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We have found that American west coast markets label fish more precisely and extensively than they do on the east coast. So we know it can be done. Still, many markets and restaurants give only the common name for seafoods, and do not specify which ocean the species came from, or how it was caught. Some seafood counters and menus will selectively use labels to promote popular seafoods such as “Alaska salmon” or “New Zealand mussels,” but that is the exception. Furthermore, some farmed salmon is being sold as “Atlantic salmon,” even if it was an Atlantic species raised in the Pacific. This certainly leaves many questions. The conservation community is working together with members of the seafood industry to find ways to ensure that every fish has a label indicating its species name and place of origin. Until there is more information, don’t be dismayed when you go to select seafood. Instead, just ask where the seafood has come from. And if the person at the counter or the waitperson does not know, tell them why you care! It may take time, but the market will follow.
Some restaurants and grocery stores are catching on quickly to consumers’ widespread use of various seafood lists. They are realizing that the public has a real interest in having more sustainable seafood choices. Check your local stores to find out if they offer the choices you’re seeking. Our partner, Whole Foods Market provides a variety of sustainable seafood options and makes choosing the best seafood easy with their clear seafood rating labels. Other alternatives are on-line seafood retailers, such as EcoFish.com, who feature the most sustainable species and who will deliver to your home, or will supply restaurants, caterers, and grocery stores.
Remember the expression, “Rome was not built in a day?” Well, awareness about seafood issues will not grow overnight. We are in the early stage of a movement to promote best practices in the seafood industry. While some servers may understand your concerns and be ready to answer your questions, for others your questions may be the first they have ever received. Have patience and feel good about your role as a responsible consumer, AND a leader.
For some types of seafood–and shrimp is one example–the problem is not how many are caught, but how they’re caught. Shrimp boats use large nets called “trawls” which shrimpers drag along the bottom to catch shrimp. Unfortunately, shrimp are not the only species that are caught. For each pound of shrimp caught, 4 to 10 pounds of unwanted marine life–bycatch–are caught; most of which are discarded and die. While U.S. shrimp fishermen have been successful in reducing the numbers of sea turtles that get caught in their nets, bycatch reduction efforts are still inadequate in some regions. And in addition to bycatch problems, shrimp trawls can cause serious habitat damage as the nets drag along the bottom. Shrimp farming is not an acceptable alternative as many farms destroy natural habitat and create pollution or disease problems. The good news is that there are alternative ways to catch shrimp that are less-damaging than trawl caught or farmed shrimp. These less-damaging shrimp traps are being used in Alaska and California.
By choosing your seafood wisely, you can help shift demand away from fish and shellfish that are overfished or poorly managed towards those that are in better shape. Remember that the seafood selections you see in the supermarket and on restaurant menus are there because people are demanding them. You can contribute to the movement that encourages better fisheries management and abundance in the seas by letting your local market and restaurants know what you’d like to see and why. Restaurant and market owners are most successful when they listen to their customers’ requests. If enough people ask for a particular kind of seafood, the demand will become great enough to make it profitable to sell it. Remind your local seafood sellers that you are not part of a boycott, but rather you are simply asking that they offer more sustainable choices. And when you tell all the seafood lovers you know to choose their seafoods wisely, you are no longer one person, and you are helping to create the movement.
As frustrating as it may seem when you are looking for a “yes” or “no” answer, the real answer is “it depends.” Aquaculture, or the farming of fish, is a booming industry and can take the pressure off some depleted wild fish. But not all. For example, farmed catfish and tilapia are increasingly popular with seafood lovers and can be a smart alternative when they’re raised in closed-systems where wastes are controlled and there is little chance of the fish escaping. These fish are also fed a vegetable-based diet such as corn and soy-based feed. Other farmed species such as Atlantic salmon can be more problematic. In places like the Pacific, they can escape and threaten native species with diseases. And when some farmed species like salmon are fed large quantities of wild caught fish, we’re not really conserving fish. By following the advice of organizations that have transparent methods of rating farmed seafood, you can ensure that you are making choices that help solve the problem. The Safina Center only rates wild-caught seafood. For farmed fish ratings, check our partner’s website: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch®.