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How to Shop for Sustainable Seafood: 3 Tips You Should Know

Shopping for sustainable seafood isn't easy. This guide will help you make purchases that are better for wildlife and the planet.

Written by
Erika Schwerdfeger

Whether you just watched Seaspiracy or have been thinking about ocean conservation for a while, trying to navigate the waters of choosing sustainable seafood can be tricky. The good news is making planet-friendly changes to your routine is more attainable than you'd think.

Here are some simple measures to take the next time you purchase seafood to ensure you're causing the least amount of harm to wildlife and the planet.

3 Ways to Make More Sustainable Seafood Choices

1. Consult Seafood Watch

Run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (an awesome day trip and a leading organization in ocean conservation efforts!), the Seafood Watch program offers comprehensive and easy-to-understand seafood advisory guides for individual consumers, chefs, and businesses.

Simply downloading the app or visiting the website gives you access to all of the buying guides, which sort species into three categories: green “Best Choice,” yellow “Good Alternative,” and red “Avoid” (plus blue “Certified” species, which are equivalent to a Seafood Watch rating of "Good Alternative" or better).

The color ratings come with descriptions, which nixes your guesswork. Entries for each species also include extra information like farming method, fishing gear, region of origin, and source body of water. 

There are even downloadable guides sorted by U.S. region, so you can see the status of marine species specific to your area, whether it’s Hawaii, the Southwest, or the Northeast. The program also partners with restaurants and retailers, so the next time you’re out to eat, you can ask if the restaurant sources seafood according to Seafood Watch recommendations. 

2. Know All Eco-Labels Aren't Created Equal

Besides consulting Seafood Watch to check the status of your desired dinner, you may also be relying on eco-labels to guide you toward more sustainable purchases.

Unfortunately, as with most industries, there are differing criteria for what constitutes “sustainable.” This means one reassuring sticker might imply something completely different from the one next to it, and misleading labels abound. 

Plus, these types of certifications usually require assessment by external bodies, which means there's a cost for the supplier to be assessed. For small-scale suppliers, these costs might be prohibitively high—meaning that a smaller company’s product without an eco-label could be just as sustainable, or even more so, than a product from a larger, wealthier supplier that doesn't have an eco-certification. 

So, in general, just because the product boasts a certification doesn’t mean the species isn’t overexploited or that habitats aren't harmed in sourcing it. When in doubt, following through with our third recommendation below is often an even more reliable way to check your facts.

3. Get to Know Your Source 

Becoming friendly with your local fish supplier is one of the best ways to verify your buying choices. Whether it’s a fishmonger or the local supermarket, finding a steady seafood supplier whom you can trust to answer questions is not only great for your own peace of mind, but also a great way to support local merchants and supply chains.

Some questions you should ask at the fish counter include how the fish was farmed or where it was caught, which species are “in season,” and when to go for frozen vs. fresh. To find fish suppliers near you, check out Local Catch.