Sustainable Seafood

Last week I had a great conversation with Don Mayfield of Fishmonger Don. Don is passionate about the ocean and about working with local, sustainable, and traceable ingredients. As a nutritionist, I know that seafood is nourishing, and can play a big part in our health-building diets. Seafood is full of important nutrients ranging from omega 3 fatty acids in fatty fish to vitamin D and minerals such as iodine and zinc. Another benefit in my book is that it is usually quick to cook.

While I love a good piece of fish, I have been thinking through a lot of questions I have about the safety and sustainability of seafood so I went to someone who really knows the fishing industry and who is deeply committed to respecting ocean wildlife. Here is what I learned.

The seafood industry is complicated, international, and nuanced. Billions of people around the world rely on seafood for their nutrition and economic livelihoods. Yet, most of our seafood around the world is being overfished. Fishing is damaging sensitive habitats and polluting our waters. Farmed fishing contributes to these problems and creates others by overfishing small fish and relying on industrial farmed soy and corn for feed, as well as using hormones, antibiotics, and colorings. And all of this is being affected by climate change.

The word “sustainable” is not an official certified designation. Basically, it does not mean anything and can be used by any company. Both the way seafood products are caught and the way they are farmed can harm the ocean. Different countries have different policies regarding fishing and fish farming. The number one thing I learned is that you can’t just buy seafood off the shelf or off a menu without asking some questions of your vendor.

The United States has the strictest environmental guidelines for fishing of any country guiding how, where, and when we can fish. Here on the west coast, our states and other stakeholders are working together to protest the environment. In fact, some west coast fish stocks were declared overfished by coming together, agreeing on environmental regulations, and then following them, we have been able to rebuild some fish populations in 20 years, even when we estimated that it would take 30 years to do so. Other countries are not as focused on protecting ocean wildlife. The best thing you can do to choose sustainable seafood is to buy United States or Canadian wild-caught fish, which have the strongest environmental protection policies anywhere in the world.

It is expensive to buy high-quality fish. Interestingly, most of the fish we eat in this country is imported because imported fish is cheaper. And most of our fish is exported to the European Union, Japan, and China who are willing to spend more money. Take a look at your portion size. A good guide is the size of the palm of your hand. One way to save money on seafood is to buy just what you need and keep your portion sizes in check. If you don’t like seafood, try fresh, wild-caught local fish. If you have never tasted it, you are in for a treat.

Much of the fish that we eat, especially salmon is farm-raised. Some of the questions to ask about farm-raised fish is what is it fed, is it given antibiotics or colorings, and if it is farm-raised on the coast, is it harming the environment? If you had talked to me a couple of years ago and asked me farmed or wild, I would have said stick with wild fish. Since then, I have learned that California is home to at least one really innovative, trout farm. The company is McFarland Springs, and it farms trout in a river in Susanville, feeding it a unique blend of algae oils, not ground-up fish meal. Here is an interesting article with more information.

A couple of takeaways

  1. When you go to buy seafood, look for USA or Canadian caught wild fish.
  2. Whether you are in a restaurant or in the grocery store, ask where their fish is sourced, and make conscious decisions about the seafood you are consuming.
  3. The best resource to find out if the fish you are eating is sustainable is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website.

I recommend buying seafood from a source that is transparent with where their fish comes from and/or a vendor with who you can talk and ask questions. My favorite place to buy seafood is from Fishmonger Don. His catch is available to order on Fridays for Saturday delivery or pick-up in Fairfax, CA. Everything is traceable so I know that is truly sustainable, and in season.