Eating sustainable seafood doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, according to Peter Adame -- the outreach coordinator for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which provides an comprehensive guide of best choice seafood options -- the simplest way to get involved is to ask where your seafood is coming from. “When consumers care, that’s when businesses commit to sustainable seafood and commit to responsible sourcing policies," explained Adame. "And that’s actually where we find where we can drive change"
Nearly 90% of seafood eaten in the United States is from abroad, which means that Seafood Watch has to do meticulous research on countries from all over the world, their fishing laws, and how they’re maintaining their aquaculture, or farmed fisheries. For wild seafood, the guide examines fish populations; the percentage of bycatch -- meaning other sea critters, some of which may be endangered, that are accidentally caught; the impacts on the surrounding ecosystem depending on the method of fishing; and the fishing laws and management established by different countries. For fisheries, there’s a whole other list of criteria: how is waste being disposed of? What are the fish being fed? Are there chemical and antibiotics being used?
“Our standard is very rigorous and it’s science-based. We really do have a set standard for how our scientists score different criteria based on the data and we get all of that information peer-reviewed by industry,” Adame said. Additionally, the information is very transparent: you can access it either at Seafood Watch’s website or through their app, which helps consumers discover what seafood is safe to eat and what should be avoided.
Though it really depends on the region, and where the fish is from, we’ve rounded up the different seafood that’s marked as “best choices” across the nation by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood guide. But if you’re looking to see what’s more specifically acceptable in your state, head over to Seafood Watch and click on your location for a more detailed list. So look for these items on restaurant menus when you're dining out.
June 25 is National Catfish Day in the United States, established by Ronald Reagan back in 1987 to promote the benefits of having farm-raised catfish, which he called a “uniquely American delicacy.” Catfish are easy to raise due to their uncomplicated diet of algae, sea snails, and other aquatic plants. They also can be prepared in distinctive ways, depending on the cuisine: deep-fried in cornmeal and served up with tartar sauce, as is customary in the South; pan-fried in a crusted filet; or made into a spicy curry, which is common in Southeast Asia. Because catfish in the United States are farmed with stricter American regulations, these whiskered fish are okayed through Seafood Watch.
If you have a craving for salmon, which often falls on Seafood Watch’s “avoid” list (depending on where the salmon is from and how it’s caught), might we suggest opting for arctic char instead? Like salmon, arctic char has meat ranging from baby pink in color to bright red, and is subtly sweet with a high fat content. Unlike salmon, it is a lot more sustainable to raise. Grill, smoke, broil, or pan-fry arctic char (skin down for some extra crispness!).
Farmed clams, cockles, and mussels not only help prevent damage to marine environments, but they actually help to filter water at the aquacultures (or fish farms) where they’re raised. In fact, it’s argued that farming bivalves might be the least cruel -- and most sustainable -- option in the world of fish farming. Clams, cockles, and mussels aren’t carnivorous; they don’t require other fish to be fed. They also aren’t as active as other farmed seafood. Pair that with the fact that they shine in a lot of dishes -- pastas, dips, and paellas, to name a few -- and you’ve got yourself a trusted source of seafood.
Shrimp (US farmed)
There are a lot of different types of shrimp. Which species and how the shrimp are caught or farmed can determine whether or not they’re actually a sustainable option, but Seafood Watch does recommend US farmed shrimp, putting it in the “best choices” category. Giant freshwater prawns found stateside and white leg shrimp are especially good options. Throw them in dumplings, toss them in pasta, or roast them whole over an open flame -- you can’t really go wrong when it comes to shrimp.
Barramundi -- which are also known as the Asian sea bass -- are a perfect substitute if you’re looking to eat some red snapper or Chilean sea bass. Like the other two fish, it is a light, mild white fish, surprisingly tender and versatile. Barramundi can be pan fried, baked, and steamed, and due to its delicate nature, it’s the perfect blank canvas for bright sauces. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, barramundi farmed in the US and Vietnam are environmentally friendly and sustainable, so just make sure you’re getting your barramundi from either country (but to be extra mindful of your ecological footprint, know that it’s always better to buy products that are more local and don’t require excessive transportation time and resources).
Tilapia mistakenly has a reputation for being flavorless and the fish of perpetual dieters, But from a sustainability viewpoint, tilapia is a champion. The flaky white fish is highly resilient, surviving in an array of different temperatures and making them easy to farm. In terms of flavor, tilapia are also adaptable; pan fry them in butter or bake them with lemon for a nutritious, sustainable protein.
Unlike a lot of the fish on this list, eating farmed tuna is something you should definitely avoid. The reason being is that a lot of tuna that is farmed -- which is mostly occurring abroad -- is sourced from already threatened wildstock, adding more strain to a population that is currently being depleted. Tuna that is caught from trolls, polls, and lines in off the coast of the US are better options because there are enough regulations in place, like the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, to ensure that the tuna population isn’t threatened. Tuna is a wonderful addition to any diet, and is delicious raw with shoyu, in tuna salads, or eaten as a tuna steak.
There are many different types of rockfish, so make sure you double check Seafood Watch’s rockfish guide when you’re thinking of buying some. That being said, rockfish along the West Coast -- which are also called pacific ocean perches -- are generally sustainable options to eat. Rockfish mostly feed on plankton, and are a firm and lean fish. Rockfish can be used in stews and chowders, as well as panfried for a filling dinner.
Bass, which is referred to as suzuki in sushi menus, can be both a freshwater and saltwater fish. When it comes to purchasing bass, make sure you’re getting bass that is either farmed in the US or caught with hand-operate pole lines. In general though, bass tends to be on the Seafood Watch’s list as both a “best choice” or “good alternative” -- meaning, for the most part, that partaking in the consumption of bass is ecologically sound. Bass have a medium-firm texture and is a white fish with a relatively mild flavor, meaning it will function well in bright sauces and with savory crusts.
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Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist who really, really loves the ocean (and seafood). Tweet her your tips on how to be more sustainable and thoughtful about our marine ecosystem @katthompsonn.