What Makes Sustainable Seafood Sustainable?

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 that people are looking for this buzzword attached to fish and shellfish, regardless of what is really happening.

Consider that most of the seafood we eat in the US is imported, and not inspected, how the hell can we know what is sustainable or not? And while I’m at it, what the hell is sustainable seafood anyway?

2018 Most popular seafood NOAA
Credit: NOAA

Definition of Sustainable Seafood

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.

Seafood Watch

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 UNFAO. 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.

MSC – Marine Stewardship Council

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 Certification

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 also find that information Seafood Watch paints with a broad brush and sometimes puts out contradictory information.

I also wonder if fishing pressure is the only metric, they are using to determine sustainability and certification standards. Fish mortality by natural predation especially with species like cod, is important. A major predator of young cod is older cod, along with dogfish and seals. Humans are not the only source of mortality for a fish stock. The scientific data compiled by NOAA fisheries scientist is also a hotly contested matter, especially in New England. Often, and recently, quotas have been drastically cut based on incomplete data…or no data at all except landings.

The Move to Factory Ships is Worrying

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.

Foreign factory ships fished continuously for years, returning to Soviet or European ports only when the processing ships were full, only to be replaced by another group of 500-foot behemoths. This continued until 1976, but the damage had already been done. 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. Every time one of these Eco-labels 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.

The grim reality is it’s way easier for regulators to keep track of a small fleet of factory ships than dozens of smaller owner-operated fishing vessels. This type of consolidation only benefits a few as you need far less people in the industry, thus threatening traditional fishing communities as well as stocks.

No Room for the Little Guy

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. These small fisheries also have to compete on the open market against these “certified” fisheries. 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 the licensing of its highly sought after label. To increase revenue MSC has allegedly lowered its sustainability standards.

Seafood Laundering

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

reds best skate cheeks label

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 at the seafood counter. In my situation, if the only haddock available is imported from Iceland or Norway, I will pick a local fish regardless of certification it has. If carbon-footprint is a factor in your purchases, then you have yet another reason to buy local seafood.

When it comes to the millions of people who do not have easy access to seafood, you can be assured that US fish and shellfish are harvested under very stringent regulations. Look for a domestic product, with or without a certification and you will be making a good choice.

Overfishing is 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. Many sectors of American fisheries only take a fraction of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and landings of any one species can be cut or shut down at the slightest sign of overfishing.

There was a time when commercial fishing in the US could be a free for all. Those days are over. 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.

Too Much Foreign Fish

The American consumer must stop buying foreign, uninspected, imported seafood. Ask more questions to your fish monger or at the supermarket, demand domestic 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- Community Supported Fisheries

Gloucester Fresh logo

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


It’s obvious that I’m conflicted about the use of Eco-labels but for those that do not have local fish as an option, they may be your best bet. They should not be taken as the last word, but when in doubt, you will be getting a decent product. Remember the Eco-labels and sustainability standards are not regulations, they are mere guidelines, and no badge, should override good research and common sense.