Learning about sustainable seafood options can be daunting: many popular wild fish species have been depleted; much fish farming is done in an unsustainable manner; and more than 80 percent of seafood in the US is imported from other countries, often with questionable health, safety, labor and environmental standards. However, by doing a little research on your own using the consumer seafood guides listed below, and by directly asking restaurants and markets about where their fish comes from and how it was caught or farmed, you can find healthy and sustainable seafood.
Fishing has a long history in the US, from Native American traditions to the fishing cultures of many immigrant populations in the US. Today, intricate new fishing technologies exist, like bottom cameras, that serve as fish finders. Some of the newer methods of catching fish are more ecologically friendly than others. For example, fishermen can choose and modify gear that can specifically target certain fish types rather than catching (and potentially harming or killing) a variety of marine life unnecessarily. 1
Certain methods of fishing unintentionally catch and kill non-target fish or other marine wildlife. Known as bycatch, these fish or marine wildlife are caught accidentally, are unwanted or are not legal to keep due to various regulations, and are thus thrown back into the water, dead or dying. Yet, environmentally-friendly fishing methods (with much less bycatch) do exist and can even help protect wild fish populations.
You can choose to buy fish caught by more sustainable fishing gear, such as troll, bandit, hand line, trap, spear gun and rod and reel. These types of fishing gear often have lower levels of bycatch associated with them, because they are constantly attended to, and unwanted fish can be more easily and quickly released, increasing their chances of survival. Reducing bycatch can also contribute to healthier fish populations in the future. Many of these methods also cause less damage to ocean bottom habitat: less seafloor damage means a more intact environment for marine wildlife. And since US fisheries generally have higher sustainability standards than those around the world, US wild-caught fish generally make for a more sustainable choice, compared with imported varieties.
To help fight the problem of bycatch and environmental degradation due to fishing gear types, ask restaurants and markets how their fish is caught. Or, use one of the many sustainable seafood guides referenced below to help guide their choices in purchasing sustainable seafood.
In the US, the five types of seafood consumed most often include: shrimp, salmon, tuna, tilapia and pollock. These fish species face increased pressures from overfishing, harmful catch methods, pollution and habitat destruction. For example, the collapse of the Atlantic cod, beluga sturgeon and Atlantic bluefin tuna fisheries have dramatic economic and ecological consequences. 2 Despite many successful fishery recovery stories — like the Atlantic swordfish, which was once on the brink of extinction but is now thriving thanks to interventions like fishing quotas — overfishing remains a serious problem. 3 Other less popular edible species, called “trash fish” by some, have healthy populations and could help relieve pressure on the top five seafood species. 4
Despite efforts to maintain sustainable wild fishing, past practices have left certain species vulnerable to overfishing. Overfished stocks need to be allowed to recover; in other words, some fishing is allowed, but at reduced levels to help maximize the number of fish, which can help to rebuild a population on the whole. Stocks of fish are managed by using catch limits to reduce the chance of overfishing and increase biological and economic sustainability of wild fishing. Since 2000, 41 stocks of fish have been rebuilt. However, since 2016, the 30 stocks of fish on the overfishing list and the 38 stocks on the overfished list are at all-time lows. 5
The US is a world leader in efforts to keep its wild fish stocks sustainable. Wild species are monitored and managed to maintain healthy fish populations. 6 To do this, management plans work to consider the impact on communities and to prevent overfishing, rebuild stocks, minimize bycatch and conserve habitat. The US also plays an important role in international fishing agreements to achieve global fishing goals. 7
Because fish and other seafood are a globally shared resource, there have been major declines in popular species due to overfishing, habitat loss and pollution. In an effort to address depleted wild fish populations while meeting the public demand for seafood, various other methods of fishing and other seafood production have become popular — collectively dubbed “fish farming.”
Fish farming refers to growing fish in captivity for food and other human uses. Fish farming is as old as civilization: for example, 5,000 years ago, Chinese villagers trapped carp in artificial lakes that formed when flooded rivers receded. Today, similar practices occur in near-shore or on-shore operations worldwide. More recently, there has been the addition of deep water fish farms, further off shore.
In the US, we have many forms of fish farms that raise species, such as oysters, clams, mussels and salmon. 8 However, offshore facilities are less common, and aquaculture in the US is still fairly small in scope compared with fish farming around the world.
More than 90 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported, and of that, most is farm-raised. 9 Most imported shrimp comes from Asia and Latin America, where the farms have poor labor conditions, use assorted chemicals (some of which the US deems toxic) and cause environmental damage. Farm-raised shrimp are grown in large man-made ponds along coastal areas, often damaging fragile and important ecosystems, including mangrove forests. Many of the inputs used in shrimp farming can have negative effects on human health and the environment. When ponds are drained to collect the shrimp, polluted water (often containing antibiotics and pesticides) is released into the surrounding environment.
Imported shrimp may contain harmful bacteria or be contaminated with drugs. In 2015, Consumer Reports conducted tests on US and imported shrimp and found that 60 percent of raw shrimp tested positive for bacteria that can cause food poisoning, including: Salmonella, Vibrio, Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. Five percent of all imported raw shrimp that was tested contained illegal antibiotic residues. 10
The best approach to making sustainable seafood choices is to know your seafood. Rather than eating imported farmed shrimp, look for shrimp or prawns that were either wild caught or sustainably farmed in the United States. Talk to your local fish market to find out where its shrimp came from and how the local shrimp it carries were caught or farmed.
Plagued by disease, parasites and mass fish escapes, farmed salmon has become a poster child for environmentally irresponsible fish farming. About two-thirds of the salmon consumed in the United States is farmed, primarily in Norway, Chile or Canada. 11 Salmon are usually grown in large net pens moored in coves or inlets. Fish waste, disease and uneaten feed, which all flow out of these nets, can (and do) pollute the surrounding environment. Farmed salmon, living in close quarters in the nets, are more susceptible to diseases and parasites, such as sea lice, which can be transmitted to wild salmon near the farm. In fact, Alaska and Washington State have banned salmon farms to protect wild salmon populations.
If producers treat their farmed salmon with antibiotics, there can be a variety of negative impacts including contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria; disseminating antibiotics into the surrounding waters; and residual concentrations of antibiotics remaining in the seafood itself. 12
Salmon production can also increase fishing pressure on wild stocks of other fish species, because it takes between one-and-a-third to five pounds of fish (which are turned into feed) to raise one pound of farmed salmon. 13 When choosing salmon, look for wild-caught Alaskan salmon because the fishery there is generally well managed and sustainable.
Shellfish farming (including oysters, clams and mussels) is not considered ecologically harmful. In fact, farmed shellfish can have big environmental benefits, making it a good seafood option for consumers interested in sustainability. As filter feeders, shellfish can help improve local water quality and restore marine ecosystems. In recognizing these benefits, programs have been developed to create restoration sites. New York State, for example, has the “Restore New York Shellfish” program to “help improve water quality, restore shellfish populations and biodiversity and create new jobs and educational opportunities for more resilient coastal communities.” 14 Wild shellfish that have been collected by hand, with hand rakes or diver caught, are also a good choice.
Farmed fish make up about 50 percent of the seafood consumed globally. 15 While it is possible to farm fish sustainably, particularly in contained tanks on land where inputs and outputs can be controlled, many farmed fish have been produced in ways that damage the environment and threaten human health. Known as “open water aquaculture” or “open ocean fish farming,” this practice uses a large open structure or net to contain a fish species in otherwise open water, to grow the fish to a harvestable size.
Open water fish farming can cause environmental harm in various ways. First, it can pollute the environment with nutrients contained in fish excrement, spread parasites and disease, be a source of escaped fish and affect natural habitats for wild fish. 16 Feeding farmed fish food made with fishmeal can impact fish populations in the wild. About 20 million tons of wild seafood (a quarter of the world’s catch) is used for fishmeal production each year, and of that an estimated 70 percent is used in aquaculture. 17 Also, water bodies can be polluted as a highly concentrated number of fish excrete into surrounding waters and through the improper disposal of waste when the fish are processed. In a particularly gruesome example, a farmed fish processing plant in Canada released a bloody cloud of effluent containing harmful pathogens into a known route for juvenile and adult salmon. 18
A different way of raising fish in captivity, called “recirculating aquaculture,” has become increasingly popular around the globe. 19 These fish farms are not attached to any natural waters and do not take from or dump into the environment, like open water farming. Recirculating aquaculture farms raise fish in tanks on land, similar to the way fish are maintained in aquariums. Recirculating fish farms are closed loop, meaning that diseases and pests from outside the farm have a harder time getting in, and that the fish inside the farm do not escape. Sustainable, well-managed recirculating systems, which address hygiene and stocking issues and manage contamination, are less reliant on drugs and chemicals to keep fish healthy and the system clean. Many recirculating fish farms run entirely without artificial chemical additives, creating a more natural product. The term “no escapes” mean that these farms can raise a wide variety of popular fish. They can also avoid raising and selling types of fish caught by local fishermen, to prevent competition.
One very special characteristic of farms that use recirculating technology is that, in addition to fish, they can grow plants (recirculating hydroponics) or plants and fish together in one system (recirculating aquaponics). Growing fish in conjunction with plants creates a mini ecosystem, where the waste excreted by fish adds nutrients to the water, and plants in the same water absorb these nutrients to grow. The plants thus “clean” the water for reuse by the fish. This cycle often creates an ideal growing environment, making both plants and fish grow better and more quickly than in other forms of farming.
Recirculating farms can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. To conserve energy, they can rely on renewable sources like solar, wind or geothermal power. Their versatility in design allows them to use unusual and/or small spaces, which might not otherwise be suitable for growing food. Recirculating farms can also be located virtually anywhere in a community — indoors, outside, on rooftops and on terraces. Recirculating farms’ close proximity to local markets reduces the fuel use for shipping and refrigeration and potentially lowers consumers’ costs, making good food more local, sustainable and affordable. These farms can provide a wide range of products, including finfish, shellfish, herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers. For more information, visit the Recirculating Farms Coalition. 20
Currently, the USDA Certified Organic has no standards for seafood. Therefore, seafood products labeled “organic” are often produced in accordance with criteria or “organic” standards established by another country or region (e.g., European Union organic standards). Some of these standards allow for the use of various chemicals, including antibiotics. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering organic standards for fish at the request of the aquaculture industry: therefore, US farmed fish may get an “organic” label in the future. Some states have set their own rules; for example, fish labeled organic are illegal to sell in California until the US Federal government sets standards.
The Marine Stewardship Council is a private organization with a set of criteria intended to evaluate whether a wild fishery is managed sustainably. 21 Seafood from fisheries that meet the criteria can receive MSC certification and bear the MSC blue logo on their product label. MSC is a private certification, however: it determines the standards that a fishery must meet to qualify as sustainable under its own label. This certification does not address heavy metal contamination in wild fish.
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council resembles the MSC in practice. It certifies only farm-raised seafood as “sustainable,” if it meets certain criteria that the ASC establishes. 22 Like the MSC, the ASC is a private entity that creates its own standards for what “sustainable” means. The ASC forms its standards based on group discussions with industry and other stakeholders.
The industry group Global Aquaculture Alliance developed the standards known as “Best Aquaculture Practices” to certify fish farms as sustainable. 23 Operations receive BAP certification through a third party audit. 24
Even with all of these different labels, the one sure way to ensure that you are getting what you expect is to ask where the seafood comes from and how it is produced (see below). Also, various organizations publish seafood guides with good information about seafood choices — see our list of guides below in “What You Can Do” to help you navigate your options.
One of the most common heavy metals found in seafood is mercury. Mercury is naturally occurring, but can be found at higher concentrations in local environments due to sources like coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators, factories and mines. Mercury can be carried through the atmosphere or enter water bodies through rain and surface water runoff. Large, top-of-the-food-chain fish such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark and bluefin tuna tend to have higher levels of mercury, which accumulates through their diet and persists over time, due to their longevity. Exposure to mercury in humans can cause brain damage and neurological disorders, especially in infants and young children whose nervous systems are still developing. 25
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins are toxic substances that were used as a fire preventive and insulator in the manufacture of electric devices for the electric grid. PCBs enter the water, mostly from industrial run-off and dumping, and accumulate in the fatty tissue of some fish. In one case on the Hudson River in New York, General Electric was responsible for releasing 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river over a 30-year period. Today, 200 miles of the river is considered to be a superfund site and a major source of PCB pollution in local seafood. 26
PCBs and dioxins have been found in striped bass, farmed salmon and blue crab, among other seafood. These substances can lead to developmental problems, interfere with hormones, harm the reproductive and immune systems and cause cancer. 27
Residues of antibiotics and pesticides have been detected in some farmed fish. Antibiotics and pesticides are added to fish farms to control disease in crowded conditions. Residues from the chemicals can be present when the fish are harvested. 28 The overuse of antibiotics in fish farming can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Choosing US wild-caught fish can decrease the chance of consuming chemical residues that may be associated with imported farmed fish.