Rules change. Guides get updated. Staying on top of this topic requires effort. But it is worth it. Thanks to the folks at the salt for an acknowledgement that choosing fish in a responsible manner is no easy task, even for those regularly paying attention:
This month, I ventured to ask the man behind the counter at a Whole Foods Market what kind of shrimp he was selling. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I think they’re just normal shrimp.” I glanced at the sustainable seafood guide on my phone. There were 80 entries for shrimp, none of them listed “normal.”
What about the cod? Was it Atlantic or Pacific? Atlantic. How was it caught? I asked. “I’m not sure,” he said, looking doubtfully at a creamy fish slab. “With nets, I think. Not with harpoons.”
The shrimp had a blue sticker shaped like a fish on it, which appeared to be some type of official approval. Plus, they were on sale. I bought half a pound.
I was using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app, one of a handful of sustainable seafood guides which base their recommendations of sustainable seafood on a range of factors, including where the fish came from, how it was caught or farmed and how the local environment was affected. Spend an hour trying to make sense of these guides, and you may feel more confused than when you started — and guilty about putting an unsuspecting grocery employee on the spot.
These conundrums extend to restaurants as well. “The guide may tell you which species or fishing region is safest to eat, but if the restaurant menu just says, ‘salmon,’ you have to send someone to the kitchen to ask,” says Alena Van Arendonk, an animal trainer in Indianapolis, who tries to use Seafood Watch to find environmentally friendly seafood that is not overfished. “Often [restaurants] don’t know where the fish came from.”
And even if you do find out where the fish came from, you might get conflicting advice from two different guides: Are summer flounder populations improving or is it irresponsible to eat the fish? A consumer is often left to puzzle over which advice to follow.
After years of feeling overwhelmed trying to pick the right seafood, I finally decided to find out why and how sustainable seafood guides vary, and how customers might sort through them to make the most environmentally friendly choices.
All reputable seafood guides are based on science. Take these three for example – Seafood Watch, the Safina Center at Stony Brook University’s seafood ratings guide, and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector. All three use scientific data from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which relies on a team of more than 20 scientists who weigh factors like fish population, harm to habitat, harm to other species, and management practices to determine the sustainability of a fishery. These factors produce ratings of green (best), yellow (good alternative), or red (avoid). Despite this shared source of data, the guides offer similar but different advice…