National Seafood Month: What Does Sustainable Seafood Mean?
Published October 11, 2013
How are you celebrating National Seafood Month?
In this region we have so many options: oysters are in season and crabs are still being harvested through the fall months! If you would prefer to have someone else do the cooking, you are in luck; we are surrounded by an amazing array of seafood restaurants. If you’d rather put your culinary skills to the test, our local supermarkets carry almost anything that comes out of the ocean and you are limited only by your imagination.
No matter what you decide, you should know that the impacts of your choices reach far beyond the particular fish on your plate and that you have the power to help to support both sustainable seafood and healthy oceans. What do we mean by sustainable seafood? Simply put, it is the seafood that is caught or farmed today, in ways that do not compromise the needs of future generations to enjoy that seafood in the years to come. But, there is nothing simple about it.
There are a dizzying number of factors that are considered when determining sustainable seafood – almost as many as the number of organizations and industry groups that have developed their own sustainability certification or eco-label. And while seafood farming, or aquaculture may be one of the best ways to help feed an every-growing human population, it has its own set of unique sustainability considerations.
In the most general terms, a sustainable seafood label for wild-caught seafood needs to take into consideration:
- Abundance of fish being targeted - ensuring that populations are at or are moving toward target levels based on historical abundance
- Current management of the fishery - having plans in place and ensuring that rates of fishing removals are within scientifically determined acceptable levels
- Method of fishing - putting in place sufficient measures to guard against unacceptable levels of bycatch of other species and preventing damage from fishing gear to ocean bottom and other habitats
- Ecosystem impacts - ensuring that sufficient number of species are preserved for "ecosystem services" such as when the target species is important to other species in the marine environment, for example as ocean filters or as forage for other species
The sustainability of farmed seafood also must consider:
- Sustainability of the food needed to grow target species to market size (often including smaller wild-caught fish)
- Habitat impacts of the farms themselves, including impacts on natural habitats, pollution from concentrated waste, use of antibiotics and other treatments, and potential disease transmission threats
- Possibility of escape into local waterways and impacts to native fish populations and habitats
- Adequacy of and compliance with local aquaculture regulations.
How to make sustainable seafood choices
With all of these considerations, how are we supposed to choose the right seafood to feed our families? Which choice will provide a healthy meal without compromising the health of our oceans?
Over the past several years a few tools have been developed to help consumers wade through the available information and to help make informed decisions. While there are several certification programs available, the three that are the most consumer-friendly are the Marine Stewardship Council Eco-label, NOAA Fisheries FishWatch site and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.
Monterey Bay's National Seafood Watch guide.
The Seafood Watch Program has developed a science-based tool to quickly identify which seafood choices are Best Choices (green), Good Alternatives (yellow) and choices we should Avoid (red). Depending on your level of interest, you can quickly identify healthy seafood choices or choose to explore the wealth of information made available through their seafood ranking system.
NOAA's FishWatch website.
Fishwatch provides current facts and figures on status and management programs for all federally managed fisheries. The United States and our domestic fishermen deserve particular credit for our sustainable fishery management policies. Effective in 2012, each federally managed fishery adheres to scientifically determined catch limits and has in place measures to prevent overfishing and where necessary, rebuild depleted stocks.
While these programs are both robust and constantly updated, they have limitations in their ability monitor every commercial fishery. There is no substitute, therefore, in knowing where you seafood comes from, knowing the issues, and learning to make informed decisions on your own.
The next time you visit your local grocery store, check out the seafood case. You’ll probably notice that most of the fish are labeled “wild-caught” or “farmed” along with the location of the fishery or farm. Some stores even have certification labels on the fish they sell. If you don’t see any of this, ask why. Let them know that choosing the right seafood is important to you. Let them know that you want them to be your partner in providing healthy seafood choices for your family – while supporting healthy ocean ecosystems!
Have questions/concerns about purchasing sustainable seafood? Leave them for me in the comments section!