What Does ‘Sustainable Seafood’ Mean?
The word “sustainable” is often overused to indicate that a practice or product is “green,” “eco-friendly” or a host of other environmentally compatible notions. An article on food activism and dining in the Bay Area about “sustainable seafood” caught my eye recently, and made me wonder: what does “sustainable seafood” really mean? The definition of sustainable seems to vary greatly, depending on who is using it and how. Here’s our take on seafood safety and sustainability:
At Food & Water Watch, we help consumers navigate the often-complex world of choosing seafood that is both good for them and our planet. To do this, we provide a Smart Seafood Guide – updated annually – that makes recommendations on various seafood items to try. We follow a set of stringent criteria to help us make our selections.
As a consumer group, our first concern is contamination in seafood products. We pay attention to the risks of mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls
(PCB), accumulation in species that are higher on the food chain. We also consider parasites, diseases and bacteria that may affect human health, like vibrio vulnificus, which can be a risk in certain shellfish. Because less than 2% of imported seafood is inspected by the FDA – many other countries have lower environmental standards and may allow for the use of hormones or antibiotics in fish feed – we recommend U.S.-caught or farm-raised seafood rather than imported products.
It’s equally important to consider environmental criteria, such as the health of the wild stock for the type of seafood you’re considering. For example, some fish, like Alaska Pollock, may be relatively low in contaminants, but are experiencing over-exploitation as a result of too much fishing pressure. We also investigate all fish and shellfish to determine their place in the food web – their role in the marine ecosystem among other predators or prey.
Whether a fish is farmed or caught wild, we look at the most commonly used catch method or farming method as part of our checklist. When it comes to farmed fish, we take into account the production methods to determine whether operations may pollute nearby waters, or if they require large amounts of wild fish as feed. Some types of aquaculture, like shellfish farming, can actually be beneficial to the marine environment when practiced conscientiously.
Our criteria for seafood always include considerations for the socioeconomic and cultural significance of a fishery. Some fisheries may look good on paper, but are actually characterized by large, corporate, industrial fleets that are neither from the surrounding area where they fish, nor contribute to it economically. Other fisheries may be home to traditionally, historically, or economically significant activities of the community, and these are the positive examples we like to highlight with our Smart Seafood Guide. Some examples of such seafood are Maine lobster, Pacific salmon, and Gulf shrimp and catfish.
If you have questions about choosing smart seafood, post them here and we’ll do our best to provide answers!