WWF seafood guides or MCS Good Fish Guide). Be aware that some species can be mislabelled. For instance, in fish and chip shops, the names ‘rock salmon’, ‘huss’ and ‘flake’ are all used to label a small species of shark known as a dogfish! The rule of thumb is, if you’re not sure, don’t buy it.
Where did it come from? This means not just in terms of the region, but also the fishery. This can be a grey area, but some fisheries have been associated with human rights abuses and illegal activity and/or are considered unsustainable. A quick Google search should help you out. Whether buying from a grocer or ordering from a restaurant, make sure you ask where they source their fish if it isn’t already clearly labelled. Generally, it’s best to buy local. Not only does this support your local fishers, but it has a smaller carbon footprint and is often cheaper, too. Plus, it’s easier to find out exactly where your fish came from and…
How was it caught? You’ll often see this information on packaging or written on the menu of good restaurants (a good fishmonger should also be able to tell you). Generally, pole-and-line and rod-and-reel (sometimes also known as ‘line-caught’) are more sustainable and less damaging. When it comes to shellfish, hand-dived or hand-harvested is often the more sustainable choice.
Get used to researching and asking for this information. It can be difficult to find sometimes, but a little effort goes a long way. Again, a safe bet is,** if you don’t know, don’t buy**.
The best places to buy sustainable seafood will depend on where you live and the choices available to you. But if possible, the best option is to buy local and seasonal. Find your local fish market, where you can chat directly with the people who caught your seafood and tell you exactly how they did it (this makes asking the questions in the previous paragraph 10 times easier!).
Another good tip is to find a good fishmonger. These are the people who know what’s in season and how the fish has been caught and they are likely to have sourced their fish locally. They’ll also be able to recommend different species to try, which brings me onto my next point: finding alternatives. The most popular species, and the ones we’re most comfortable with, are often the most exploited. But you can sometimes swap your favourite for a more sustainable alternative. This will again depend on where you are in the world – but there are online resources to help you make your decision.
If your most viable option is the supermarket, the best thing you can do is make sure you know a) where the fish came from and b) how it was caught. There are also some internationally recognised labels and certifications that can give you a better idea of the most sustainable option.
One of the most broadly applied certifications is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue label, which appears on tens of thousands of products around the world. To be MSC certified, fisheries have to go through an independent assessment, carried out by scientists, that ensures they meet the MSC standard for environmentally sustainable fishing. The fisheries are also audited annually to make sure they maintain these standards. Another similar labelling system is Friend of the Sea (FoS).
However, treat these labels with caution. It’s easy to assume that an eco-label represents total sustainability, and while they do represent better practices than average and buying certified seafood is almost always better than not, seafood is not necessarily completely sustainable because it has a label. Where possible, it’s best to combine the label with knowledge of where the food came from and how it was obtained.
Aquaculture, or farming fish, is often touted as a viable option to replace wild-caught fish. While it does in some way avoid the problem of overfishing, it comes with other environmental concerns, including habitat degradation and pollution due to the use of chemicals and excess nitrogen from concentrated fish waste (the result of lots of fish stuck in one space!). Additionally, other smaller species of fish are caught in large numbers to feed some farmed varieties, contributing to the overfishing problem. So the answer is a lot more nuanced than a simple yes or no. Until practices have improved, it’s hard to say whether farmed fish is a viable alternative.
Renowned marine scientist Dr Sylvia Earle recently suggested that people should abstain from eating seafood until we have figured out how to capture it sustainably. And this does make sense – if you can, the easiest way to reduce pressure on seafood stocks and prevent large-scale issues like by-catch is to avoid seafood entirely. You can get many of the health benefits, like omega-3 fatty acids, from plant-based sources.
So, giving up seafood is an option – just not an option for everyone. The best alternative is to be a conscious consumer: know exactly where your seafood came from, how it was caught and buy locally and seasonally wherever possible.
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