Buying Sustainably Harvested Fish - Not As Easy As I Thought

I like to cook, and I like to eat fish. Having just moved to New York from Australia has meant having to re-learn which of the fish varieties that I see on display down at my local supermarket are sustainable and which are not.

In Australia I would rely on the Australian Marine Conservation Society's Sustainable Seafood Guide. So I thought that I would look for a similar publication that was applicable to the USA. I found the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site easily enough. Problem solved. Or so I thought...

A little further searching unearthed an article by Jennifer Jacquet (of Shifting Baselines) which describes how many illegally caught (or unsustainably raised) species are renamed as completely different species for resale in order to fool consumers who are trying to be responsible in their seafood choices. The examples she gives include Hake (labeled Tilapia), Red Snapper (75% of fish sold with this label are entirely different species), Shrimp (farmed shrimp labeled as wild-caught), Cod (labeled as Ling) and several others.

The EarthEasy Sustainable Seafood Guide gives the following tips for buying seafood:

  • Try to choose shellfish grown on farms using racks, lines or nets which are suspended in the water. These methods minimize damage to bottom habitat during harvesting.

  • Striped Bass, a well-managed Atlantic coast species, can be used as a substitute for some depleted species, such as Black Sea Bass, Rock Cod, Red Snapper, Grouper and Roughy.

  • Farmed Crawfish make an excellent substitute for Lobster, which, although plentiful are often harvested at minimum size - before having a chance at reproduction.

  • Ask your local seafood dealer or restaurateur about the source and catch-method of your seafood choices. Consumer concern is the best promoter of sustainable fisheries.

The problem is that guides such as this are only effective if the fish that a consumer is buying is correctly labeled. While this should be assured under consumer legislation and the FDA should work to enforce correct labeling, a study in 2006 found that the FDA was predominantly checking for the presence (not accuracy) of labels on food. That sort of checking would be unable to detect sneakiness such as we find with fish mislabeling. Clearly this is a problem currently in search of a solution. Until then I will be avoiding farmed fish, shopping from the Monterey Bay guide, and chatting to my fishmonger to see if he knows which fish can be guaranteed to be sustainably harvested.

UPDATE: This issue has been playing on my mind since I wrote this post, and I have started a series of posts about sustainability and the seafood industry. Part 2 of this series is here.

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