Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 23, 2021

Seafood is a nutritional and economic staple for many people and communities around the world. Eating sustainable seafood helps make sure that the marine environment and fish populations stay healthy, while also protecting jobs and food sources.

What Is Sustainable Seafood?

Sustainable seafood is seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that keep ecosystems and oceans healthy, help fisheries stay productive, and keep fishing communities stable.

Sustainability is important given that about 90% of fish populations are overfished or fully fished, and the other 10% of underfished stocks has been shrinking continually since 1974. At the same time, more people are eating fish than ever before, which places a serious strain on the world’s oceans.

While sustainable seafood doesn’t have a universal definition, various organizations and governments have standards and laws when it comes to classifying seafood as sustainable. Generally speaking, sustainable seafood producers follow a few main principles. Sustainable seafood should be:

  • From healthy populations. Seafood should be fished from healthy wild-caught or farmed fish stocks.
  • Caught with minimal impact. Sustainable fishing should be done with as little impact to the marine environment as possible. Some organizations call this limiting damage to the environment and limiting bycatch of other unintended species.
  • From managed areas. Sustainable seafood should be fished from areas that are responsibly managed. Seafood should be harvested within limits that allow the population to continue to mature and reproduce.

Using these principles, fisheries can theoretically be sustainable regardless of fishing method, location, or size.

How to Choose Sustainable Seafood

As a consumer, you have the power to support businesses and communities that operate sustainably. To identify sustainable seafood sources, you’ll need to become familiar with a few key practices.

Buy seafood from certain countries. Before buying fish, check the packaging to determine the country of origin. Some countries have excellent fishery management and are leaders in sustainable seafood. These include:

  • The United States
  • Russia
  • Iceland
  • New Zealand
  • Norway

‌Ask questions about fresh seafood. If you buy fresh seafood, ask the seller for more details. Fresh seafood is exempt from labeling laws, and farmed fish are sometimes sold as wild fish for a high price. Basa is often sold as grouper, tilapia as red snapper, and farmed salmon as wild salmon. Be sure to ask the following questions before buying:

  • Is this wild-caught or farm-raised?
  • What country is this from?
  • Is this really the fish it’s labeled as?
  • Are populations of this seafood healthy?

Buy seafood from certified vendors. Buy fish from businesses that are certified as sustainable. These certifications generally mean that fisheries are inspected for responsible methods, which are especially important when it comes to popular fish.

However, not all certifications are thorough. Some are merely greenwashing marketing schemes without strict guidelines.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch suggests you look for certified sustainable seafood from these organizations:

  • Aquaculture Stewardship Council
  • Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practices
  • Friend of the Sea
  • Canada Organic Aquaculture Standards
  • Naturland
  • Marine Stewardship Council

Eat awide variety of seafood. It’s easy to fall into a rut of eating the same types of food over and over again. This isn't a good idea with seafood because the more we demand one type of fish, the more the industry has to fish it. Popular fish became popular because of industry overfishing, so next time you’re buying for dinner, try a fish you’ve never had before.

Eat sustainably farmed fish. Farming fish, shellfish, and seaweed is called aquaculture. Growing fish is an important method for meeting food demands around the world without overfishing the oceans, but farming has led to fish disease, waste problems, and the need for antibiotics.

Certain types of systems like ponds, closed pens, and recirculation systems lead to healthier fish and less pollution. It can be hard to know if seafood is from a sustainable farm, but buying certified sustainable seafood or sticking to the species listed below will help you avoid unethically caught fish.

Most Sustainable Seafood List

In addition to looking for certified sustainable seafood, you can stick to buying more sustainable species of fish. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has a long list of options. As a general rule, it’s best to eat a wide variety of the Best Choice and Good Alternative seafood and skip the Avoid list, especially if your seafood doesn’t have labels.

Best Choice: These types of seafood are generally well caught and managed, making them the best choices. These can include:

Good Alternative: These varieties are suitable to buy, but there can be problems with how they’re caught, managed, or farmed. These can include:

  • Almaco jack
  • Butterfish
  • Cabazon
  • Mahi-mahi
  • American eel
  • Arrowtooth flounder
  • Black grouper
  • Haddock
  • Atlantic halibut
  • Atlantic herring
  • American lobster
  • Atlantic Spanish mackerel
  • Blue tilapia
  • Lake trout
  • Albacore tuna

Avoid: These types of seafood are overfished, poorly managed, or caught in ways that harm the environment and other species. These can include:

Many of the better choices are farmed fish that are raised and harvested with responsible practices. Fish and seafood are an important part of a healthy diet, but it’s important to stick to ethically fished varieties whenever possible.

Bottom Line

Sustainable seafood laws and guidelines are still being established. If you’re unsure of what to buy, stick to the Best Choice and Good Alternative lists. Making a list of sustainable options before shopping is a great way to ensure you only bring ethically fished seafood into your home. 

Learn more about sustainable seafood at:

  • NOAA Fisheries
  • Marine Stewardship Council
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website and app
  • World Wide Fund for Nature

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Columbia University Columbia Climate School: “Making Fish Farming More Sustainable.”

Environmental Defense Fund: “Buying fish? What you need to know.”

Federal Trade Commission: “De-coding Seafood Eco-Labels: Why We Need Public Standards.”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “5 tips for sustainable eating.”

Marine Stewardship Council: “Eat sustainable seafood, ”“What is sustainable seafood?”

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: “Common fish to avoid,” “Eco-certified seafood,” “Recommendations.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Sustainable Seafood.”

Ocean Wise Seafood: “Sustainable Seafood.”

Smithsonian: “Sustainable Fishing.”

World Wide Fund for Nature: “Get to know your sea

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