Good Seafood Choices

Navigating Through a Sea of Confusion

  • Mark Wexler
  • Apr 01, 2004
New national and regional guides from researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium help seafood lovers make good decisions about what to eat.

BEFORE BETTY and Max Allen take a vacation to Hawaii this spring, they are doing some homework. The Washington, D.C., couple is outlining a detailed itinerary that even includes the names of the restaurants where they might eat each day. And though they don’t know what entrees those restaurants might be serving, the Allens do know which kinds of fish they can order—and which kinds they will avoid.

"We’ve stopped eating imported shrimp at home because we read that a lot of fish and other marine animals are being destroyed to get those shrimp to the table," says Max, an accountant who prides himself on his consumer awareness. "So we’re really pleased to learn that shrimp are farmed locally in Hawaii using sustainable methods, and that we can eat them guilt-free. It’s the first thing I plan to order when we get there."

The Allens learned about the Hawaiian shrimp by referring to some new regional recommendations from researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California who are trying to steer consumers through the confusion surrounding which kinds of seafood come from sustainable sources, and which do not. "Sustainable fisheries and farms are managed in ways that help ensure the long-term survival of species," says George Leonard, science manager for the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. "Most people have no idea that the choices they make at home and in restaurants may be contributing to the depletion of some marine resources."

Since its inception in the late 1990s, Seafood Watch has been one of the leading sources for information to help Americans make the right choices. Initially, the program used scientific data to produce a list of seafood options for people on the West Coast, broken down into three categories: "best choices," "proceed with caution" and "worst" choices. Now, it is providing similar options for consumers in other parts of the country.

Earlier this year, with the release of the Hawaii list, the Seafood Watch staff began publishing a series of guides specific to different regions of the country. Southeast, Northeast and Midwest lists currently are under review by fisheries experts and resource managers in those regions. "No matter where you live, we recommend avoiding certain types of fish such as Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna because they are rapidly disappearing," notes program manager Jennifer Dianto. "But in some other instances, our recommendations clearly vary from region to region."

Simultaneously, the program also released its first national card (bound adjacent to this article), which provides a universal guide for seafood lovers to follow until all of the regional lists are available. "We realize how difficult it is to make generalizations when so many factors are involved," says Dianto, "but consumers need some basis to help make informed decisions."

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Americans consumed 4.5 billion pounds of marine food in 2002—or nearly 16 pounds per person—a 7 percent increase over the previous year. Unfortunately, the country’s growing love affair with seafood comes at a time when scientists are warning citizens to limit the amounts they eat of certain fish because those creatures may harbor potentially dangerous levels of mercury and other pollutants (see "Your Health," page 18). It also comes at a time when experts are detailing the extent to which the world’s fish stocks are overexploited.

Last spring, for example, a team of Canadian scientists reported in the journal Nature that fully 90 percent of the world’s populations of large fish species—including swordfish, halibut, cod, marlin and flounder—have disappeared from the oceans. The report was based on historical data dating back to the start of large-scale commercial fishing operations in the 1950s—the first such study of its kind. "We are really too good at killing these things," observed Ransom Myers, one of the researchers.

Industrial fishing is only part of the problem. Another factor: Many of the techniques used to catch or farm some of the most widely eaten species are tremendously wasteful. Consider shrimp, which two years ago surpassed canned tuna as the most popular seafood among American consumers. According to Seafood Watch, more than 20 different species of shrimp or prawns enter U.S. markets from foreign sources. Most of the captively raised crustaceans come from Asia, where shrimp farming is destroying coastal habitat. Wild shrimp, meanwhile, usually are captured in trawl nets, which have the largest bycatch of any commercial fishery: Anywhere from 3 to 15 pounds of marine life are caught and discarded for every pound of shrimp captured in such nets. That’s why Seafood Watch recommends avoiding imported shrimp. (U.S. farmed and wild-caught shrimp are listed under the "caution" category.)

"I used to cook mostly imported farmed shrimp and salmon, and never paid attention to where they came from," says Carole Baldwin, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. "But once I learned the issues, I took those two out of my diet and discovered a whole new world of seafood choices."

For Baldwin, who recently coauthored a Smithsonian sustainable seafood cookbook called One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish, the best way consumers can make a difference is to diversify what they eat. "If we make selections over a broad range of well-managed species," she says, "we can help relieve the burden on overfished species."

The principle also applies to restaurants, which serve about two-thirds of the seafood Americans consume. "It’s not just about cooking anymore," says Wade Wiestling of Oceanaire, an upscale restaurant chain. "We also need to be aware of sustainable fisheries and guide our customers to the best choices."

Not long ago, chefs at hundreds of restaurants across the country pledged to stop serving Chilean sea bass, even though it was among the most popular items on their menus. The problem: Most Chilean sea bass is actually a slow-breeding species called Patagonian toothfish, which suffers from severe overfishing. "Many diners think that if an item is on the menu, there’s no problem with it," says Christopher Andrews, executive director of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, where some three dozen eateries agreed to remove the sea bass and other species in trouble from their fare. Such decisions, adds Wiestling, "are definitely the right thing to do from a business standpoint."

They’re also the right thing from a consumer standpoint. "I feel pretty helpless when it comes to so many of the environmental problems I read about today," says Max Allen. "But at least I can do my part to support responsible fishing practices, and not eating much imported shrimp is a small sacrifice to make. Plus, now my wife and I have a good excuse for planning another trip to Hawaii some time."

Mark Wexler is editorial director of this magazine. For more information, see

America’s Favorite Seafood/Fish (in order of consumption)

1. Shrimp: Americans ate a record 3.4 pounds per person in 2001; most of it was imported from more than 40 countries.

2. Canned tuna: 2.9 pounds per person were consumed in 2001; almost all of it was canned outside the continental United States.

3. Salmon: U.S. consumption increased 366 percent between 1988 and 2001, in large part due to the growth of salmon farming abroad.

4. Pollock: Widely served as low-priced fillets, fish sandwiches and surimi (artificial crab); much of it comes from Alaskan waters.

5. Catfish: U.S. fish farmers, located primarily in southern states, produce an estimated 600 million pounds annually.

Sources: Seafood Choices Alliance; NOAA

Web Exclusive 
Sea Turtles Snared

You know that your seafood choices can shift demand from fragile and overfished populations to species with more healthy numbers. But did you know that more than fish are affected by the choices you make?

Deep sea fishermen going after tuna and swordfish regularly hook sea turtles by accident, according to a new Duke University study. In fact, endangered loggerheads and leatherbacks have a 50 percent chance of getting snared.

After surveying international turtle bycatch reports, researchers Rebecca Lewison, Sloan Freeman and Larry Crowder estimated that more than 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherbacks were accidentally caught in fishing line in 2000. Many of these encounters were fatal. The situation may be dire considering that habitat loss, egg poaching and predation have already reduced these turtle populations by 80 to 90 percent.

To offset the problem, the Duke researchers are calling for oceanic wildlife reserves. But because turtles migrate, the trick is to make the reserves move with the species as they follow ocean upwellings in search of food.

To pursue this idea further, the team is currently tagging turtles with satellite transmitters to learn more about their migrations.—Heidi Ridgley

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