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Demystifying Sustainable Seafood

Jul 28, 2011

by Danielle Tsi

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

I start my day at the grocery store, staring at a display of fish filets in various shades of pink and white. There’s the coral flesh of fresh Alaskan salmon next to chalk-white wedges of sea bass. Delicate filets of sole, halibut and rockfish rest alongside piles of Gulf shrimp in varying sizes. A giant poster behind the brightly lit counter assures me that these items come from “sustainable sources” which meet the store’s “quality standards.” However, a simple poster cannot assuage my skeptical side. I need more information to come to an informed decision. I’m left with a pressing question on the tip of my tongue: Where did this seafood come from and how was it caught?

But let’s start at the source. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the authority on ocean health and the driving force behind the Seafood Watch program — a widely-respected consumer guide to sustainable seafood — two-thirds of the ocean’s wild fish population is in steep decline, compared to levels 30 years ago. Concurrently, farmed fish is increasingly becoming the main source of seafood in our diet. While aquaculture (the farming of fish and seafood) is, theoretically, an ideal alternative to wild seafood, its applications vary around the globe, resulting in a range of environmental impacts. Farmed carnivorous fish — like salmon, for instance — need to be fed over three pounds of wild fish for each pound gained, exacerbating the problem of overfishing. Additionally, fish farms located in open waters leach fish waste, antibiotics and disease into the open sea, further destroying the ocean ecosystem.

Against this backdrop, the aspiring sustainable seafood customer not only needs to understand the different varieties and sub-varieties of fish available but also its provenance and how it was caught. For example, it’s fine to consume Atlantic Cod from Iceland or the Northeast Arctic, where populations are well-managed and caught with a hook. However, it’s not advisable to indulge in Atlantic Cod harvested in the US and Canada because they’re harvested with trawlers, an unselective method that traps and kills other marine life like dolphins and sea turtles (collectively known as “bycatch“). You’d be best to apprise yourself of the difference between hook-and-line and longline fishing, and trust that your fishmonger has reliable suppliers who really sell him Atlantic Cod from Iceland caught with a hook and not a trawler.

Driven by a desire to mitigate the environmental impact of seafood consumption, Bay Area native Martin Reed started i love blue sea, which is currently the only retail distributor of sustainable seafood in the US. “There are lots of fisheries that are responsibly harvesting seafood and I felt that we could add value by helping bring their products to market,” he said.

Recognizing the complexities facing the consumer looking to make an informed choice about their seafood, i love blue sea supplies a mix of farmed and wild seafood to retail customers and restaurants that fall under Seafood Watch’s “Green” (recommended) list through their online store. Said Martin, “It’s a common misnomer that [buying] all wild or all farmed [fish] is a good way to support sustainable seafood.  In reality, it’s much more nuanced than that. There are good and bad choices, in terms of sustainability, with both wild and farmed seafood, so I’m more interested in whether the method of harvest is done responsibly.”

ILBS_Etsy3

Danielle Tsi

As a business looking to add transparency and consistency to the opaque process of sourcing seafood, guides like Seafood Watch are an invaluable resource. “We’re not scientists. We’re a business so we look to the experts for guidance,” said Martin. “It becomes a slippery slope when businesses start setting ‘standards’ for their products.”

In an industry that operates predominantly on trust between each step of a complex supply chain, qualifying that trust is the most time-consuming part of the job. According to Martin, “We spend most of our time finding the most sustainable options to offer. Our first step is to source seafood items from fisheries where fraud (mislabeling) is not present, such as shellfish. Most oysters, mussels and clams are farmed in the ocean and are filter-feeders so they actually clean the surrounding waters.”

“It gets trickier with larger fish,” he continued. “We didn’t sell Yellowfin or Ahi Tuna in the first seven months because there’s a high risk of mislabeling, intentionally or otherwise. We finally introduced it for sale when we were certain that we had a trustworthy buyer getting us tuna caught with a hook and line out of General Santos in the Philippines. We then check the documentation that arrives with each shipment to ensure that this is where the fish actually originates and determine its fishing method.”

ILBS01_Etsy3

Danielle Tsi

Given the tediousness of the whole process, what keeps Martin and his team doing what they’re doing?“It’s easy to be horrified and intimidated by the mass of information out there and just be put off and say, ‘I’m going to stop eating seafood for good.’ But that’s not helping the situation,” he began.

“Consumers need to vote with their pocketbooks, seek out sustainable seafood companies and not be afraid to ask difficult questions and support those who are working to preserve and enhance our oceans. That will hopefully show the fishermen (who use unsustainable methods) that there is a demand and there are rewards for sustainable fishing practices, ultimately convincing them to make the switch.”

From initiatives like Seafood Watch and Greenpeace’s International Seafood Red List to in-depth articles about fishing and cookbooks that entertain and inform, the wealth of information available can be daunting to the novice pescatarian looking to analyze and improve their seafood choices. But, as is often the case with any body of knowledge, it’s up to us as consumers to embrace the arsenal of information at our fingertips and get informed about how that sumptuous lobster roll came to be.

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5 Featured Comments

  • limestone

    limestone said 6 years ago Featured

    I say, and some marine biologists agree, that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing. The demand is too high. Reducing consumption is the only way to make fishing more sustainable.

  • maechevrette

    maechevrette said 6 years ago Featured

    I am so happy to see this article here (and happy that the Etsy blog touches on art/craft related subjects as well as informative articles about living sustainably-- as both are intertwined) because I love, LOVE seafood-- I mean, in like a really weird, "I-should-probably-eat-something-else-sometime" way. Sashimi, smoked salmon, mussels marinara, lobster rolls on the Boston waterfront, and oysters, oysters, oysters. Oh yes... oysters. I'm glad you mentioned i love blue sea, and touched on the importance of transparency in the seafood business (as it should be in all food businesses!) Mostly I just love that you made this sort of confusing but very important topic so clear. Seafood lovers need to make an effort to ensure that we do the right thing for the oceans whenever possible, for nature's sake and for ours. Also, for anyone interested-- the Seafood Watch program mentioned above actually has an iPhone app that can tell you on the spot which fish from which parts of the world are "Green" and which are not. It's great to use at the market to find out if the particular fish or shellfish you are considering purchasing was harvested sustainably, and help you make more conscientious consumer decisions. It can also recommend local restaurants and markets that have been certified to carry sustainably caught fish, so you can choose them over others that support unsustainable fishing. You might even find a new favorite fishmonger ;)

  • JKistlerStudios

    JKistlerStudios said 6 years ago Featured

    Troll-caught salmon (or other troll-caught fish) is an excellent choice. Very few unwanted fish are caught (it's a hook and line fishery), and the fish are handled the BEST. Cleaned immediately and then put on ice. It cost more because they don't haul in as much in a day as trawler, seiner, or other type of boat (which usually don't handle them as well either, due to the volume). Farmed fish is a terrible choice not only from the huge environmental impact, but also from a health standpoint. (because of what they are fed, much of which is synthetic, processed, and/or stuff they weren't meant to eat). Just my 2 cents. (and yes, I know firsthand, from years ago!) And contrary to popular belief, increasing scarcity is not completely due to overfishing (which has been significantly cut back), but is hugely impacted by California Sealions that now inhabit places farther north than they used to, they're protected, and they are destroying the salmon population.

  • elksongjewelry

    elksongjewelry said 6 years ago Featured

    Wow, so much complexity! All the more reason to be vegan. No one "needs" to eat fish/shellfish/etc. anymore than anyone "needs" to eat meat. limestone says: I say, and some marine biologists agree, that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing. The demand is too high. Reducing consumption is the only way to make fishing more sustainable. I agree. If you "have" to eat fish, go out and catch it yourself. All the problems & confusion start with the "disconnected" mentality that fish, shellfish, chicken, cow, pig, etc. are just groceries. If you want to eat them, go kill them yourself, be a part of the process.

  • honestactivist

    honestactivist said 6 years ago Featured

    I am all for sustainable seafood and use the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other sources' guides, but we have to be careful that we also question their resources as well as those generic signs at our grocery stores. For example, trawl catches in the US and Canada for groundfish like cod and haddock do damage the ecosystems, but the horror that many people feel for towards them is not completely warranted when facts such as vessels visit the same areas that they have for decades over and over again, so damage isn't being done to the entire ecosystem. Some species are listed as 'red' solely on account of their catch method, when their population size is in fact booming. We have to remember to criticize every resource and the data behind it, regardless of the source and how 'reliable' they are on the surface. True sustainability goes beyond the obvious and the publicized.

62 comments

  • funkomavintage

    funkomavintage said 6 years ago

    I've lived on the West coast of America all my life, so fish....has always been on my dinner plate......now, I'm so happy to see (ha ha) sustainable fishing starting to happen....I've given up fish, deep water shellfish, prawns and shrimp, and will only succumb to the lure (ha ha) of sushi once (or twice) a year. I had some delicious oysters last night for dinner.....grown only a few miles from me, on the Hood Canal.

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 6 years ago

    Yum. Thanks for sharing

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 6 years ago

    thanks for the informative article. it seems like an uphill battle at best.

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 6 years ago

    So true and very informative!

  • MerCurios

    MerCurios said 6 years ago

    I was hungry until I read that each farmed salmon needs to eat three pounds of wild fish for every pound gained. I had no idea how farmed fishing was impacting the overall ecosystem. We live on a harbor in Long Island and I've been on a fish kick lately - mostly taco's. Next visit I'm asking the owner of my favorite Tex-Mex burrito bar where his fish comes from & if it's a sustainable source. Thank you for the enlightening & informative article.

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 6 years ago

    It is truly up to each of us. Wise decisions make a rich world..

  • purposedesign

    purposedesign said 6 years ago

    a good read . thanks.

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign said 6 years ago

    I feel that consumers buy without thinking and this article is most informative. There is nothing better than sitting fishing with the family and eating the catch for dinner. It's sustainable in so many ways.

  • LaMiaCasaNelVento

    LaMiaCasaNelVento said 6 years ago

    Thanks for the article!

  • ThoseThreeWords

    ThoseThreeWords said 6 years ago

    Thanks for the informative article! I just heard a story on this on NPR not too long ago, glad there is more conversation building.

  • melaniepaulson

    melaniepaulson said 6 years ago

    Fish is supposed to be healthy, but there are so many issues with fishing methods! What a shame. Maybe I should just get fish from friends who like to go out fishing for fun, it's one of the perks of living along the Columbia River!

  • sonyarasi

    sonyarasi said 6 years ago

    Very interesting and important.

  • beliz82

    beliz82 said 6 years ago

    Great article !! Love fish :)

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    Interesting, you might be interested in 'hugh's fish fight' which happened here in the UK to overturn EU laws relating to fishing quotas. I'm really against trawlering since it robs the sea floor of all it's biodiversity.

  • ohbabydotcom

    ohbabydotcom said 6 years ago

    Great article. Great finds. LOVE seafood :)

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 6 years ago

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!

  • salvageshop

    salvageshop said 6 years ago

    i love love seafood....so thank you for this important information so i can start eating responsibly :)

  • limestone

    limestone said 6 years ago Featured

    I say, and some marine biologists agree, that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing. The demand is too high. Reducing consumption is the only way to make fishing more sustainable.

  • KettleConfections

    KettleConfections said 6 years ago

    It's important to maintain the balance of the ecosystem, which is especially important to those that live close to where the seafood is being caught. At the same time, it's not always easy for consumers to tell if it's sustainably harvested, or not.

  • HibouCards

    HibouCards said 6 years ago

    Interesting article. I also really like the picture with the crabs actually. It's not always easy for consumers to tell what is what and what is the best choice for us and for the environment.... every little bit of information can help so thanks :)

  • CarryTheWord

    CarryTheWord said 6 years ago

    Great article.

  • tigerlillyshop

    tigerlillyshop said 6 years ago

    As a seafood lover, I was in total denial about this issue until I picked up the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Pocket Guide. (looks like you can download them from their site) I carry mine around with me in my wallet, actually 2 of them, one for general seafood, one for sushi. I like to get seafood when I go out to eat, and these guides have helped me make better choices. SO glad to see an article like this on Etsy. Thank you for posting. Knowledge is power!

  • maechevrette

    maechevrette said 6 years ago Featured

    I am so happy to see this article here (and happy that the Etsy blog touches on art/craft related subjects as well as informative articles about living sustainably-- as both are intertwined) because I love, LOVE seafood-- I mean, in like a really weird, "I-should-probably-eat-something-else-sometime" way. Sashimi, smoked salmon, mussels marinara, lobster rolls on the Boston waterfront, and oysters, oysters, oysters. Oh yes... oysters. I'm glad you mentioned i love blue sea, and touched on the importance of transparency in the seafood business (as it should be in all food businesses!) Mostly I just love that you made this sort of confusing but very important topic so clear. Seafood lovers need to make an effort to ensure that we do the right thing for the oceans whenever possible, for nature's sake and for ours. Also, for anyone interested-- the Seafood Watch program mentioned above actually has an iPhone app that can tell you on the spot which fish from which parts of the world are "Green" and which are not. It's great to use at the market to find out if the particular fish or shellfish you are considering purchasing was harvested sustainably, and help you make more conscientious consumer decisions. It can also recommend local restaurants and markets that have been certified to carry sustainably caught fish, so you can choose them over others that support unsustainable fishing. You might even find a new favorite fishmonger ;)

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    Love this article!!!

  • HangingFlowerCraft

    HangingFlowerCraft said 6 years ago

    Thanks for the article... this is really something that everyone should know about.

  • acuriousbrood

    acuriousbrood said 6 years ago

    Interesting. I'm going to download and share the Monterey Bay guides.

  • VintageEye

    VintageEye said 6 years ago

    Very informative. Thanks from a seafood loving coastal dweller!

  • zenceramics

    zenceramics said 6 years ago

    Seafood is a great source of vitamins that are necessary for humans. My husband and I do not eat meet but we eat a lot of seafood. I guess we can all start taking supplements instead of eating real food and/or become completely vegetarian... I respect nature and care about sustainability. But sometimes we go over the board on different issues.

  • felwong

    felwong said 6 years ago

    Great article. It's depressing when trying to buy fish, knowing that it's so hard to determine TRUE sustainability. The future looks bleak at the rate fish stocks are/have been depleted :(

  • saltcityspice

    saltcityspice said 6 years ago

    Thank you so much for shedding more light on this topic - when I really started reading labels and researching the foods I was buying, I realized it brought up more and more questions every step of the way. I've briefly considered avoiding fish altogether, but it makes complete sense that we need to speak with our money. I'm excited to learn about the organizations working to make consumer's choices clearer. Another great article Danielle!

  • kmariedesignz

    kmariedesignz said 6 years ago

    I love, love, love seafood. Great article!!!

  • stonebridgeworks

    stonebridgeworks said 6 years ago

    I recently saw a restaurant in Portland, OR, advertising "farm fresh" fish. What's that? Sounds like a greenwash to me since fish can be "farmed" in many different ways. As with all our food sources, we need to ask questions and speak up about non-sustainable practices. Thanks for the info!

  • JKistlerStudios

    JKistlerStudios said 6 years ago Featured

    Troll-caught salmon (or other troll-caught fish) is an excellent choice. Very few unwanted fish are caught (it's a hook and line fishery), and the fish are handled the BEST. Cleaned immediately and then put on ice. It cost more because they don't haul in as much in a day as trawler, seiner, or other type of boat (which usually don't handle them as well either, due to the volume). Farmed fish is a terrible choice not only from the huge environmental impact, but also from a health standpoint. (because of what they are fed, much of which is synthetic, processed, and/or stuff they weren't meant to eat). Just my 2 cents. (and yes, I know firsthand, from years ago!) And contrary to popular belief, increasing scarcity is not completely due to overfishing (which has been significantly cut back), but is hugely impacted by California Sealions that now inhabit places farther north than they used to, they're protected, and they are destroying the salmon population.

  • handmadestringlights

    handmadestringlights said 6 years ago

    Thanks for sharing!!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 6 years ago

    Great article and so interesting!

  • madisyn11

    madisyn11 said 6 years ago

    I truly enjoyed this article. I am 19 years old, and eat fish almost every day. This information inspires me to be more aware of the fish I am consuming! I hope that i love blue sea continues to be successful in their work!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 6 years ago

    I love seafood. Thanks for sharing.

  • elksongjewelry

    elksongjewelry said 6 years ago Featured

    Wow, so much complexity! All the more reason to be vegan. No one "needs" to eat fish/shellfish/etc. anymore than anyone "needs" to eat meat. limestone says: I say, and some marine biologists agree, that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing. The demand is too high. Reducing consumption is the only way to make fishing more sustainable. I agree. If you "have" to eat fish, go out and catch it yourself. All the problems & confusion start with the "disconnected" mentality that fish, shellfish, chicken, cow, pig, etc. are just groceries. If you want to eat them, go kill them yourself, be a part of the process.

  • DreamCake

    DreamCake said 6 years ago

    Fantastic article. Thank you so much for posting all of this great info. I'm always looking for ways to help animals, while staying green and eating the right things. It's a hard couple of things to juggle, but it is important to me.

  • katrinaalana

    katrinaalana said 6 years ago

    This is a great aticle. We should all support sustanable and responsible fishing. I hope Blue Sea continues there work and that they get a lot of support for their efforts.

  • girliepains

    girliepains said 6 years ago

    I larve oysters!

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 6 years ago

    Very Informative!

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 6 years ago

    a wealth of information

  • greatestfriend

    greatestfriend said 6 years ago

    a very serious matter, I'm not sure there is even any such thing as sustainable fishing anymore :( - my father always said that my children will probably never experience eating it the way we are going.

  • jungledread

    jungledread said 6 years ago

    There is so little information provided in stores about where our food comes from... or what it actually is...

  • honestactivist

    honestactivist said 6 years ago Featured

    I am all for sustainable seafood and use the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other sources' guides, but we have to be careful that we also question their resources as well as those generic signs at our grocery stores. For example, trawl catches in the US and Canada for groundfish like cod and haddock do damage the ecosystems, but the horror that many people feel for towards them is not completely warranted when facts such as vessels visit the same areas that they have for decades over and over again, so damage isn't being done to the entire ecosystem. Some species are listed as 'red' solely on account of their catch method, when their population size is in fact booming. We have to remember to criticize every resource and the data behind it, regardless of the source and how 'reliable' they are on the surface. True sustainability goes beyond the obvious and the publicized.

  • nocarnations

    nocarnations said 6 years ago

    This is truly, a wonderful article. I am so pleased to be a part of the Etsy community and doubly so since I am also a Chef. A few years back we made an effort to make changes in our menu and business for sustainable/green practices. One of those things required that I take the customer beloved Chilean Sea Bass off the menu. We had so many complaints at first, but we also had people thanking us. We became passionate about what we would buy, seafood/vegetables/meats etc. and soon enough our customers could taste that passion in each plate we sent out. Change is hard but so rewarding. I made sure to invite my fishmonger to the restaurant so she could understand my customer and see our dedication to becoming more eco aware. Now, when she recommends a certain fish, I am comfortable with her suggestion. We have local farmers also, knocking on our back door four times a week. I am happy to say that my restaurant is helping to fuel its surrounding ecosystem and trying hard not to harm anyone else'.

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection said 6 years ago

    Very good important information. I live on the Gulf and now wonder about our local eateries.... Monica TheIDConnection

  • fiberous

    fiberous said 6 years ago

    What an excellent article. And a very important issue to address. The only way to heal the wounds we've created is to educate ourselves and learn about our healthy options.

  • Suppliesjungle

    Suppliesjungle said 6 years ago

    WOW Nice !!

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 6 years ago

    amazing article. i live in san diego near the beautiful pacific ocean and there is little discussion of the extinction of sea life. i hope more people will become aware of this problem and start to make a change.

  • girliepains

    girliepains said 6 years ago

    Give me a fish farm + a vegie garden anyday.

  • continentaldrift

    continentaldrift said 6 years ago

    So great, Danielle. I'm reminded of two things: 1. This amazing video from Perennial Plate: http://www.theperennialplate.com/episodes/2011/07/episode-62-a-day-in-the-life/ 2. My friend Anna's Seafood CSA: http://sirenseasa.com/ She's more knowledgeable and committed to sustainable seafood than anyone I know. It's a great and constructive option for changing how we eat fish and how it's caught.

  • NaturalistBent

    NaturalistBent said 6 years ago

    I'll have to agree with Limestone...and with much of what science tells us. I used to love fish and seafood, worked on the water for a time... learned a lot about diseases, introducing asian species, conservation efforts, potential for GM salmon (and then even more and more species... It won't end). :( I care too much about doing my part to positively affect the state of things to eat it now... It's not sustainable, and much of it is no longer healthy because of pollutants that travel up the food chain. Live conscientiously, or turn away from the grim realities we face. Your choice!

  • agnestheowl

    agnestheowl said 6 years ago

    Bring "I love sea" to Toronto, please! We love seafood here and the choice is great but to be fully aware of the sources we need a trusted seller! Useful article, thanks!

  • bhangtiez

    bhangtiez said 6 years ago

    Great article. I love voting with my grocery $

  • teospe08s

    teospe08s said 6 years ago

    I love seafood..when i free i take time go fishing look for big crab and lobster..:)

  • aylinmadden

    aylinmadden said 6 years ago

    Great article, very informative...:):):)

  • emilyfrancespearson

    emilyfrancespearson said 6 years ago

    If you live in Minneapolis - a great sustainable seafood restaurant is "SeaChange"

  • YesterdaysNewspaper

    YesterdaysNewspaper said 6 years ago

    Thank you for showing the link to I love blue sea, I know what i'll be doing in the near future.

  • WriteTheGoodWrite

    WriteTheGoodWrite said 5 years ago

    A great source of additional information on this topic is http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/oceans/ I'd also like to note that while it is true that several Canadian fishing companies still uses trawlers to catch fish, it is also true that there are many small scale fishers here fishing in a sustainable manner.

  • WriteTheGoodWrite

    WriteTheGoodWrite said 5 years ago

    http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/oceans/

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