GreenSpace: Making the best catch

A guide helps steer seafood-eaters toward species that are abundant and well-managed and away from those that aren't.

Posted: October 06, 2008

Cruising the seafood counters at the Reading Terminal Market amounts to a grand tour of the ocean's bounty. I counted nearly 65 kinds of fish and shellfish in less than 10 minutes.

Catfish and clams. Scallops and shrimp. Yum.

But wait! Grouper is overfished. Chilean sea bass is caught with bottom longlines, which can entangle and kill sea birds. Orange roughy is overfished, and the bottom trawlers that catch it damage the sea floor.

Time to deploy my "Seafood Watch" wallet card, which categorizes species - by sustainability - as "best choices" (farmed tilapia and Pacific halibut, for instance), "good alternatives" (haddock and wild oysters), and "avoid" (monkfish and bluefin tuna).

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which first issued the consumer cards in 1999, has since distributed 24 million nationwide. (See the clip-and-save newsprint version below.)

It even footnotes fish that may present other concerns, such as mercury contamination. But the point is sustainability - to steer us toward species that are "abundant, well-managed, and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways."

The National Marine Fisheries Service proudly notes that 80 percent of more than 250 federally managed fish populations are just fine. Most of what you see in a fish store is federally managed, if - and it's a big if - it's not imported or farmed.

But that also means 20 percent aren't.

And "if you look at fisheries globally," says Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, "they're generally in not good shape."

A warning on fisheries

Scientists have warned that commercial fisheries will collapse within 40 years if we don't change how they are managed. Not that the fish will be extinct, but they'll be so scarce you won't be able to catch them for a living.

Meanwhile, our hunger for seafood is robust. Americans eat upward of 16 pounds a year - a quarter of it shrimp. (A middling "good alternative," says Monterey Bay, as long as they're from the United States, either farmed or wild. All imported shrimp are on the "avoid" list.)

Some other groups even give recipes online. That certainly helps in the case of one of the Environmental Defense Fund's top choices: anchovies. (Try them in a garlicky Putanesca sauce.)

Blue Ocean's FishPhone service - a sustainability 911 - came in handy when I paused to admire pinkish fillets of something called "basa."

I pulled out my cell phone, dialed 30644 and texted "fish," then "basa."

A response came back in eight seconds: "imported, farmed, some environmental concerns . . . try U.S. farmed catfish instead."

FishPhone has fielded 18,000 queries since launching the service a year ago.

Environmental Defense, Blue Ocean and Monterey Bay will jointly publish a guide to sustainable sushi later this month.

Another view

Seafood purveyors are less than enthusiastic about all this. Scot Mackey of the Garden State Seafood Association harrumphed that there is "significant regulatory oversight" of fisheries, and he much prefers the New Jersey Department of Agriculture Web site that lists when various species are in season.

Another more neutral just-the-facts-ma'am approach comes from the National Marine Fisheries Service's "FishWatch."

For 80 species of fish and shellfish, it includes calories per serving and other nutritional data - and notes whether the species is overfished, what kind of gear is used to bring it in, and whether there are issues with accidental "bycatch" of other species. (You can also check out its life history and habitat, charts on biomass and landings, statistics and links.)

But I see a fishy kind of Catch-22 here: Aren't the fish in the market already dead? It's not as if we can throw any back in the water, so why can't I eat any one I want?

Besides, even Reichert concedes that people's "legitimate desire" to help is not going to solve the fisheries problem. It will take the full force of world governments.

Then again, says Blue Ocean's Elaine Iandoli, "it's important for consumers to see the big picture and learn about the fish that they eat and to communicate that to the people who are providing it - to express their preferences to seafood shops, to chefs, to supermarkets."

And the message will be passed back, from diner to chef to manager to fisher.

One meal at a time, if need be.


A chart to tell you which fish to buy, which to avoid. C2

GreenSpace: To Eat Fish Sustainably . . .

Text message

Wondering about that fish at the market? For Blue Ocean's FishPhone, just dial 30644 and text "fish," then a space, then the name of the fish.


Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe, Bloomsbury USA, 336 pages, $24.99.

All the pocket guides mentioned in this story may be downloaded from

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or To post a comment, visit her blog at

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