A Sustainable Seafood Guide Will Help You Navigate Through Troubled Waters

by Nicola Temple on January 20, 2012

These days we have to be conscious of the ethical and environmental consequences of everything we eat, and seafood is no different. A sustainable seafood guide can be a handy tool for choosing wisely.

This is a subject that is very close to my heart.

I had the great pleasure of working for a couple of years with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, just at a time when they were revising their sustainable seafood guide.

I got to witness first-hand the amount of research that goes into such a guide, as well as the lengthy discussions and debates about where species belonged in the guide.

The groups that put together these guides care very deeply for marine wildlife and they don’t want to make a mistake.

sustainable seafood guide

A sustainable seafood guide can be very useful in making more sustainable choices at the seafood counter. CC image courtesy of Yusmar Yahaya on Flickr.

Unfortunately, mistakes seem to be a common trend in our management of fisheries. Throughout history we have had example after example of fisheries that have collapsed because we have simply taken too much.

I could go on at length about this, but I shall refrain. After all, the fact that there is a need for sustainable seafood guides, sort of says it all.

So, instead, I will focus my efforts on giving some tips for choosing the right sustainable seafood guide for you as well as some general tips for choosing your seafood wisely.

Three tips for choosing the right sustainable seafood guide for you

A number of different organizations have released sustainable seafood guides these days, so which one is the right one? Here are some tips for choosing the right guide for you:

1 – It has to be relevant to where you live –There is obviously no point in holding a seafood guide for Australia if you live in the US. Though there is likely some species overlap, you need to have species and common names for the region you live. Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, has developed a guide for different regions throughout the US. WWF has seafood guides for different regions throughout the world.

2 – You have to want to use it – A guide is useless if you never look at it. So, if you know now that you’re unlikely to pull out a little wallet guide in the middle of ordering your meal, go for an electronic version. Many come with a downloadable App for Android and iPhone, such as the one by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or that is searchable online such as the version put out by the Marine Conservation Society. The key is to choose a style that you are most likely to use.

3 – Choose one that has the level of detail you need – Basically, all sustainable seafood guides come in various levels of detail. There is usually a pocket guide that has a list of good, ok and bad choices. This is usually accompanied by a more comprehensive guide that has a great deal more information about each species. Usually a bit about the biology of the species, a list of other common names it is sold as, how it is caught and information about the status of the stock. This is also where fine details can be found. For instance, perhaps a species is caught using various methods, and one is more sustainable than the other. Or perhaps a species is sustainable except for in a particular area where it has been overharvested. Finally, there may be even more information associated with a website where there isn’t a page limitation.

In my experience, if you have questions about the guide, about a particular species in the guide or even if you have suggestions on how the guide could be more user friendly, the groups behind the guide are more than willing to speak with you. For them, it lets them know that the guide is being used by consumers and it potentially helps make improvements for further editions.

Four general rules for buying seafood

If you don’t have a sustainable seafood guide, you can still follow some general rules when purchasing your ocean products, which will make your choices more sustainable. If the information isn’t on the label…ASK your fishmonger. It is so important to ask questions.

1 – Eat localThis rule applies to all food, not just seafood. The more local a product is, the fresher it is and the taste will be worth any extra cost. Not only that, it is more likely to have been caught in a small-scale fishery than in a large industrial fishery. It also means less carbon emissions associated with transport.

2 – Avoid certain fishing methods – Some fishing methods have much bigger environmental impacts than others. For instance, some methods have enormous by-catch issues where large quantities of non-targeted species, including turtles and seabirds, are caught and thrown back, usually dead. Always avoid fish that are caught by bottom trawling, long-lining or by using explosives or chemicals. These methods are an environmental nightmare. Click here to learn more about the impact of different fishing methods.

3 – Eat low on the food chain – Eating herbivores is more sustainable than eating carnivores because there is energy lost with every step up the food chain. Obviously we have followed this rule on land, so why not in water? For starters, herbivores do not have the bioaccumulation of toxins, such as mercury, that carnivores such as tuna have. This makes it a healthier choice as well as a more sustainable choice. Catfish, for example, is a more sustainable choice even if it’s farmed, than tuna.

4 – Look for the label – Some fisheries have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), so you can look for MSC certified products as a more sustainable choice.

Some people would argue that sustainable seafood is an oxymoron. I certainly see that side of the argument. However, it truly comes down to having the right number of boats in the right water at the right time and getting the right price for the product. If we can get that right, I think it is possible.

If you choose to eat fish and seafood, then I highly recommend a sustainable seafood guide to help you with your purchasing. They also make great gifts for seafood lovers…spreads the word and all! Here’s a great little video to watch too:

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