Go Back
Print this page

Food + Cooking

Gourmet’s Guide to Buying Sustainable Seafood

seafood shopping

The afternoon that I spoke to Henry Lovejoy, president of the sustainable-seafood purveyor EcoFish, both of us, separately, had eaten tuna for lunch: canned albacore caught in the Pacific Ocean. Same species, same ocean, but Lovejoy’s lunch was environmentally benign. Mine, I’m embarrassed to say, was an ecological disaster.

The difference was that Lovejoy’s tuna salad was made from albacore caught by a boat trolling off Southern California. Mine came from Thailand, and it was caught in tropical waters on a long line that drifted across miles of ocean, trailing hundreds of baited hooks, killing not only the tuna that became my lunch, but endangered sea turtles, sharks, pelagic birds, and dozens of other aquatic species—all dumped dead back into the water as bycatch.

Our lunches were a fitting prelude to the conversation that followed. I wanted simple, straightforward advice on how to navigate all the labels and the buzzwords so that I could choose seafood that was both eco-friendly and good for me. I also had questions that even the excellent guides published by Seafood Watch and Environmental Defense couldn’t answer. I figured that Lovejoy, with roughly two decades of experience in the seafood industry, could provide some expert guidance. Here’s his take on the major issues.

Barry Estabrook

Farmed or Wild?

“There’s no black-and-white response to that question,” Lovejoy says. “There are good [seafood] farms and good wild fisheries; there are bad farms and bad wild fisheries.” So these labels don’t tell you anything unless you know the species (and when you throw the word organic into the mix, it gets even trickier). A few helpful rules:

American catfish, trout, and tilapia: Farmed is an excellent choice for these species. Tilapia—which have come out of nowhere to become one of the five most-consumed fish in the country recently—are vegetarians, so they don’t require a diet of “feeder” fish the way carnivores do and are therefore a very sustainable choice. “To avoid chemical contamination, I would choose fish farmed in the United States and steer away from ones raised in China,” Lovejoy says; Central American tilapia is also a safer bet than Asian.

Crabs: Recently the population of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has plummeted. Are any other crab species okay to eat? “Oregon and Washington Dungeness,” says Lovejoy. “You can’t go wrong. There are a lot available, and it’s probably the model crab fishery for the world. And they’re delicious.”

Lobster: “Maine lobsters are a good choice,” says Lovejoy, who started out in the lobster business. “I see that the Marine Stewardship Council is assessing the Maine fishery for certification. If it gets MSC certification, which is likely, lobster will become a great choice.” Is the Marine Stewardship Council’s blessing really all that it’s cracked up to be? “There’s no better organization out there than the MSC. If you see the MSC label, you know it’s sustainable,” Lovejoy says.

Salmon: Avoid farmed varieties—even the “organic” kind, since that label, when applied to farmed salmon, “doesn’t mean a whole lot of anything,” says Lovejoy. (There are no USDA standards for seafood to date.) Go for wild Alaskan salmon instead.

Scallops: Farmed is the best way to go here. Wild scallops are traditionally harvested by dredging the sea floor, which causes environmental damage, so “they are best avoided,” Lovejoy says. “And you should buy scallops labeled ‘dry’—otherwise they’ve been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate. The industry claims that it’s a preservative, but the real reason it’s used is that it causes the meaty tissue to absorb up to 50 percent of its weight in water. It’s the biggest case of consumer fraud in the seafood industry.”

What about diver scallops? “That is an abused term,” Lovejoy says. “It’s supposed to mean that a scuba diver actually went down and hand-picked the scallops off the bottom, causing no damage to the environment. But I’d be surprised if 1 percent of the scallops advertised as such on menus are actually harvested by divers. It’s unfortunate, because true diver scallops are a wonderful thing.”

Shrimp: “I usually like to give people cut and dried answers, but shrimp is not only [America’s] favorite seafood, it is also one of the most complicated when it comes to buying decisions,” Lovejoy says. In general, farmed shrimp have issues with pollution and habitat destruction, and wild shrimp have problems with bycatch, “although wild Oregon pink shrimp and wild Alaskan spot prawns are good choices if you can find them.” He adds, “farmed shrimp from the Far East are not really a good choice; the vast majority have chemical contaminants in them—antibiotics, pesticides, and God knows what else.” Once the USDA implements organic standards for seafood, certified organic shrimp will most likely be the best choice; for now, Lovejoy sources shrimp that are certified by Naturland, a nonprofit farmers’ association based in Germany. “There are some areas where they can improve, but in the absence of the USDA, their standards are the best,” Lovejoy says.

Country of Origin

Okay, so certain regions are off-limits when it comes to buying seafood—but how do you know what region it comes from? In 2002 the federal government passed a law that requires country of origin labeling (COOL) on seafood sold in the U.S. It’s not always easy to find, but there is a label on all fish and shellfish indicating the country they were produced in and whether they are wild or farm-raised. But there’s also a loophole, Lovejoy says: “If a foreign product enters the U.S. and later has ‘value added’ to it (further processing), it can then be labeled as a product of the U.S.” Conversely, many U.S. seafood products are shipped to China for processing, because labor is cheaper there, and then shipped back to the U.S.—a system that “has a huge carbon footprint,” Lovejoy notes. “You can sometimes tell if a product has been shipped through a place like China for further processing, since for instance an item called ‘Wild Alaskan Salmon’ may say in finer print ‘Product of China.’”

The Worst Offenders

“Chilean sea bass and orange roughy are the poster children for abused species,” Lovejoy says. In markets recently you may have seen Chilean sea bass labeled as sustainably caught—but these fish come from one small fishery, so you should still avoid the species. “I mean, there’s one healthy population left on the planet,” Lovejoy explains. “We’re going to eat that, too?”

Bluefin tuna are another on the do-not-disturb list. “Eating bluefin tuna is the moral equivalent of hunting for one of the last surviving wild tigers,” he says. “Atlantic cod, grouper, and sharks also make the list.”

Accept (Some) Substitutes

One of the reasons that Chilean sea bass are in trouble is that they are so delicious—mild-flavored, white-fleshed, impossible to overcook. Are there any good substitutes? “Alaskan sablefish, sometimes called black cod, are fabulous and completely sustainable,” Lovejoy says. “They are closely related to Chilean sea bass and have many of the same culinary attributes. [Chef] Ming Tsai, one of my customers, used to feature Chilean sea bass in a signature dish at his restaurant. Several years ago asked me to source something else. He uses sablefish now and the dish is terrific.”

What about substitutes for some of the other off-limits species? “Alaskan—not Atlantic—halibut is a good substitute for any whitefish, including grouper, orange roughy, and Atlantic cod,” Lovejoy says. “Alaskan cod is also good. So is Alaskan pollack.”

How about Atlantic swordfish, which is starting to show up again at fish counters? “Things have improved, but Atlantic swordfish should be avoided—if only because it has a high mercury content,” Lovejoy says.

And forget about that lovely tuna steak seared on the grill, even if you can find a substitute for bluefin. “I avoid fresh tuna steaks—that would be my advice, unfortunately,” Lovejoy says. “Tuna are really getting hammered. There is one good tuna fishery, the U. S. Pacific coast albacore fishery, and most of that is sold canned. With other tuna fisheries, you have problems with by-catch.”

Contamination with Mercury, Pcbs, and Other Chemicals

Ah yes, what about mercury? (As if keeping everything else straight weren’t hard enough.) Luckily there’s a good rule of thumb here: “Most of the fish that are on the ‘avoid’ side of the ledger for being overfished also tend to be the most contaminated,” Lovejoy says. “Chilean sea bass, shark, orange roughy, swordfish, and most tunas definitely have contamination issues.” When in doubt, check your fish against a guide that offers extensive health information—like the one put out by Environmental Defense.

The Best Choice

Is there one fish that has it all—that’s good tasting, easy to cook, readily available, not contaminated with mercury or PCBs, and harvested in a completely sustainable manner?

“If someone wants a blanket statement on what to eat, I say wild Alaska salmon,” Lovejoy says—any species, including chinook, chum, coho, sockeye, king, red, and pink. “They are well managed, very high in Omega 3s, and very low in mercury and PCBs.”