Sustainable Seafood and How to Find It

Fish market in Suriname. (Photo: © Cristina Mittermeier)

You have heard by now that ocean health is in serious decline, and fish stocks are increasingly being depleted. What happened to the fish? We ate them.

Recent assessments show that more than 80 percent of commercial fisheries are overexploited, depleted, or being exploited to their maximum capacity. Meanwhile, demand for seafood continues to rise. Aquaculture may provide an opportunity to fill the gap, though as our recent report reveals, it poses its own sustainability issues and trade-offs.

What does this mean for you as a consumer? Navigating the sea of seafood options, concerns, and limitations can be overwhelming, but your choices can help shift demand away from unsustainably harvested stocks, putting pressure on them to improve practices so that all fisheries are better managed.

The most prolific tools for consumers are wallet guide cards, which use a traffic light color system to rank sustainability of different types of seafood. These cards promise to help you to avoid eating endangered or toxic fish (mercury advisories are noted), and spare other animals — such as sea turtles — affected by fishing. However, difficulties exist:

  • Seafood guides are not going to save the ocean on their own. Recent analyses on impact of the guides indicate a limited influence on actual buying habits; I believe this is in part because people aren’t looking at them or using them correctly. Think of it like a voter registration card; carrying it around has no value unless you get yourself to the right polling place, follow the directions and cast your vote.
  • Even with the guides, deciphering sustainable seafood can be confusing. It is difficult to categorize entire species as good or bad. Sustainability depends on where and how the fish was caught — factors not listed on the label — so you may see species listed in all three categories. Also, because of the inconsistency in names used to describe products, it may be hard to know exactly what you’re getting.

The good news? There are things you can do.

  • Shop at supermarkets and restaurants that have made a credible commitment to sustainable seafood. Some stores have adopted policies to stock more sustainable offerings and reduce their purchases of unsustainable products.
  • Use seafood guides — preferably a mobile app — to aid your decision when actually looking at a menu or grocery case. I recommend Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which provides an interactive locator (similar to Yelp and Google Places) to help you find and flag restaurants/stores near you. FishPhone by Blue Ocean Institute is another good mobile app service. Both are free. For smartphones other than iPhone or Android, bookmark mobile online guides by Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute. If you don’t have a smartphone or internet, you can text the word FISH and the variety to 30644 and you’ll get an instant reply with sustainability and health advisories.
  • Ask questions: this is key to using any guide list. Requesting information from your server or retailer will show businesses that consumers care about their choices, and want more information.
  • Look for seafood eco-label logos, such as the Marine Stewardship Council. Though there are criticisms against these programs, they at least provide assurance that products have been independently certified as meeting a defined standard for sustainably managed fisheries, and that the retailer is making an effort to stock sustainable products.

When I talk to people about sustainable seafood, the first response I often get is doubt that sustainable fisheries can meet demand, especially from large businesses. But the fact is, this is the only way we are going to keep up with increasing food needs. Consider the alternative of rapidly finishing off the remaining fish in the sea … as the decimation of even one species can have effects on entire ecosystems, potentially leading to collapse of much of the ocean biodiversity.

Though these guides are not perfect, they are currently the best resource available to consumers. However, the fact that current efforts haven’t shown enough results means we need to do more.

CI is working with governments, local communities and other partners to improve fisheries regulation and restore ocean health; our consumer choices can also play an important role. We can encourage change by educating ourselves, making better purchasing choices, and continuing to press for more information. Ultimately, by supporting seafood sustainability, everyone benefits — consumers, businesses, the fishing industry and the fish themselves.

Lindsey Fong is the program coordinator for CI’s Science and Knowledge division.


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  2. Wesley Song says

    Awesome post, trying to find sushi restaurants that are sustainable friendly are tough, but its a good idea on asking where the fish was caught. If a sushi restaurant doesn’t know that, best not to eat the fish anyways.

  3. Clement Chung says

    With the increasing demand for seafood and the corresponding depletion of seafood sources, the alternative is inevitable, there must be large scale fish farms to fill in the gap…

    this is a strategic opportunity for businesses. the future of fisheries is not in fishing trawlers but in fish farms…

  4. Scott says

    Great article with a lot of information, thank-you. I would how ever like to see a follow up with what type of questions to ask to get the best information from store and restaurant employees.

  5. Wreckfish says

    Also check out Gulf Wild where every fish has a tag with a link to a web site where you can see where, when, how and by whom it was caught. Trace and Trust is a new program in Rhode Island that sends locally and sustainably-caught fish to restaurants. They announce what they’re catching on their facebook page, as do the restaurants. It’s important to note that both these programs are made possible by catch share programs that allow the fishermen to fish year-round, and require the fishermen to track their fish to ensure compliance with their catch limit.

  6. Fish Eater says

    This is so important, what a great article! I am sharing with all my friends so future generations can enjoy our delectable treats from the sea!

  7. Lindsey Fong says

    A few additional tips: for the mobile guide apps, I recommend using the search function rather than scrolling through lists. Also, for sushi there is a pocket sized book called Sustainable Sushi.
    And as far as asking questions to store/ restaurant employees: they can give you information you need to accompany the guides, but don’t ask them outright if they know if something is sustainable; they likely aren’t trained to know. If you buy fish in a grocery store, it will be labeled with country of origin, but not necessarily how it was caught.

  8. Karen Alexander says

    This is great information. I get asked all the time how to make sure that fish is sustainably caught and this blog contains the pertinent information in one place. Thanks, Lindsey!

  9. Erika Washburn says

    Great info Lindsey – just sent this off to someone who wanted to know more about seafood. Good stuff! Erika


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