Sustainable Seafood Basics

Wild fish populations have seen a decline in the recent past. And with much of the farming for fish taking place in unsustainable ways, the choices about what seafood is safe to consume can make for hard decisions. Over 80 percent of the seafood eaten by Americans comes from outside the United States, imported from other countries. With concerns about health and the safety of the foods we consume, asking questions about where our fish and seafoods come from, how it’s caught or farmed is possible for consumers to learn about with healthy and sustainable seafood in abundance.

Making the Catch and the Case for Sustainable Seafood

Fishing has come a long, long way since the days when sticks and rocks were used to get fresh fish for dinner! Today’s technology makes it possible to use bottom cameras to find fish. There are also more eco-friendly ways to catch fish that make the process less harmful to the environment. Some of these ways are using gears that target specific types of fish. This reduces and in some cases eliminates the possibility of other marine life being harmed.

Because of the double pursuit of commercial fishing and recreational fishing, the world’s fish and seafood population is shared by many different interests. Major declines in some of the most popular fish species is due in part to overfishing and pollution. So, to address these issues, more sustainable methods of fish production that helps to meet the demand for seafood have been developed and increased in usage and popularity. Collectively, the new methods are called fish farming. It’s pretty much is what it sounds like. Fish are grown in a controlled environment that’s monitored and sustained so that the fish that are produced are healthy and free of toxins.

Farming for Fish

The concept of fish farming isn’t exactly new. Villagers in China from over five thousand years ago used fish farming methods where they trapped carp in lakes that were artificially formed by receding flooded rivers. Today worldwide, similar methods take place in near-shore or onshore locations in asian countries such as Thailand, Japan, and China, along with other countries around the world.

The U.S. has a number of fish farms for different types of fish. There are farms that specialize in the raising of mussels, shrimp, clams, and finfish. A few ocean-water farms are located in waters that belong to states, but not in the open oceans. You’ll find those in Hawaii and New Hampshire.

A growing percentage of farmed fish for sustainable seafood is becoming more available to consumers in the U.S., and the impact to the environment is quite minimal, because sustainable fish farms don’t create pollution with waste, use very little energy, and require little to no wild fish in the feed given to the farmed fish for nutrition.

Popular Sustainable Seafood Varieties

  • Shrimp

As a nation of shrimp lovers, over 90 percent of the shrimp we consume as Americans is majority farm-raised, and most of it is a product of Asia and Latin America. The remaining 10 percent is mostly from the Gulf region, but because of the BP oil spill in April 2010, volume was curtailed for some time until cleanup procedures could be completed to allow Gulf shrimp to be caught again, but with caution.

That’s why it’s really important to be knowledgeable about the seafood you buy and consume. When looking for shrimp and prawns, seek out those that were farmed and/or caught in the U.S. A good source of information is your local fish market. They can give you information about where the shrimp originated from and the types of shrimp that were sustainable caught and farmed.

  • Salmon

This is where the trend for farmed fish differs. Wild Alaskan salmon populations are typically the most well managed and sustainable of the salmon available for consumption, versus salmon that’s farmed and raised in large net pens that are moored in coves or inlets. You want to avoid salmon raised in this manner due to the high susceptibility of diseases they can carry!

So the lesson regarding choosing between farm-raised salmon and wild salmon is to go for the wild salmon! It’s better for your health and the environment.

  • Shellfish

Farmed shellfish is generally a good choice to make for your consumption. Oysters, clams, and mussels that are farm raised offer a healthy consumption option. Also good choices are wild shellfish that have been hand-collected, either with the use of hand rakes or those caught by divers.

  • Trout

There are many varieties of trout that can be farmed in nearly enclosed farming systems, which can be beneficial in keeping them safe from environmental calamities that could harm them or their habitats. With a system of holding tanks and ponds, the population can be carefully controlled, minimizing the chances for sickness and disease, which, if it occurs, can be easier to treat and eradicate.

  • Tilapia

Also known as “the aquatic chicken”, tilapia is among the most “green” farm-raised fish around. Tilapia can be raised in large tanks as opposed to pools and ponds outdoors. That versatility allows them to be raised just about anywhere. Plus, because they are natural herbivores, they don’t need to feed on fish byproducts. Their waste is also used to help power the system of aquaculture that aids in their growth, which helps improve the efficiency of the farm-raising process.

  • Catfish

Many catfish dinners that are offered in restaurants have the added caption “farm-raised”, as well as on packaging labels and in butcher shops in grocery stores that identify catfish for purchase. Farm-raised versions of catfish are typically vegetarian, eating mostly to completely vegetarian pellet feed. Wild catfish hasn’t got so rosy a reputation, being pejoratively known as “garbage fish” (what an insult!), because they feed at the bottom of streams and river beds, eating just about anything in their path. Farm-raised catfish are also a relatively low-maintenance fish, so they don’t require a lot of management or technology to grow successfully.

Gear for sustainable fishing

Sustainable fishing includes the types of gear that make it possible to catch fish without harming the environment or wild fish populations. To avoid methods that unintentionally catch and kill extra fish or other types of marine wildlife, fishing gear that includes the troll, bandit, hand lines, traps, spear guns, plus old fashioned rod and reel gear is promoted as best practices for sustainable fishing. These methods allow for closer monitoring to avoid catching unwanted fish that could wind up dead without being released. They also minimize damage to ocean bottom habitats where new fish must have to live and grow.

Sustainability for human beings and the environment

As you can see, we’ve only touched on the subject of sustainability in the seafood industry. There’s so much more information we’ll share with you in future editions of our blogs, but it’s suffice to say that eating sustainable seafood not only helps the environment, but you and your family by better ensuring that the seafood you consume is not only healthy, but safe!