Sustainable Seafood: Eat All About It

The health of our global ocean is tied to the choices you make at the seafood counter. Choose wisely!

  • Conservation

From oysters to rockfish, Maryland's love affair with seafood is legendary—and for good reason! Situated around the Chesapeake Bay and nestled along the Atlantic coast, our region boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fish, shellfish and our favorite iconic crustaceans: blue crabs. The waterways of the Chesapeake have provided both sustenance and an enduring way of life for generations, and with good stewardship we can balance wild harvest with cultivation of edible ocean resources, or aquaculture.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aquaculture is the breeding, rearing and harvesting of fish, shellfish, algae and other organisms in all types of water environments.

Aquaculture is one of humankind's best options for supplying a burgeoning global population with safe, reliable sources of edible protein. However, if conducted irresponsibly, aquaculture can pose a range of conservation problems, from runoff to reef damage and food web disruptions. The good news is that there are many sustainable farmed seafood options and readily available resources to help us make good choices when selecting wild and farmed seafood for consumption at home. Choosing sustainable seafood is good for your health and the health of our blue planet.

Watermen handling an oyster cage on a boat
Chesapeake Bay watermen like those seen here have made their living raising and harvesting oysters and other seafood for generations.

Something Fishy

Humankind's growing appetite for fresh, affordable seafood from around the world year-round has created a booming $160 billion industry—and a strain on our global ocean. There are well-managed sources of wild-caught seafood, but they cannot fully meet the growing global demand for ocean nutrition. However, increasing consumer demand for sustainable seafood has driven improvements in fisheries and aquaculture in the U.S. and around the world.

Fish, seaweed, oyster and other bivalve farming methods can be well-managed and even beneficial to ocean ecosystems. However, if left unregulated, aquaculture can wreak havoc on delicate marine habitats. A primary problem arising from poorly managed aquaculture farms is pollution in the form of nutrient (waste) runoff from crowded commercial farms, which upsets the pH and algal content of natural waterways. Another concern is the leaking of the pharmaceuticals and pesticides used to treat farm-raised fish in crowded conditions into surrounding waters.

Responsibly farmed seafood like these Chesapeake Bay oysters are an important source of reliable protein.

Yet another unfortunate side effect of some types of seafood farming can be the disruption to the natural food web within surrounding habitats. It can take many pounds of tiny wild-caught fish such as sardines and anchovies to feed carnivorous farmed fish such as salmon and tuna. To sustain this cycle, massive quantities of small forage fish are removed from the food web to sustain the farmed fish, leaving wild populations of similar fishes searching for food while smaller organisms that would have been prey for the forage fish are also knocked out of balance.

When a food web suffers the loss of a critical link in this way, the entire web can collapse; when a food web collapses, it can impact the habitat it was supposed to inhabit. Predators and carnivorous fish can die off or move away from an area depleted of their prey, while microorganisms such as algae that should have sustained the smaller trash fish can be left to flourish to the point of overwhelming the system in which they live, causing algal blooms. These blooms can remove necessary oxygen from the water and produce extremely toxic compounds that have harmful effects on fish, shellfish, mammals, birds and even people. Even corals—the very foundation of many critical ocean habitats—are imperiled by decreased ocean oxygen levels.

Every organism within a food web, even the lowly oyster, plays a critical role in the survival of the entire web.

Cold Case Conundrum

Access to locally harvested seafood is a privilege we enjoy here in Baltimore, but Americans' taste for seafood has evolved to include everything from everywhere. Even here in Maryland, standing in front of the seafood case at your local supermarket can be an overwhelming experience. Local oysters and crabmeat may be easy to spot and assess, but what about that farm-raised salmon filet from the Pacific Northwest or the wild-caught mahi-mahi flown up from Florida? What about sea bass from Venezuela?

The good news is that many fish farms, including those in American waters, operate under careful oversight, are well regulated and are able to produce ample product in a sustainable manner. This allows for healthier fishes, which require fewer antibiotics and pesticides. Domestic fish farms are also required to practice environmentally sound filtration and waste management practices, which prevent excess nutrients from entering—and compromising—surrounding waterways.

From ocean or farm to table, choose wild caught local seafood or farmed seafood from U.S. waters first.

So, what about internationally sourced seafood products? Do we need to swear off all farmed fish from other global providers? In a word, no. NOAA Fisheries—which oversees commercial fisheries and marine aquaculture in the U.S.—as well as organizations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program regularly and scientifically assess domestic and international seafood, and have developed reliable guides that allow U.S. consumers to shop confidently, discerning which proteins from which corners of the globe are the best choices for you and your family based upon both their quality and their environmental impact.

Should you find yourself at the seafood counter without a guide in hand, a good rule of thumb is that you can feel good about selecting domestic wild caught and farmed seafood as well as certified imported products. Also, an increasing number of retailers are using a simple color-coded rating system to offer visual cues for selecting safe, sustainable seafood. Green is the best; yellow is good and red is to be avoided. As a result, you may find that markets near you are offering only green and yellow options.

Seafood Savvy

When faced with global issues, from ocean conservation to climate change, some of the most powerful choices available to each of us are the choices we make as consumers. Simple acts, such as carrying reusable tote bags, shopping local at farmers markets and selecting responsibly sourced seafood really can make a difference. When we all embrace smart, sustainable decisions, we're doing our best for our ocean and our families, and when it comes to dinner, that's a delicious win-win.

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