What Is Sustainable Seafood?

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Have you noticed that a lot of the seafood sold in supermarkets or marketed online has all of a sudden become “sustainable?” Over the last decade it has become a major buzzword along with “gluten-free” and “organic.” How can this be?

If all this seafood is really sustainably caught or farmed then why are we all worried about the health of our wild fish stocks or fish farms?

I believe seafood sustainability is an important, and achievable goal, but all these labels springing up makes my B.S. detector go off. What I feel is happening is the marketing end of the seafood industry knows people are looking for this buzzword attached to their fish and shellfish, regardless of what is really happening. Plus, consider that most of the seafood we eat in the US is imported, and not inspected, how the hell can the average consumer know what is sustainable or not? And while I’m at it, what the hell is sustainable seafood anyway?

Definition of Sustainable Seafood

Essentially, fish and shellfish are sustainably harvested when the particular stock can sustain current catch levels, while keeping or increasing a healthy reproduction rate. In theory a sustainable fishery should be a nearly infinite resource, all other things being equal. There are variations on the theme which can include the harvesting method and effects on by-catch as well as standards for farm-raised species.

Monterey Bay Aquarium runs the well-known Seafood Watch an online information source using their own specific standards for both wild fisheries and aquaculture. These standards, which break down fisheries/species as Best Choice, Good Alternative, or Avoid are periodically revised. Seafood Watch is considered the benchmark for consumers and other organizations focused on sustainable seafood.

Seafood Watch has a rigorous method for developing its recommendations. Our scientists compile relevant science-based information by researching government reports, journal articles and white papers. They also contact fishery and fish farm experts. After a thorough review of all the available data and information, we apply our sustainability standards to those findings to develop an in-depth Seafood Watch assessment. All of our assessments are reviewed by experts from academia, government and the seafood industry and are available on our website. We base our seafood recommendations on these assessments.

Seafood Watch

Sustainable Seafood Certification

There are several organizations that offer Eco-Certification for both wild and farm-raised seafood. They are private organizations with no government affiliation and each have their own criteria. There is no universal standard to get one of these coveted badges, although some base their criteria on non-binding standards laid out by the UN’s FAO. If the fishery or farm already meets a particular label’s standard, they can pay a fee to have the badge featured on their product. If a fishery or farm does not quite meet the criteria, the organization often works with the fishery to help them become eligible for licensure.

The most prominent Eco-Certification for wild-caught species is from the Marine Stewardship Council. Their blue badges have become a frequent sight in fish markets and frozen food sections.

The MSC and other Eco-labeling organizations periodically change their standards in the face of new information. In 2012 Monterey Bay Seafood Watch conducted a study into the various seafood certification badges and came up with a shortlist of those that meet their own standards.

Issues With Sustainable Seafood

In my opinion Seafood Watch has good intentions and uses the best data available to them to make suggestions to consumers. They also do not issue Eco-labels themselves, but instead allow other organizations to use their standards. However I find that the information Seafood Watch puts out is sometimes contradictory. An example is their page on Haddock which tells me at the start, to stay away from Gulf of Maine haddock. Yet Gulf of Maine haddock is listed as a “Good Alternative” on their color-coded chart. A drop down menu gives more information, where it now says:

As a result, haddock from the Gulf of Maine receive an “Avoid” recommendation.

But if you click the 144 page report on cod, haddock and pollock it now says this:

Haddock and pollock caught in the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine regions with all gears are considered a GOOD ALTERNATIVE as stocks are healthy but there are moderate to high concerns over bycatch of other species.

So what do you do? They just did a couple of 180’s in three mouse clicks! Meanwhile, FishWatch, another seafood information website, this time run by NOAA, states Gulf of Maine haddock is not overfished. I know about this local fishery so I can make an informed choice at the market (I’ll buy the haddock). But what about other fish I’m not familiar with like red snapper, grouper, or the various wild salmon fisheries? Besides contradictory statements, recent studies have shown the apps and information guides offered to help consumers at the fish counter have done little to affect what is being caught and sold.

One of the problems I see with the Eco-labeling organizations like MSC is that most of these products are harvested on an industrial scale. I come from a family of small-time fishermen that for the most part, has transitioned out of the industry.  Gloucester had no factory ships…my father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers saw these monstrous ships arrive on our local banks and by the 1960’s were sucking Georges Bank dry. They fished continuously for years, returning to Soviet or European ports when the processing ships were full, only to be replaced by another group of 500 foot behemoths. All the restrictions, boat buy-backs, catch shares and the like have all been implemented after the factory ships left our local fishermen with the dregs.

Depletion of local stocks didn’t start with the foreign factory ships, but they certainly accelerated the eventual collapse. And when one of these Eco-lables has to change their standards on certain species, I think it shows that some of these large-scale fisheries were not sustainable to begin with. So from my point of view, I can’t see how industrialized fishing can sustain anything for long.

For a lot of the so-called “sustainably harvested” fish, including the popular frozen-at-sea (FAS) products, they have a lot more in common with this “agribusiness of the seas” than the 60-100 foot vessels that make up many  local fleets. I would rather see a fleet of 100-150 small, privately owned vessels versus 8-10 freezer/factory trawlers. These smaller fisheries, many of which meet or exceed certification standards, simply cannot afford to pay for the badge – they don’t give them out for free. This kind of sustainability – if sustainable at all – is the antithesis of the locavore/organic/slow foods concepts that have become popular.

There is too much money at stake and way, way too much mislabeled/uninspected/imported fish for this to be on the up and up. A 2016 article in the British magazine Private Eye reported MSC’s main source of income is licensing of its highly sought after label. To increase revenue MSC has allegedly lowered its sustainability standards.

Though seafood labeling programs seek to increase seafood traceability and transparency in the supply chain, they also provide financial incentives for suppliers to make the supply less transparent (Miller and Mariani 2010)

– The Role of Underutilized Fish in New England’s Seafood System

Just like the dolphin-safe tuna issue in the 1990’s, processors know the consumer is put at ease by friendly or official-looking labels on the product. In most cases the consumer, faced with otherwise identical packages, will make a purchasing decision based on the presence of such a badge or label. But what good is a label if you can’t tell where the fish is from?

With roughly 90% of America’s fish imported, it is almost impossible to track where and how the fish was caught (NOAA 2013b). Pramod et al. (2014) estimated that 20 – 32% of the imported fish that Americans consume originates from illegal fishing or unreported catches .

– The Role of Underutilized Fish in New England’s Seafood System

One Sustainable Solution: Buy Local

What sounds better to you: A locally caught fish that did not travel far to get to your dinner plate, or fish trucked across the country (or even further) with a sticker on the package that says it’s sustainable? I face this dilemma sometimes, but if the only haddock in the case is imported from Iceland or Norway, I don’t care what kind of certification it has, I’m picking something domestic. If carbon-footprint is a factor in your purchases, then you have yet another reason to buy local seafood.

There was a time when commercial fishing in the US could be a free for all. Those days are over. What is left of our decimated local fleets are electronically monitored by NOAA/NMFS, there are strict limits of what fish can be caught, where they can be caught, what gear you can use and how much of the stock can be taken in a given year. In some cases, these fishermen couldn’t overfish even if they wanted to – which they don’t. The industry of my youth had a lot of older men with big loans grabbing what was left so they could retire. Times have changed somewhat, it’s still a very dangerous business with huge overhead expenses, but nobody wants to be the last one out there. The captains of today were kids when things got really bad, they don’t want to see history repeat, they want the resource and the livelihood to be passed down.

But that only happens if the American consumer stops demanding foreign, uninspected, imports. Ask more questions to your fish monger or at the supermarket, demand locally caught fish. Buy fresh local fish that is in season, and frozen fish that is at least domestic, if not local. Help local fishing communities by getting your seafood from co-ops and small family-run fish markets, the closer to the source, the better. There is also a new approach that is helping to get local, sustainable seafood to a larger audience.

CSF’s – inspired by the CSA movement, are community-supported fisheries that are bringing local, fresh fish to subscribers. Just like a CSA, your weekly allotment is based upon what is in season. It is a great way to support local fishermen while exposing consumers to new, delicious and sustainable fish and shellfish. Think about it, how many of us ate kale or kohlrabi on a regular basis before the CSA movement? CSFs are doing the same for lesser-known species, allowing fishermen to make a living while avoiding stocks that are being rebuilt. I recently visited the retail outlet for our local CSF and got two pounds of blackback flounder that came that morning from a local participating fishing boat.

I highly recommend looking into trying out your local community supported fishery, you may be surprised how many have been created recently. There is a great website that explains more about the CSF movement and can help you find one in your area.


For those that do not have local fish as an option, the sustainability badges may be your best bet. They should not be taken as gospel, but when in doubt, it is better than nothing. But try to do your own research before buying your seafood – the more you learn on your own the better. Remember the Eco-lables and sustainability standards are not rules, they are mere guidelines, and no badge, no matter how pretty on your package of fish, should override good research and common sense.


2015 NOAA Haddock stock assessment

Food and Water Watch 2010 report on seafood Eco-labels



  1. Good article.
    It’s like palm oil, lately almost every company say to use “sustainable palm oil”, but I would like to go personally in Indonesia to see with my eyes.
    Living in Europe I refuse to buy all the fish and crustacean coming from Asia farmings for example (also because often they are not really good quality product, the fact they are cheap even with those long travels should raise doubts, but many people don’t think and maybe don’t want to know).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent article. This is a big problem indeed and I often have been sceptical of such labelling. Here on PEI the fish can be bought from the fishermen at the dock, I know a couple of guys and know what they are doing. This means however that we eat only what they bring in and not other fish not available here. One problem being a lot of selfish people who really don’t care all they look at is the price.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you very much for your like about my blog about amazing fish that is cooked in a Dutch oven. Which was on hillbillycooking.wordpress.com. I found you blog very informative and I will take your advice on buying my seafood local Now, if you ever need any help with your research I am available.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am going to give you some information about myself. I am a retired Navy cook, Also, I am certified as a Sous Chef by the American Culinary Federation, So in the Navy we could only by sea food frozen with a stamp on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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