How to Eat Seafood, Sustainably

Written by Katie Parla on October 2, 2012

Today’s guest post comes from my friend Sydney Schwarz of Sea2Table, a US-based company that works with local fishermen from small-scale sustainable wild fisheries, helping to provide better markets for their catch. As an avid eater, I feel a responsibility to eat in a way that respects producers and nature. It’s not always easy to know where your food comes from and how it is distributed, especially when it comes to fish. So I asked Sydney to share some of her expertise. Her tips are rules to live by and they’re valid across the globe.

“There is that old saying about lots of fish in the sea, and while that is true, it’s not true of all fish all the time. The most important thing that we can do is ask questions and choose to buy responsibly from small independent fishermen whenever possible. Eat better fish!

As a fishmonger for Sea to Table, people often ask me, “What is the most sustainable fish I can buy?” And my answer every time: It’s not just about the fish. Our domestic fisheries are more than just scientific data and reports. Our fisheries support entire communities and family businesses that span generations, and are major sources of employment and economic stability for entire regions. We believe that in order to create a truly sustainable fishery, the system needs to account for the people as well as the fish. Just as local farmers need access to chefs and consumers at farmers markets, fishermen need a way to reach their buyers directly. Sea to Table was founded on the idea that small fishermen deserve better access to customers, and diners deserve to eat better fish.

So, how do we support fishermen and their communities while protecting the fish?

First, don’t buy fish from strangers. Just as you visit the farmers market and get to know the farmer who grows your tomatoes, you should get to know your fishmonger. Good fishmongers will be able to tell you the story of everything in their case and are in the best position to help you choose sustainable fish, but you have to ask. Often, people are intimidated when buying fish and stick with what they know, but by asking a few questions about where the fish is from or how it’s caught, your fishmonger will be able to guide you to a sustainable option. Even better if they can tell you who caught it, but that’s still a rarity unless you live in a coastal region or have a particularly progressive fishmonger.

Second, eat small. Sure, I love a seared tuna or a fat swordfish steak, but a good general rule is that smaller fish will reproduce faster and at higher rates. By eating lower on the food chain, we are able to catch more without endangering the population balance. If we take fish out of the oceans before they have time to reproduce, the fishery is in danger of overfishing and is no longer sustainable. For example: Swordfish spawn once a year, and it takes 4-5 years for a swordfish to reach maturity. Bluefish, on the other hand, start reproducing at age 2 and spawn multiple times a year during the spring and summer.

Finally, follow the seasons. We have become accustomed to having what we want when we want it, but just like produce, fish are seasonal. If your fishmonger only has imported farmed salmon because wild salmon is out of season, ask what’s in season and came in fresh today. This can be tough because it will limit your choices, but be bold! Try out tilefish or get creative with pollock rather than going for cod because it’s familiar. Give head-on wild white shrimp a shot instead of the peeled and deveined farmed imported shrimp that are raised in unregulated ponds in Thailand. Trust me, you don’t want to see what a shrimp farm really looks like outside of the U.S.

If you are interested in reading up on fishing practices and sustainability ratings, check out FishWatch on the NOAA website. Another great resource is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch for recipes, ratings, guides and a fantastic App.”

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