Up until a couple of recent events, I’d almost given up consuming seafood in this country, saving my shellfish and finfish feasts for my annual visits back home to Australia, where eating sea creatures seems somehow less loaded and certainly more local.

Then in May I was fortunate to attend the Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Foods Institute, a media powwow hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (creator of the Seafood Watch pocket guide). At the event everyone from fired up media mogul turned bison farmer Ted Turner and actor-activist Isabelle Rossellini to chef Cindy Pawlcyn and author Paul Greenberg — along with Seafood Watch scientists and sustainable fishing advocates — schooled me in the latest research and thinking on eating fish.

good fishThat two-day sustainable seafood cram session was followed by a visit to Omnivore Books in June to hear Seattle-based seafood chef-writer Becky Selengut joke about how she caught crabs on assignment for a magazine and, more seriously, dish out advice on how to buy and cook local seafood in her new cookbook, good fish.

Seafood consumers and home cooks should consider this post a companion piece to my Bay Area Bites colleague Denise Santoro Lincoln’s sustainable fish primer from February, which is full of good tips and reliable resources on this very subject. Check that post out and then come back here. I’ll wait.

Okay, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way, shall we? Buying fish is confusing and challenging because you’re concerned about species extinction, pollution problems, bycatch issues, and health concerns, right? And you should be. While seafood is an excellent source of lean protein and heart- and brain-friendly omega-3s, it can also be laden with mercury, which can do a nasty number on the brain and nervous systems of vulnerable populations (think nursing women, children, and the unborn). Add to that persistent organic pollutants (also known as POPS) which, despite the cute acronym, are hormone-disrupting neurotoxins that can wreak havoc on humans, and it’s a wonder you’re not hungry for a slab of farmed salmon or wild tuna cooked quickly on the grill.

Then, of course, for the ethical environmentalists among us, there’s the sad realization that we’re coming to the end of the line seafood-species wise. We’ve done a good job globally of depleting fish stocks to worrisomely low levels, with Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna on a fast track towards extinction. Throw in the real problems with certain farmed fish businesses (think waste-disease-pollution) and the anxiety around GMO-salmon and the dreaded Frankenfish, and it’s enough to make a seafood lover switch to some other protein source.

Enough with the horror stories from the open seas. There are still ways to get a seafood fix, it just takes a little education, thought and planning. But if you’ve read this far you’re probably willing to go the extra mile for mussels or work a bit harder for halibut. Chances are, you’ve likely already done that as far as fruit and vegetables are concerned (local, organic, seasonal) and meat (grass-fed, humanely-raised, thoughtfully slaughtered).

Some suggestions for making healthier, more sustainable seafood choices, gleaned from the experts above:

  • Think small: Americans are conditioned to thinking bigger is better. Not necessarily so when it comes to fish. Sardines and anchovies, those little, oily bottom feeders of the sea, revered in other parts of the world, are delicious, nutritious, and affordable, and carry a lower risk for toxins than big fish like tuna.
  • Buy seasonally and diversify: Would you expect to buy great tasting, local, organic tomatoes in January? Apply the same sensibility to your seafood shopping and pick shellfish and finfish during their peak time for freshness, taste, and price. Dungeness crab is harvested in the fall and winter, for instance. When in doubt, ask. Most Americans who eat seafood choose salmon, shrimp, or tuna. Check out Arctic char or Pacific halibut for a change.
  • Reconsider frozen and farmed fish: A properly frozen fish (landed gently, bled, and quickly chilled preferably at sea) can be a high-quality, carbon-foot print friendly option, if handled well, says Selengut. While hook-and-line wild fish is a better bet than seafood caught by dredging or trawling, which can produce a lot of bycatch (accidentally caught species unintentionally killed in the fishing process), farmed fish are a wise choice in some circumstances, adds the cookbook author. Farmed fish may be a more sustainable choice for fish lower on the food chain that are either vegetarian or require only small amounts of fish protein to produce flesh. Find an example of a farmed fish that may be gentler on the environment in a recent Time magazine story on a western Massachusetts-based outfit farming barramundi, a fish much loved in my homeland.
  • Find a fishmonger you trust: Local picks include the year-old San Francisco-based online sustainable seafood supplier i love blue sea, co-founded by Martin Reed, a panelist at the recent Sustainable Foods Institute. I love blue sea doesn’t sell any of Seafood Watch’s red-listed fish and ships via FedEx across the country. (Bay Area residents can pick up directly, avoiding the expense and guilt associated with air freight).

    Newcomer Siren SeaSA founded by Anna Larsen, offers a CSA-like option for seafood lovers: For six Saturdays starting July 16, subscribers can pick up an assortment of seasonal, sustainable seafood in San Francisco or Petaluma. Catch of the day may include wild king salmon from Bodega Bay, squid from Monterey, wild-caught Pacific sardines, Miyagi oysters from Tomales Bay, and hook-and-line caught black cod. Limited to 100 members for its trial run, a six-week subscription is still available at a cost of $255 for seafood portions calculated to feed four people. Larsen plans to continue the program beyond this initial summer launch.

    A Community Supported Fishery (CSF) program is also running this summer out of Half Moon Bay. And a very new online resource Local Catch, promises connections to CSF members via a zip code search function.

  • Frequent seafood restaurants with a sustainable seafood rap: Top picks from San Francisco’s “Good Fish, Bad Fish” story by Erik Vance this year include The Basin in Saratoga, Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park, Nettie’s Crab Shack, Nopa, and Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar in San Francisco, Revival Bar & Kitchen in Berkeley, and Zazu in Santa Rosa. See how 18 other big name Bay Area restaurants fared on the sustainable seafood front in the magazine’s story.

Learn more about sustainable seafood:

Read Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, which documents the tenuous outlook for salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna.

Follow the reporting of sustainable seafood writers such as former Gourmet scribe Barry Estabrook of Politics of the Plate and freelance food writer Clare Leschin-Hoar.

Watch Isabelle Rossellini’s entertaining, educational, and amusing Green Porno series, which documents the plight of sea creatures and other animals.

See the seafood documentaries The End of the Line and Red Gold.

Cook Find Mark Bittman’s simple recipes for serving white fish fillet a dozen ways in the New York Times. Check out acclaimed seafood chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver’s new cookbook For Cod and Country or Selengut’s good fish, which features fifteen types of Pacific Coast sea creatures (including clams, crabs, char, cod, salmon, scallops, squid, and sardines) in 75 recipes. Check out the instructional online videos from the private chef and cooking teacher, who also blogs at chefreinvented.

Got a sustainable seafood resource to share? Add your voice below.

Sustainable Seafood: New and Noteworthy Resources 28 July,2015Sarah Henry

  • Thanks for bringing attention to this often complicated issue! If you want to learn more about how to make smart seafood choices, check out Food & Water Watch’s new 2011 Smart Seafood Guide at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/fish/seafood/guide/. You can download and print out the pocket-sized guide and take it with you next time you’re shopping for seafood. The guide recommends seafood based on taste preference (i.e. mild fish, steak-like fish) so it’s easy to make a sustainable choice based on your own personal tastes.

  • Heads up readers, Food & Water Watch suggest seafood lovers check out some invasive species, such as lionfish, Asian carp, and walking catfish. More ideas on their guide.

    Here’s a story about their invasive species campaign: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/science/earth/10fish.html

  • Great article, Sarah!

    Just wanted to give your readers some info on sourcing local, MSC-certified albacore tuna (fresh and canned). It’s worth the extra effort looking for it at your local market. Check out http://www.pacificalbacore.com/buy.php for some great Northwest brands.


Sarah Henry

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers’ market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies’ Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor