One of the best things about eating seafood—besides the rich flavors, easy prep, great protein, and low calories, of course—is the variety of available options. I mean, chicken is chicken. Steak is steak. But the word “seafood” can mean a virtual cornucopia of options: saltwater fish, freshwater fish, crustaceans, mollusks. The choices are virtually endless!
However, regardless of whether you’re standing at the grocery store’s fish counter or staring at a restaurant menu, you’re more likely to see information nowadays about where and how your seafood was caught. And you might wonder: Does it matter? Should I care if my salmon was from the Atlantic or Pacific? Does “responsibly farmed” mean something important? And hey—how exactly do you farm a fish, anyway? The questions could leave you scratching your head for hours.
The best and easiest way to keep track of the dizzying factors is to cheat. Resources like the Marine Stewardship Council and The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program are designed to help help consumers make informed choices. The Monterey Bay Aquarium even offers a handy Seafood Watch Guide app for your phone. It’s an easy-to-navigate app that uses simple color coding (green, yellow, red) to tell you whether the exact type of shrimp, tuna, or whatever you want to buy is a good, okay, or bad choice. For me, it’s been as an important a tool as my actual shopping list. However, if you want to understand more about why tools like the Seafood Watch Guide are necessary in the first place, keep reading. Here, I’ve got your handy guide to understanding and navigating some of the differences between farmed and wild seafood in a way that will make your body, your conscience, and the environment (yes, the environment) smile with contentment.
Why should I care?
Great question! Often when we hear of animal or environmental welfare issues it revolves around industrial farming or pollution. But the earth’s oceans are subject to the same issues. One of the biggest issues is overfishing: As a society at large, we’re eating way more seafood than ever before. Did you know there was a time when lobsters were so abundant they were considered a “junk” food and served to prisoners? You would never know it when you see lobster tails for $20 a pound at the store. But it’s unfortunately true: Our insatiable appetite for all kinds of seafood means that fisherman are racing to fill the demand and fish species are being caught faster than they can reproduce, causing shortages, higher prices, and most dire, risk of extinction. Here’s a sobering thought: Approximately one-third of known fish populations are over-fished and over half are completely fished. Yikes.
Not only is overfishing a serious problem, but actual fishing methods can be a big cause for concern. While some ways of catching fish and shellfish are sustainable, others upset and damage the delicate ecosystem, destroying the food and homes that our fishy friends depend on to survive in the wild. Many fisheries are now taking to farming fish in order to maintain wild species numbers, but even some of those methods have unintended consequences. You can’t even make generalizations about “good” or “bad” types of seafood because different subtypes of species (for example, bluefin versus yellowtail versus albacore tuna) can be affected based on where or how they are farmed. Yep, it’s complicated.
So what should I look for when buying wild-caught fish?
When deciding on what kind of seafood you’re cooking up for dinner and want to buy responsibly, know that not all wild-caught seafood is created equally. You have two questions to ask yourself: Which seafood is most healthy for me, and which is most healthy for the environment?
If you care about the environment and creating a sustainable ecosystem that provides you with your favorite fish forever (hint: you should!), then it’s important to pay attention to how your fish is caught. Responsible fishing methods catch only the seafood the fishermen intend to catch, with no or minimal byproduct. Irresponsible fishing either captures a lot of bycatch which could include animals like sea turtles or dolphins, or harm the ocean, lake, or stream. While there are a multitude of fishing methods out there, below are some examples to look out for:
Responsible wild fishing methods:
Pole and line; trolling: This is exactly what you think of when you envision a father and son out on a wooden boat in a quiet lake. Commercial fisherman use this method, too. Because they catch only one fish at a time, this is considered an environmentally sound way of fishing with very low bycatch
Traps and pots: Like underwater mouse traps, these are often used to catch bottom-dwellers like your super tasty but super expensive lobster. Because they attract a certain kind of animal and aren’t dragged around the ocean floor, traps and pots typically don’t catch unintended species or damage the ecosystem around them
Handlines and jigs: Also using lines to catch individual fish via individual bait, these are often reeled up with only the intended fish on the line, minimizing bycatch and environmental impact
Potentially harmful wild fishing methods:
Bottom trawl: Fisheries use this method to catch groups of bottom-dwelling seafood, such as shrimp or halibut, all at once by dragging a large type of net across the seafloor. Unfortunately this method also drags up everything in it’s path which can damage the seafloor and inadvertently catch unintended animals. By the time the net is pulled up, many of these unintended catches are dead or dying
Dredges: Similar to bottom trawl methods, dredges are like cages with metal teeth that are dragged across the seafloor. They can create the same kind of environmental damage and bycatch as bottom trawls
Purse seining: Fishermen use a type of large net to encircle schools of fish and pull the netting closed to draw the fish together, much like a purse. It’s an efficient way to catch large schools of fish like sardines, but if other species such as dolphins are swimming in proximity to those schools, they can get caught up in the nets as well
Some good choices for wild fish include wild Alaskan-caught salmon, pole or troll-caught albacore tuna, and California spiny lobster.
However, when it comes to wild fish and your health, watch out for top-level predators who tend to contain high mercury content such as swordfish, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, Atlantic salmon and certain types of tuna such as bluefin. Mercury is a heavy metal that can be a health risk for certain types of people, especially for fetuses, babies, and children, causing neurological damage. Note that you don’t have to cut them out completely, but limit yourself to eating no more than a serving per month. If you’re in a high risk group, avoid these altogether.
What should I look for when buying farmed fish?
Commercial fish farms are generally designed to address overfishing and environmental concerns. However, while some farmed fish are great health and environmental choices, others still cause similar impacts to our bodies and the environment. Disease, mercury levels, waste byproducts, and the risk of farmed fish breeding with wild species are just some of the concerns. On the flip side, though, some sustainable ecosystems use recirculated water and compost their waste to get close to a net-zero environmental impact. Here are some examples of farmed fishing ecosystems:
Responsible farmed fishing methods:
Recirculating systems: This type of farming uses a system where water is treated and recycled through a tank system. It’s sustainable because it can be used for many different fish species, recycles the water, and since the fish are in a tank they can’t escape and wreak havoc on local ecosystems
Suspended cultures: This system is mainly used for shellfish that doesn’t need to swim or really move around, such as oysters and mussels. Farmers suspend ropes and nets in the water and let the shellfish cling on and grow there. Because these tasty guys mainly eat by filtering water and plankton, they leave minimal waste and there’s no external or artificial fish feed that would mix with wild species
Bag/rack: Another type of shellfish farming system, bags are set in racks on the seafloor and filled with hatchery-raised shellfish. Similar to suspended cultures, there’s no raking of the seafloor or need to deplete wild species to maintain the farm populations
Potentially harmful farmed fishing methods:
Hatcheries: While some farmed fish are raised in artificial pens and others in open water, hatcheries are like a combination of both: fish are spawned and raised in nurseries but are often released in large numbers in wild-catch fisheries. This system can be dangerous to wild fish species both due to risks for interbreeding between the wild and farm-raised populations (they’re not necessarily genetically identical) and food competition
Open net pens; submersible net pens: Two different but similar fishing styles designed for open water, these farm systems allow fish to swim freely in oceans or freshwater lakes but are fenced in to a designated area via nets. Potential hazards include the possibility for escape and interbreeding with wild populations, concentrated waste that escapes the pens and pollutes the surrounding ecosystem, and parasites and disease spreading from the farmed population to the nearby wild fish population
Ponds: Ponds enclose fish in an existing body of water. While pond water can be recycled similarly to recirculating systems, the waste from pond runoff can infiltrate and pollute the surrounding environment and groundwater. The creation of ponds can also upset the balance of a local ecosystem
Great choices for farmed fish include catfish, tilapia, arctic char, trout, and blue mussels. Avoid farmed Atlantic salmon if possible.
Now that you’re armed with knowledge, an app, and have an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s seals of approval, try some of these tasty recipes below:
The secret about mussels is that they seem so fancy but are actually incredibly easy. Simply make sure the mussels are all closed before you put them in the pot, and are all opened when you’re done steaming them. Juices from the mussels mixed with wine, garlic and butter makes it a no-fail meal. Don’t forget the garlic bread! Get the recipe.
Salmon is a nutrition powerhouse and this recipe elevates the meaty fish with a delicious middle-eastern spice and nut rub. With just a couple of ingredients and a pan, you’ve got a main that would go well with rice or sauteed veggies. Remember to use wild-caught Pacific salmon for this one. Get our Dukkah-Crusted Salmon recipe.
The best two things about fish tacos is they’re healthy… and they’re tacos! Herbs and citrus make a tasty marinade, and this recipe adds the flavors and crunch of a cabbage slaw to give it a little something extra. Use a firm whitefish so it won’t fall apart on the grill. Responsibly farmed tilapia is a great choice for this one. Get our Easy Fish Tacos recipe.
Shrimp scampi is another seafood dish that seems fancy but is super easy. This recipe adds another twist with incorporating parmesan into the cooking process. Scampi also goes well with so many different sides: you can eat it solo or top it on pasta or rice. Shrimp can easily be overcooked so be careful: once it turns from translucent pink to white, it’s done. Remember to use farmed giant freshwater or tiger prawn shrimp, ideally from US sources. Get the recipe.
Paella, a classic Spanish rice dish, can be made with many different proteins but is traditionally made with a mix of meat and seafood. Beware that you need just the right pan and it can take a while, but the payoff is worth it. Tomatoes, saffron, and paprika season the remaining ingredients just right, and when you’re done you’ll have a meal fit for a dinner party (seriously, nobody makes paella for just one.) For the seafood, be sure to purchase sustainably farmed shrimp and clams. Get our Paella Mixta recipe.
Want a light and delicious fish recipe but don’t feel like cooking? Ceviche is your jam. The fish actually gets “cooked” by marinating in lime juice, then is chopped up with avocado, onion, peppers, and garlic. Scoop it up with tortilla chips for a corresponding salty crunch. There are a lot of styles of whitefish you can use for ceviche, but be careful: many popular ones like sea bass (imported) and Atlantic halibut (wild caught) are on the Seafood Watch’s “avoid” list. Wild US Atlantic sea bass or wild US Atlantic mahi mahi are excellent choices. Get the recipe.
This gluten-free dish is super easy with a light flaky fish that takes on whatever flavor you season it with. One pan and less than 20 minutes…you don’t have an excuse not to make it. Tilapia is pretty much always farmed, which is just fine: look for fish that’s been farmed in recirculating aquaculture systems. Get the recipe.
Header images courtesy of Asc1733 on Wikimedia Commons and © 2014 “Mike” Michael L. Baird (flickr.bairdphotos.com)