Understanding the Smart Seafood Guide | Food & Water Watch
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Cassandra Nguyen

Understanding the Smart Seafood Guide

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With so many seafood choices, how do we determine which are best for our health, the environment and local communities? While most seafood guides focus primarily on environmental sustainability, Food & Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide also considers human health implications and the socio-economic impact of consuming various types of seafood.

Food & Water Watch’s Seafood Guide comes from a review of over 100 types of wild, farmed and invasive species, which we have evaluated according to three major categories:

  • Human health considerations
  • Environmental considerations
  • Socio-economic considerations

Below are the five major criteria we evaluate for the seafood we recommend in our guide. We encourage you to consider these criteria before making a seafood selection at a grocery store, market or restaurant. 

1. Contaminants

  • Is the species associated with contaminants like PCB or mercury?
  • Does the species come in contact with parasites or diseases?
  • Has the type of seafood been frequently associated with chemical contamination?
  • Do warnings exist advising consumers to limit consumption?

Food & Water Watch’s seafood guide does not recommend any type of seafood that research indicates cannot safely be consumed by adults four times per month due to mercury or PCB contamination, nor does it recommend seafood that is likely to be contaminated with chemical residues or toxins.

2. Status of the Stock

  • Is the species overfished or experiencing overfishing?
  • Is it well-managed (is there an effective management plan in place limiting catch, promoting long-term health, etc.)?
  • Is it likely to be overfished do to long life cycles and slow growth rates, or is it more resilient through fast maturation and high rates of reproduction?

Food & Water Watch’s seafood guide does not recommend species that are overfished, undergoing overfishing or that we evaluate to be at risk due to a combined lack of management and biological susceptibility.

3. Catch Method or Farming Method

  • What types of gear are used to catch the species and does the gear cause any habitat damage or bycatch (e.g. are other species of marine life unintentionally killed during its use)?
  •  If the species is produced in a farm facility, what are the ecological impacts?
  • Are there user conflicts involved in farming the species (does the farm promote responsible energy and water usage, efficient feed conversion, and proper disposal of effluent, while avoiding the use of chemicals and/or drugs)?
  •  Is the farm susceptible to escapes that could jeopardize wildlife?
  • Does the farm contribute to the spread of disease/parasites?

Food & Water Watch’s seafood guide does not recommend wild fish from fisheries that neither use nor are working to use capture methods with minimal habitat damage. It also does not recommend fish from fisheries with high rates of bycatch. For farmed fish, it does not recommend types from farms with significant environmental impacts. 

4. Economic/Social/Cultural Significance

  • Is this a key species for a community (does the community predominantly fish for this species and depend on it)?
  • Is the species revered or sacred to a community?
  • What are the impacts of a fishery or fish farming industry on local communities?

To date, Food & Water Watch’s seafood guide is the only guide to consider these socio-economic implications. It gives preference to types of seafood that support local, domestic economies. 

5. Key Species

  • Is the species important or necessary for the survival of other wildlife (is it is a primary food source or does it create critical habitat for other wildlife)?

Our seafood guide does not recommend seafood, of which a high rate of human consumption would threaten the needs of other species.

What You Can Do

  • Always ask where seafood comes from and whether it was wild-caught or farmed?  For example, choose wild-caught, or otherwise sustainably produced, domestic shrimp over imported farmed shrimp. Even if the person you ask does not know, your question will help encourage the establishment to become more knowledge about seafood sourcing.
  • Tell the FDA to increase inspection of imported seafood.
  • Ask Congress to increase funding and oversight for the FDA’s seafood import inspection program.
  • Tell the USDA to expand country-of-origin labeling so that it includes processed seafood and includes every store and restaurant.


“Organic”, “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” — what do they all mean? Seafood labels can be very confusing. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) says its label certifies that seafood is sustainably managed.  Unfortunately, many of the fisheries it approved are actually associated with significant environmental problems. Organic labels, if you see them, don’t mean a thing here in the United States for seafood — there are not yet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards for seafood. Rather than relying on labels, the best method for you as a consumer is to ask questions and learn directly from the people who are selling the seafood. 


Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is important, but existing laws fall short of requiring all information to be provided for all fish products. In 2005, the USDA developed mandatory COOL rules, which were intended to help inform consumers about where seafood comes from and if it is farm-raised or wild-caught. Unfortunately, USDA did not create a strong labeling program.

“Processed” seafood is exempt, leaving more than 50 percent of fish products sold in the United States without labels. Processed seafood can be anything that has been altered in a substantial way, such as cooked, smoked or canned seafood, or that has been mixed with other ingredients. Examples include seafood soups, seafood medleys, fish blocks and breaded or salted seafood. Excluding processed seafood from COOL requirements is especially troubling, because this category of seafood product has a high risk of contamination.

Ninety percent of fish sellers, such as wholesale markets, don’t have to label the origin.

No enforcement mechanism exists and violators face minimal fines. 

Mercury and PCB Methodology

Mercury and PCB contaminant information for the 2012 Smart Seafood Guide is drawn from Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Health Alert List. EDF calculates health advisories based on government databases and scientific studies and establishes recommended safe consumption levels for men, women and children. Food & Water Watch does not include any species in our guide that cannot be safely consumed by adults four times per month.

The Dirty Dozen

The species on our “Dirty Dozen” list fail to meet two or more of our criteria for safer and more sustainable seafood. For instance, imported coastal farmed shrimp, which is the worst offender on our list, is associated with potential contamination, environmentally problematic farming methods and negative socioeconomic implications for coastal communities in the United States and abroad. Open-water farmed salmon is also associated with concerns in each of these categories. Bluefin tuna, a wild-caught specie, raises major red flags in two areas: the status of the stock is very low due to international unsustainable catch methods/overfishing and the fish associated with high levels of mercury contamination.