According to an EcoWatch 2015 article, “most commercial fisheries are in decline. Scientists and economists are concerned that commercial seafood harvesting may end within three decades. If the long-term trends continue, they predict there will be little or no seafood available for a sustainable harvest by 2048.
Luckily, there are organizations working hard to change that. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has been providing consumers with information on “ocean-friendly choices” for 15 years through its printable guides, website and recently revamped mobile app.”
Below is a list of Seafood Watch consumer guides for purchasing fish in the US.
Download your specific state consumer guide along with printable versions of the other guides on this page here.
1. Imported catfish
Why it’s bad: Nearly 90% of the catfish imported to the US comes from Vietnam, where use of antibiotics that are banned in the US is widespread. Furthermore, the two varieties of Vietnamese catfish sold in the US, Swai and Basa, aren’t technically considered catfish by the federal government and therefore aren’t held to the same inspection rules that other imported catfish are.
Eat this instead: Stick with domestic, farm-raised catfish, advises Marianne Cufone, director of the Fish Program at Food & Water Watch. It’s responsibly farmed and plentiful, making it one of the best fish you can eat. Or, try Asian carp, an invasive species with a similar taste to catfish that’s out-competing wild catfish and endangering the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Why it’s bad: Caviar from beluga and wild-caught sturgeon are susceptible to overfishing, according to the Food and Water Watch report, but the species are also being threatened by an increase in dam building that pollutes the water in which they live. All forms of caviar come from fish that take a long time to mature, which means that it takes a while for populations to rebound.
Eat this instead: If you really love caviar, opt for fish eggs from American Lake Sturgeon or American Hackleback/Shovelnose Sturgeon caviar from the Mississippi River system.
3. Atlantic cod
Why it’s bad: This one was difficult to add to the “dirty dozen list,” says Cufone, because it is so vital to the economic health of New England fishermen. “However, chronic mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries Service and low stock status made it very difficult to recommend,” she says. Atlantic cod stocks collapsed in the mid-1990s and are in such disarray that the species is now listed as one step above endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Eat this instead: The good news, if you love fish ‘n’ chips (which is nearly always made with cod), is that Pacific cod stocks are still strong and are one of Food and Water Watch’s best fish picks.
4. American eel
Why it’s bad: Also called yellow or silver eel, this fish, which frequently winds up in sushi dishes, made its way onto the list because it’s highly contaminated with PCBs and mercury. The fisheries are also suffering from some pollution and overharvesting.
Eat this instead: If you like the taste of eel, opt for Atlantic- or Pacific-caught squid instead.
5. Imported shrimp
Why it’s bad: Imported shrimp actually holds the designation of being the dirtiest of the “dirty dozen,” says Cufone, and it’s hard to avoid, as 90% of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. “Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects,” Cufone says. “And I didn’t even mention things like E. coli that have been detected in imported shrimp.” Part of this has to do with the fact that less than 2% of ALL imported seafood (shrimp, crab, catfish, or others) gets inspected before its sold, which is why it’s that much more important to buy domestic seafood. (Read more about The Not-So-Simple Life of Shrimp and how to make the best choices for your dinner table.)
Eat this instead: Look for domestic shrimp. Seventy percent of domestic shrimp comes from the Gulf of Mexico, which relies heavily on shrimp for economic reasons. Pink shrimp from Oregon are another good choice; the fisheries there are certified under the stringent Marine Stewardship Council guidelines.
6. Atlantic flatfish
Why it’s bad: This group of fish includes flounder, sole, and halibut that are caught off the Atlantic coast. They found their way onto the list because of heavy contamination and overfishing that dates back to the 1800s. According to Food & Water Watch, populations of these fish are as low as 1% of what’s necessary to be considered sustainable for long-term fishing.
Eat this instead: Pacific halibut seems to be doing well, but the group also recommends replacing these fish with other mild-flavored white-fleshed fish, such as domestically farmed catfish or tilapia.
7. Atlantic salmon (both wild-caught and farmed)
Why it’s bad: It’s actually illegal to capture wild Atlantic salmon because the fish stocks are so low, and they’re low, in part, because of farmed salmon. Salmon farming is very polluting: Thousands of fish are crammed into pens, which leads to the growth of diseases and parasites that require antibiotics and pesticides. Often, the fish escape and compete with native fish for food, leading to declines in native populations. Adding to our salmon woes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is moving forward with approving genetically engineered salmon to be sold, unlabeled, to unsuspecting seafood lovers. That salmon would be farmed off the coast of Panama, and it’s unclear how it would be labeled. Currently, all fish labeled “Atlantic salmon” come from fish farms. (Wonder what other fish is frequently mislabeled? See Your Fish Is A Fake.)
Eat this instead: Opt for wild Alaskan salmon now, and in the event that GE salmon is officially approved.
8. Imported king crab
Why it’s bad: The biggest problem with imported crab is that most of it comes from Russia, where limits on fish harvests aren’t strongly enforced. But this crab also suffers from something of an identity crisis, says Cufone: “Imported king crab is often misnamed Alaskan king crab, because most people think that’s name of the crab,” she says, adding that she’s often seen labels at supermarkets that say “Alaskan King Crab, Imported.” Alaskan king crab is a completely separate animal, she says, and it’s much more responsibly harvested than the imported stuff.
Eat this instead: When you shop for king crab, whatever the label says, ask whether it comes from Alaska or if it’s imported. Approximately 70% of the king crab sold in the U.S. is imported, so it’s important to make that distinction and go domestic.
Why it’s bad: Problems associated with our eating too many sharks happen at all stages of the food chain, says Cufone. For one, these predatory fish are extremely high in mercury, which poses threats to humans. But ocean ecosystems suffer, too. “With fewer sharks around, the species they eat, like cownose rays and jellyfish, have increased in numbers,” Cufone says. “And the rays are eating—and depleting—scallops and other fish.” There are fewer of those fish in the oceans for us to eat, placing an economic strain on coastal communities that depend on those fisheries. (Shark-fin soup made our list of 8 Cruelest Foods You Eat for a reason.)
Eat this instead: Among the recommendations for shark alternatives are Pacific halibut and Atlantic mackerel.
10. Orange Roughy
Why it’s bad: In addition to having high levels of mercury, orange roughy can take between 20 and 40 years to reach full maturity and reproduces late in life, which makes it difficult for populations to recover from overfishing. Orange roughy has such a reputation for being overharvested that some large restaurant chains, including Red Lobster, refuse to serve it. However, it still pops up in grocer freezers, sometimes mislabeled as “sustainably harvested.” There are no fisheries of orange roughy that are considered well-managed or are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, so avoid any that you see.
Eat this instead: Opt for yellow snapper or domestic catfish to get the same texture as orange roughy in your recipes.
11. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
Why it’s bad: A recent analysis by The New York Times found that Atlantic bluefin tuna has the highest levels of mercury of any type of tuna. To top it off, bluefin tuna are severely overharvested, to the point of reaching near-extinction levels, and are considered “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rather than trying to navigate the ever-changing recommendations for which tuna is best, consider giving it up altogether and switching to a healthy, flavorful alternative, such as Alaska wild-caught salmon.
Eat this instead: If you really can’t give up tuna, opt for American or Canadian (but not imported!) albacore tuna, which is caught while it’s young and doesn’t contain as high levels of mercury.
12. Chilean Sea Bass
Why it’s bad: Most Chilean sea bass sold in the US comes from fishermen who have captured them illegally, although the US Department of State says that illegal harvesting of the fish has declined in recent years. Nevertheless, fish stocks are in such bad shape that the nonprofit Greenpeace estimates that, unless people stop eating this fish, the entire species could be commercially extinct within five years. Food & Water Watch’s guide notes that these fish are high in mercury, as well.
Eat this instead: These fish are very popular and considered a delicacy, but you can get the same texture and feel with US hook-and-line–caught haddock.
Mercury Poisoning and Other Toxins
Fish and shellfish bioaccumulate mercury in their bodies over time. Fish products can have a varying amounts of heavy metals, particularly mercury and fat-soluble pollutants from water pollution. Fish that are live long and are high on the food chain, such as marlin, tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish (Gulf of Mexico), and northern pike, contain higher concentrations of mercury than others.
Mercury is dangerous to both natural ecosystems and humans because it is a metal known to be highly toxic, especially due to its ability to damage the central nervous system. The presence of mercury in fish can be a particular health concern for women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children.
Wild Fish vs. Farmed Fish
Over 60% of the fish eaten in the United States is “farm raised”. Farm raised fish, also called aquaculture:
- Doesn’t have a lot of room to swim which causes more diseases
- Often given antibiotics as well as commercial dyes to give them a healthy color.
- The fish feed often has toxins that are passed on to the consumer.
- have seven times the levels of PCB’s as wild salmon
- have 30 times the number of sea lice
- are fed chemicals to give them color
- are fed pellets of chicken feces, corn meal, soy, genetically modified canola oil and other fish containing concentrations of toxins
- are administered antibiotics at higher levels than any other livestock
- have less omega 3’s due to lack of wild diet
- are crowed into small areas inhibiting movement, and causing disease
Other common farm raised fish, that share similar circumstances as Salmon include Tilapia, Sea Bass, Catfish and Cod.
According to a recent Wake Forest University study,
“Farm-raised tilapia, one of the most highly consumed fish in America, has very low levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and, perhaps worse, very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, according to new research. The researchers say the combination could be a potentially dangerous food source for some patients with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases that are particularly vulnerable to an “exaggerated inflammatory response.”
Sustainable Farm Raise Fish
There are many aquaculturists that operate responsibly and you can eat the fish from these farms without sacrificing your health or that of the planet. You can purchase their fish at Whole Foods. Check out Whole Foods Quality Standards for Aquaculture below.
- No use of antibiotics, added growth hormones and poultry and mammalian by-products in feed
- Traceability that allows us to track our farmed seafood right back to where it swam
- Requirements that producers minimize the impacts of fish farming on the environment by monitoring water quality and surrounding habitats, and sourcing feed ingredients responsibly
- Strict protocols to prevent farmed fish from escaping into the wild and protect wildlife around the farm
- Our farmers do not treat nets with toxic chemicals to get rid of algae and no pesticides are used
- Genetically engineered fish are prohibited
- Colorants only from non-synthetic sources
When in Doubt look for the ASC Certification