If you’re a discerning consumer, choosing seafood can be tricky. There are a number of factors to weigh, including cost, nutritional value, quality, as well as social and environmental impacts. While it can be daunting to wade through the various guides, labeling schemes, advertisements, and news stories when considering your seafood purchase, don’t let all of the noise discourage you from enjoying some of the most delicious food available.
Here are four simple guiding principles to apply when choosing seafood:
#1 Know your fisherman.
More and more community fishermen are offering their catch directly to consumers or selling to buyers that maintain traceability throughout their supply chain. This is providing eaters more opportunity to purchase delicious seafood they can feel good about eating. Even if you don’t dwell at the doorstep of the ocean, you can still purchase seafood from trusted, traceable sources. Direct delivery and Community Supported Fishery (CSF) models are helping bring the bounty of the sea to consumers like you across the country.
Local Catch has an online tool for finding CSF and off-the-boat options in your area. We’re partnering with them and the Community Fisheries Network to encourage consumers to ask questions about the who and how behind your fish. If you’re already on board with buying direct, we have a great video for you to share with your friends and neighbors to give them a nudge. Check it out at www.knowyourfisherman.org.
#2 Give frozen fish a chance.
Right now, my large chest freezer at home in Anchorage exudes the sweet bounty of the ocean — including flash frozen halibut, salmon, crab, albacore tuna, spot prawns and more. Alaskans like myself and other seafood connoisseurs who enjoy eating seafood year-round know that frozen seafood is not a second-rate option. These tasty treats, some of which were caught many months ago, are a premium product, something my many dinner guests will attest to. Flash freezing preserves the fresh flavor and quality that eaters are looking for.
Freezing and other methods of preserving are also a matter of practicality when it comes to seafood. Consider that in Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to the largest wild salmon runs on the planet, 56 million fish returned to spawn in the region’s rich rivers in 2017! These wild salmon represent some of the best food on the planet, but there is no way that the market can deliver, or that consumers could eat, all of this salmon in the short time span that they are “in season.” When thawed and handled correctly, flash frozen fish brings premium flavor, prevents fish from being wasted, and makes it easier for fishermen to get more value from their catch by supplying it over a longer time period.
Not convinced? Take a look at this study Ecotrust conducted last year in partnership with Seafood Analytics, Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, Alaskans Own, and Port Orford Sustainable Seafood that tested consumer preference of fresh (never frozen) salmon and sablefish versus the same flash-frozen varieties. The findings might surprise you!
#3 Choose domestically caught seafood.
Here’s a disturbing fact to share with your friends: 80 to 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported. Furthermore, 20 to 30 percent of this imported fish is from illegal and unreported fisheries. Countries including India, Thailand, Norway, Canada, and Chile are making big bucks (nearly $22 billion in 2017 to be exact) selling Americans farmed shrimp, farmed Atlantic salmon, catfish, tilapia, and tuna. Significant concerns, from the use of slave labor to the presence of harmful chemicals and antibiotics, abound in these fisheries. While fisheries management in the United States is far from perfect, we still have some of the world’s healthiest fish stocks and a rigorous system in place to prevent overfishing and foster healthy marine ecosystems.
At Ecotrust, we are ramping up our efforts to support strong community-based fishing businesses that are able to provide seafood to local, regional and national markets (check out this blog about collaborative work in Garibaldi for an example). But it’s going to take a strong showing from eaters like you to turn the tide. Make sure to ask your servers and fishmongers about the origins of your seafood — especially shrimp and salmon. Choosing domestically caught fish and saying no to farmed, imported shrimp and salmon alone is a huge step in the right direction.
#4 Buy wild salmon.
While the full extent of the economic, social, and environmental damage from the recent fish pen collapse in the Salish Sea is not yet known, by most accounts the disaster was avoidable. The outcry over the disaster, including from Northwest Tribes, led Washington State lawmakers to pass groundbreaking legislation in early March to completely phase out Atlantic salmon net-pen farming by 2025. The uprising over Atlantic salmon farms in British Columbia is also continuing, with numerous First Nations communities striving to exercise their sovereign rights to extricate these operations from their waterways. The B.C. government is finally acknowledging the negative impacts of salmon farms, and just recently recommended moving open-net pen salmon farms in the Province onshore. We can do our part to help support the transition away from farming of non-native Atlantic salmon on the west coast and support the livelihoods of American fishermen by choosing wild salmon, and other wild fish, whenever possible. For a comprehensive look at many of the challenges still posed by salmon farming, check out this link.
These are just a few simple guidelines to help you and your family make seafood choices that will better support healthy oceans, thriving coastal communities, robust local economies, and fishing livelihoods. For those ready to dive deeper, I recommend taking a look at the place-based approach toward seafood from our friends on the east coast at Eating with the Ecosystem.