Real Food Encyclopedia | Seafood

Americans consume about 16 pounds of seafood per person per year, which amounts to nearly five billion pounds. With all of that seafood being eaten, you might wonder how sustainable it is and how to handle it in your sustainable kitchen.

By doing a little research on your own and using consumer seafood guides (included below), and by asking markets where their fish comes from and how it was caught or farmed, you can find healthy and sustainable seafood.

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What to Look for When Buying Seafood

Look for fish with bright, clear eyes; shiny, vibrant skin and bright red gills. Shellfish, such as oysters and clams, should only be purchased alive. All seafood should smell like the sea: if you’re confronted with a fishy or ammonia-like odor, take a pass. (Here are some other tips for selecting the freshest seafood.) Of course, if you’re purchasing your seafood from a farmers’ market or Community Supported Fishery, chances are it will be very, very fresh — maybe even fished that morning.

>Visit our Shopping Sustainably page for information on what to ask your fishmonger when shopping for fish

Sustainability of Seafood

The popularity of seafood, along with habitat loss and rising ocean temperatures, has led to a decline in many populations of fish and shellfish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch notes that we have “removed as much as 90 percent of the large predatory fish such as shark, swordfish and cod from the world’s oceans.” In addition, many fish and shellfish farming operations cause environmental damage, and damage to human health, too. Sadly, some of the fish and shellfish people love to eat is unsustainable, including Atlantic cod and eel. Some shrimp is also problematic, including some farmed shrimp and imported wild-caught shrimp. 

Unfortunately, fish and shellfish are also magnets for contaminants, including mercury, organophosphates and other pesticides (from industrial agriculture runoff and from their use in farmed fish), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and even antibiotic residues. (Pregnant women, babies and young children are generally those most susceptible to these contaminants, so check with your doctor.) Choosing wild-caught fish can help reduce the risk of pesticide and antibiotic contamination.

It’s not all bad news, though. There is a vast selection of delicious sustainable seafood available and many fish and shellfish populations have recovered with excellent fishery management. Find a Community Supported Fishery (CSF: like a CSA, but with seafood!) near you to support local fisheries committed to sustainability. Check out Local Catch for a handy map of local CSFs. Many farmers’ markets (in coastal locations, of course) also have local seafood stalls. Consult guides like Food & Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide (including their “Dirty Dozen“) and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (they even have an app) to help you make more informed choices.

Eating Seafood

Storing Fresh Seafood

It goes without saying that most fish and shellfish should be consumed as close to harvest as possible, although you can store live shellfish for a day or two in the fridge, and fish for a couple of days.

Cooking with Less Waste

Cooking Seafood

There are lots of options for cooking fish and shellfish, including having a blast and cooking a traditional “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” Favorites for that include: fried calamari (this recipe with Meyer lemons) and fish; stuffed squid; linguini or spaghetti with clams (check out Marcella Hazan’s recipe), mussels or other seafood; baccalà fritters or stewed baccalà; zuppa di pesce (fish soup); insalata di pesce (cold seafood salad); baked whole fish; and fish fillets.

Seafood Nutrition

In general, fish and shellfish are low in fat and calories and high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Shellfish (and squid and shrimp in particular) are high in cholesterol, so those trying to reduce their cholesterol levels should probably eat in moderation. Shellfish and many types of fish are also high in iron, zinc, copper, calcium and vitamin B-12.

Some seafood has dangerous levels of mercury, problematic especially for children and pregnant women. Use the NRDC’s Smart Seafood Guide to figure out which fish are high in mercury.