Sustainable fish: Why it matters what you eat

Allecia Vermillion

Assuming there are plenty of fish in the sea is a great adage for dating, but a less effective policy at dinnertime. Decades of large-scale commercial fishing have dwindled some species of seafood, while others are farmed in conditions that pollute the environment or compromise the quality of the fish.

The following primer offers some guidance on sustainable seafood choices.

As the fishing industry gets better and better at harvesting fish from the ocean, many seafood populations have shrunk considerably. Worldwide, the amount of wild fish being caught leveled off more than two decades ago, and today 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at capacity or beyond, according to Seafood Watch, an awareness program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Northern California.

Reducing the populations of certain desirable fish from oceans can tamper with our ecosystem. Some methods of catching a specific fish can also ensnare other fish or animals, which often get discarded. Farmed fish can seem like a safer option, but the conditions of these farms vary widely.

Additionally, fish farmed in polluted waters can contain contaminants like mercury.

Several groups offer programs to recognize fisheries that refrain from overfishing the oceans. Like many sustainable lifestyle choices, selecting eco-friendly fish species to eat can be complicated. In many cases, seafood’s sustainability depends on whether it was farmed or wild, and where it originated. For example, U.S.-farmed tilapia is grown under environmentally friendly circumstances, while tilapia from China or Taiwan is not, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

What to eat

There are many types of certified seafood, but here are some of the more common options.

- U.S.-farmed catfish

- Line-caught Pacific cod

- Wild-caught Pacific Halibut

- Mussels

- Wild-caught Pacific salmon

- U.S. farmed freshwater shrimp

- U.S.-farmed rainbow trout

- Scallops

What to avoid

Again, the list is much longer, but take a pass on these species.

- Wild imported caviar

- Chilean sea bass

- Atlantic halibut

- Monkfish

- Skate

- Imported shrimp

- Red snapper

- Wild-caught cod, both Pacific and Atlantic

On the Web

Where to get information on sustainable seafood:

- U.S. FishWatch by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (

- Marine Stewardship Council ( a widely respected international fishery certification program used by companies like Whole Foods.

- Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch ( The respected aquarium’s consumer awareness program suggests alternatives for popular fish on its watch list.

Did you know? The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers an iPhone application and a pocket guide to help you make sound selections on the go.

Eco-life: Urgent management

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 11 of the world’s 15 major fishing areas need urgent management. The number of fish taken out of the world’s oceans has increased fivefold in the past 50 years, according to the FAO.