Core Sound Seafood in North Carolina is a great example of this practice. However, bear in mind that there is not enough wild-caught fish to meet global demand. Some amount of farmed fish is necessary to meet the global community’s needs.
- Ask questions. Build a strong relationship with your local seafood vendor and ask questions—this makes you a better purchaser and your fishmonger a better supplier.
- Do your research. Research certifications (like those mentioned above) that align with your sustainable health priority and allow those certifications to guide your purchasing decisions.
- Eat less. Reduce your seafood consumption to three ounces per serving.