Enjoying Seafood While Knowing Too Much

I freely admit that I enjoy seafood.  I grew up in New England, where the American seafood industry was practically invented, and now live in North Carolina, where the confluence of cold and warm water at Cape Hatteras makes for some of the richest fishing grounds on the east coast.  I have yet to find something from the ocean that I haven’t enjoyed eating.  At the same time, as a young marine scientist with a fisheries management background, I have the curse of “knowing too much.”  I’m well aware of just how ecologically devastating some fishing methods can be, and can’t even eat dolphin-safe tuna without cringing over the consequences.  I want nothing more than a healthy, biologically-diverse ocean, but part of the motivation for that is that I want the oceans to continue providing my favorite foods.  Though some advocate giving up seafood altogether, continuing to eat seafood can be one of the best ways to promote marine conservation.  Doing so, however, may cost a little more, require a little research, and force you to think differently about some of the staples of your diet.  For an entire blog’s worth of advice (and recipes), check out the excellent Eat U.S. Seafood.  For some of the general rules I try to follow, keep reading.

First off, my current circumstances are similar to what most of America (if not in population, certainly in land mass) has to deal with when eating seafood.  When I lived in Rhode Island, I was close enough to the port of Point Judith to be able to get fresh fish right at the fish house and lobsters right off the back of the boat.  My current situation has me living in a town defined by big box stores and fast food.  In other words, a town much like any non-major city more than an hour from the coast.  These circumstances effectively prevent me from getting seafood directly from the source, but even here there are ways to eat seafood sustainably, if you know where to look.

Hands down, the best, most basic way you can eat seafood sustainably is to do your homework.  Research what species you’re eating, their habits, what species they eat, what eats them, where they come from, how they’re caught, what gets caught with them… it can be a little overwhelming.  While ocean nerds like myself might actually find looking up information on their seafood interesting, it’s probably not up the alley of the average consumer (but they don’t know what they’re missing, ocean dwellers tend to be pretty interesting creatures).

Fortunately, some groups and markets are trying to help with this through labeling.  However, even here doing your homework is important.  The most well-known sustainability label is the Marine Stewardship Council‘s blue sticker, found on seafood products that meet their criteria for sustainability.  “Well-known” doesn’t necessarily mean “best,” and the MSC has made some controversial decisions when it comes to certifying fisheries, occasionally suggesting that they’re more concerned with getting stickers on as many products as possible rather than ensuring true, ocean-friendly seafood.  As an alternative, some supermarket chains have begun showing the source and even capture method for their seafood offerings.  I’ve personally had good luck with Harris Teeter, which made the top four in Greenpeace’s Sustainable Seafood Markets list and is fairly common in eastern North Carolina.

When doing your research, you should make it a priority to eat local.  Figure out what your local coast is known for landing and make that the staple of your seafood diet.  In Rhode Island lobster was readily available; the state sits right in the middle of their natural range and many local fishermen go after them at some point during the year.  In North Carolina, lobster would have to be landed in New England and trucked down, so shrimp, which the state is known for (for good, delicious reason) is a better local alternative.

It won’t always be possible to keep this up if your only option is supermarket seafood, but even then you can try to make sure you purchase seafood caught in the U.S.  Our fisheries management can be chaotic, inefficient, and occasionally disastrous, but we actually have some of the best-managed fisheries on the planet.  Anything caught in the U.S. likely made more effort to conserve the environment and fish stocks than that bag of frozen cocktail shrimp from an unnamed source (likely somewhere in southeast Asia with no management system at all).  Plus, you’re helping American fishermen keep their jobs.

Finally, and this was something I had to do regarding what had been an absolute staple in my diet, re-think your eating habits.  Part of the reason that some fisheries are in such poor shape is that consumers got used to having those species available constantly and cheaply.  This doomed the Atlantic cod and is a huge problem in the tuna fishery.  I’m far from innocent here.  At one point I ate canned tuna at least twice a week.  Think about how much canned tuna costs; it’s priced as a loss-leader in most grocery stores, meaning that it’s cheap so you’ll consider buying more stuff to go with it.  The low price of tuna trickles down into every aspect of that fishery, resulting in huge numbers of tuna being caught to keep up with the demand.  Now that I know too much about my favorite seafood, I’ve scaled back my tuna consumption and had to completely re-think how it fits into my diet.  I now buy pole-caught tuna exclusively, which has relegated the humble tuna sandwich to “occasional treat” status.  This is because where I live actual pole-caught canned tuna is available only at one higher-end grocery store, where it sells for $4-5 a can.  But by lowering my tuna consumption and picking sources that have less bycatch, my tuna sandwich treat is a little better for me, the tuna, and the marine environment.  Now if only places around here would start stocking American Tuna

So that’s how I deal with knowing too much about my seafood.  How have you been trying to make your eating habits a little more blue?


  1. Alan Dove · May 30, 2012

    Great topic, and a thoughtful post. Unfortunately, the supermarket is full of Hobson’s choices. What if I skip the farm-raised shrimp but serve beef instead? Now instead of obliterating mangroves in Asia I’m propping up an unsustainable corn-fed domestic industry. Vegetables are good, but is it better to buy them from a local greenhouse that burns massive amounts of oil throughout the New England winter, or the ones air-freighted here from Argentina? How about something trucked from California instead? Florida? North Carolina? At what point does it become “local,” and is “local” always environmentally superior? These questions inevitably lead down rabbit holes of academic debate, and the propaganda machine of a trillion-dollar food industry doesn’t exactly clarify matters.

    Even foods sold as “local” often aren’t. Having grown up on the Chesapeake, I was particularly heartbroken to learn that Maryland now imports crabmeat. Meanwhile, many seafood stores in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and even Maine actually sell lobsters caught in Canada.

    My own approach is to try to avoid a few foods and eat a wide variety of the others, while going easy on the meats. It’s more or less Michael Pollan’s recommendation, though I arrived at it independently. The “avoid” list includes seafood where there’s reasonably clear evidence of environmental harm (farm-raised shrimp, cheap tuna), and I have a general preference for wild-caught fish from countries with at least minimally functional regulatory systems. Beyond that, it’s up to fisheries agencies to fix the problem.

    • Chuck · May 30, 2012

      Great comment Alan. A lot of the same principles I’ve applied to seafood can be applied to other foods. With fruit and vegetables, it’s possible to keep track of what’s in season, and truth be told most fruits and veggies taste much better when they are. If your area has a local farmer’s market, that’s probably the best place to go for produce, and you can always ask the seller for details on how it was grown, pesticides, etc.

      • Jonathan Gonzalez · May 30, 2012

        Seasonality is so important. Folks are much more familiar with the seasonality of fruits and vegetables than they with the seasonality of seafood harvested in their area. That needs to change.

        Most folks here in Santa Barbara are not aware that we land around 150 million pounds of seafood at our harbor a year and they don’t know the diversity of species landed. Most folks don’t know that it is not possible to eat fresh tuna, shrimp and salmon all year-round and because of that, destructive practices are taking place to keep up with the demand.

        Like you say Chuck, “Figure out what your local coast is known for landing and make that the staple of your seafood diet.”
        Solid advice right there from a solid post.
        Thanks for the shoutout, Chuck!

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