Responsible Shopping-Good Fish

By Kristi Willis
Illustrations by Bambi Edlund 

Shopping for seafood can be a dizzying experience as sustainability ratings change based on the location or manner in which a fish is caught. Pacific halibut is a good choice, but Atlantic halibut is bad because of overfishing, for example. And it’s okay to buy wild-caught salmon, but skip the farmed salmon because of water cross-pollution concerns. Keeping it all straight is difficult at best, but the outcome is critical.

“The United Nations reports that fifty-three percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited,” explains Carrie Brownstein, seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market. “Meaning that there is no room for further expansion or more catches, and that they are at their maximum sustainable production. An additional thirty-two percent are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion.”

While those numbers seem dire, thanks to retailers like Whole Foods Market and awareness programs like Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, fisheries are implementing new techniques to reduce the impact on the health of fishing populations and the oceanic ecosystem.

Gulf Wild, a program that tags targeted species so that buyers can trace when, where and how they were caught, requires their fishermen to agree to strict conservation covenants. “We have to have a quality product, and that starts with a quality fisherman,” says T.J. Tate, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, the founders of Gulf Wild. Austin’s Quality Seafood Market owner Carol Huntsberger researches the market’s suppliers extensively and relies heavily on the relationships they have built with fishermen over their 75 years of working together. “When drum comes up from the Gulf, I know that fisherman,” she shares. Carol goes so far as to accompany her vendors periodically on their fishing trips to inspect their operations and ensure they are using responsible catch methods.

Several nonprofits certify or rate seafood based on its scarcity, the method by which it is caught and how harvesting it impacts ocean health. Consumers can do their part by choosing seafood that is certified, or highly ranked, by these groups.

But despite the fact that these entities often work closely together and support one another, there can still be discrepancies between their grades. For example, Environmental Defense Fund lists red snapper as an Eco-Worst, but snapper caught under the Gulf Wild program is considered a good choice.

Alison Barratt of Monterey Bay Aquarium offers this advice to shoppers: “We are humans with busy lives. The best you can do is figure out which tool works best for you and apply it when you can.”
Fortunately, area retailers are implementing new programs to make the fish-buying process more straightforward. As of Earth Day 2012 (April 22nd), Whole Foods Market is no longer carrying red-rated seafood. All seafood in the case is either from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishery or rated green (best choice) or yellow (good choice) by Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Blue Ocean Institute.

“Now people can go and see that anything in the seafood department is a responsible choice,” explains Brownstein. “You can rest assured that you are making a good choice no matter what you pick.”
Gulf Wild markets its catch through all of the Central Market locations, and 12 H-E-B locations. Participating stores display a Gulf Wild sign on the seafood case and shoppers can scan the bar codes to trace the origin of their fish. Gulf Wild is expanding their Texas program to restaurants later this year—training the servers and chefs on why serving Gulf Wild seafood makes a difference.

If deciphering the various programs feels overwhelming, the experts recommend asking the fishmonger or server for help and voting for sustainable fish with your pocketbook.

What they measure    Tools available
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Certifies fisheries that meet their strict requirements for sustainability. An MSC certification is considered the gold standard for seafood.
Online guide of where to buy MSC-certified products in retail stores and restaurants.
Aquaculture Stewardship Council
Certifies fish-farm programs that use sustainable practices.
Retailers and restaurants can label their products as responsibly farmed.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
Provides a green (best), yellow (good) and red (avoid) ranking system based on a complex evaluation of fisheries.
Online seafood search tools, downloadable regional seafood and sushi pocket guides and a free mobile app for the iPhone and Android.
Blue Ocean Institute
Offers a five-level (green [best], light green, yellow, orange and red [worst]) ranking for seafood based on scarcity, habitat impact, management and effect on other species.
Online seafood and sushi guides as well as FishPhone, a program that sends the ranking of a fish and better alternatives by text message.
Environmental Defense Fund
Evaluates seafood based on both its environmental and human-health impacts and includes warnings concerning contaminants such as mercury and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl).
Online seafood and sushi guides with downloadable PDF files. (search for Seafood Guide)
Gulf Wild
Tags and tests fish at the point of catch so that buyers can trace their purchases back to the supplier.
Online Track Your Fish program that reports, based on the tag number, the type of fish, where it was caught and by whom.