Sustainable Seafood: What Does It Really Mean?

Sustainable Seafood: What Does It Really Mean? post image

Sustainable is a word that is bandied about in hopes of being politically correct. But because it is difficult to define, you may think you are purchasing a sustainable fish when, in fact, you are not. The term sustainable seafood has no governmental definition. That puts it on par with the term natural on boxed foods. It is a meaningless marketing ploy. How can you be sure you are getting the real deal?

Sustainable Seafood is difficult to define

In order to define the term sustainable, you need the answers to some important questions that involve the particular species, the methods used to catch or raise the fish and the location of the fish.

If you are purchasing wild caught seafood, you need to ask the following:

  • What is the population of the species at specific locations?
  • Are the populations strong and is there a plan for managing the resource responsibly?
  • What is the catch method?  Does it damage the environment?
  • Is there by-catch (also called incidental catch)?
  • Are the fish caught before they reproduce — this is damaging to the population.
  • Are the fish slow growing or fast growing — if slow, they are more vulnerable.

The issues involved with wild caught fish


Large fish that live a long time and those that are slow to reproduce are among the most vulnerable. Additionally, when one kind of fish is no longer plentiful, fishermen may move on to new species. When the larger fish are exhausted, they move on to the smaller fish. The problem is that these smaller fish are also food for other fish, sea birds and sea mammals. Removing them will affect the entire ecosystem. This is called fishing down the food web.

Habitat Damage

Bottom trawling and dredging are top offenders, because they destroy everything in their path. In Alaskan waters alone, bottom trawls remove over one million pounds of deep water corals and sponges from the sea floor each year. In general, traps and pots cause less seafloor damage and catch fewer unintended species than other types of fishing gear that contact the seafloor.


Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and porpoises, die as bycatch. As many as 200,000 loggerhead sea turtles and 50,000 leatherback sea turtles are caught annually. Longline fishing also kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds when they become entangled in driftnets or caught on longline hooks.  Boats need to be outfitted with more selective gear to reduce this outrageous consequence of trying to haul in thousands of fish at one time.

If you are purchasing farmed fish you need to ask the following questions:

  • Will there be a negative impact on the local environment?  To what extent?
  • What is being fed to the fish — the food should be the natural diet of the fish.
  • Are chemicals or drugs being introduced to the fish in the water or in the feed?

The issues involved with farmed fish (aquaculture)

Their food may be wild fish

As a carnivore, salmon eat over three pounds of wild fish for every pound of weight gain. Tuna takes over 15 pounds of feed for every pound of weight gain. Alternative feed may also pose problems if it includes GM corn or soy.


Most farmed species are not the same as wild species in the surrounding area. Escapees can potentially breed with wild species, causing genetic changes and the possible extinction of certain populations. They can also establish themselves as invasive species. Additionally, they may compete with existing wild species for food. This is one of the problems with allowing the farming of the genetically engineered Frankenfish. If it escapes, (and it will) it can breed with true wild salmon and cause permanent genetic changes to the wild fish.

Habitat Damage

Farms that are open and allow surrounding water to flow through the enclosures—or those that divert wastes and chemicals into the environment—pollute adjacent waterways and habitats. This includes floating net cages or ponds that exchange water with the ocean.

In Thailand, Ecuador and other tropical nations, coastal mangrove forests once sheltered large numbers of wild plants and animals that local people used to feed their families. But after a few years of intensive farming, the accumulation of waste products and chemical pollution force the farmers to abandon their farm ponds, clear a new section of mangrove forest and rebuild—an unsustainable cycle that impacts local people and their ability to live in these areas.

Some fish farmers are working to develop closed systems to manage wastes. For instance, shrimp pond farmers in Thailand are beginning to close their systems, filtering their ponds and composting wastes to keep them out of neighboring waters.

There is a lot to know

Clearly, you need to know quite a bit about the fish, the species, where it came from and who caught it as well as how it was caught, in order to determine if it is truly sustainable.

Who has time to do all this research when you need to make the purchase and then prepare dinner? Not I and probably not you.

There are companies that are committed to real sustainable seafood

Much of the time I post about the poisons in our food supply and the greedy corporations that casually destroy everything natural in their path. Today I am thrilled to tell you about a company that is so committed to sustainable fishing, it actually was created in order to play it forward.

Monterey Bay was teeming with seafood in years past

Monterey Bay is a magical place. Rift with history, it celebrates the old sardine canneries that made the area famous. Additionally, one cannot go far in Salinas or Monterey Bay and not see something about the famous writer John Steinbeck who wrote so eloquently about the area.

A few years ago we visited the aquarium and surrounding areas. I could go back there in a heartbeat as it was a fantastic experience. The world class aquarium has enough there to keep young children (and adults) occupied for days.

There is a special Seafood Watch exhibit about sustainable fish that is a great teaching tool for parents and educators that is presented in a very fun way. You can print out a pocket guide on which seafoods are best for your region of the U.S. or download a convenient iPhone app. But at home it is difficult to know if the fish you are getting from the fish store is truly sustainably raised and caught.

Welcome to our new sponsor

Click here to learn more about this fabulous company and to purchase real sustainable fish.


This post is shared at: Gluten Free Wednesday, Allergy Free Wednesday, Sustainable Ways, Whole Food Wednesday, Whole Foods Wednesday, Healthy 2Day, Real Food Wednesday, Mommy Club, Creative Juice Thursday, Simple Lives Thursday, Fresh Bites Friday, Freaky Friday, Country Homemaker Hop, Fight Back Friday, LHITS, Friday Food, Seasonal Celebration, Sugar Free Sunday, Melt in Mouth Monday, Monday Mania, Barnyard Hop, Mouthwatering Monday, Sustainable Seafood, Slightly Indulgent Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday, Tasty Tuesday Naptime, Health & Soul Hop

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Leave a Comment

  • France @ Beyond The Peel May 31, 2012, 1:50 pm

    The pocket guide is so handy, since I could never remember which is what by the time I get to the store. Great post Jill. You’re right there’s a lot to know before pulling out the cash and taking animal protein home!

  • Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network June 8, 2012, 5:56 am

    You are right to point out this issue it’s of such grave concern and this problem is an issue we have here in the UK, with chronic over-fishing and cheap fish wide-spread:-(

  • Judy@Savoring Today June 9, 2012, 10:47 pm

    Jill, thanks for putting this together, it is so helpful to know what questions to ask when considering a source for fish. Thanks for sharing it on Hearth & Soul. 🙂

  • April @ The 21st Century Housewife June 10, 2012, 8:16 pm

    I just visited Monterey Bay Aquarium last week. It’s one of our favourite aquariums in the world, and I love how focused they are on sustainable fishing. (Although I do find it hard to think about eating fish when I’m looking at them there!) I really enjoyed reading your post. It is so important to know the source of all our food, and especially seafood.

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  • Linnea petaccio August 26, 2016, 6:23 am

    I tried to click to find the real sustanable fish comp. Said ERROR PLEASE LET ME NO thanks so much I like the news letter to PLEASE I don’t have money to give @ this time if I can I will won’t be much again thanks so much you have already helped me greatly Linnea

  • Johnny Mcdaniel February 13, 2017, 10:19 am

    You have no idea of what you speak….nor can the public know what or how to substain a fishery…neither do goverments…science is falsely accusing because of there self intrest…not to leave you abandoned in this rebuttal…I will say as a life long fisherman…no body watched over our harvest or its sustainability better or with a more observant eye than the fisherman themselves….have a wonderfull day…just a fisherman