It was not long ago that we rarely thought about where our food came from, let alone the how our choices impacted the environment, but these days many of us want to know not only what we’re eating, but where it’s from and if it was grown and harvested in sustainable way. From food co-ops, farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA), to stores devoted to natural, organic, local and sustainable fruits, veggies and other agricultural products — shoppers and advocates have pushed for legal protections to avert the worst problems of industrial agriculture. And although the journey to a healthy sustainable terrestrial food system is far from over, it is well underway.
Seafood, however, is more slippery. “That’s because it’s the ‘Last of the Buffalo Hunters,” when it comes to seafood says Joe Lasprogata, Vice President of Samuels and Son Seafood Co, referring to a longtime lack of stewardship of fisheries on the part of those who ran them. “The oceans are in some ways the last source of truly wild products, and we need to be careful with those.” Samuels and Son sponsors Sustained Seas, an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable fisheries via labeling and education. “Fisheries can absolutely be sustainable,” he says.
And part of the reason fisheries are in trouble is that consumers don’t always know the impacts of their choices — many of us still make fish-buying decisions based on taste, price and texture — rather than perceived sustainability, according to a study on British Columbian consumer habits.
But it’s extremely important to think about where the fish comes from, says Marianne Cufone, Executive Director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, an organization dedicated to creating local land-based produce and fish systems using hydro- and aquaponics. These smaller scale, local systems can avoid problems of open-water finfish farms and industrial agriculture altogether, which can include use of drugs and chemicals, unnatural feeds and cause environmental pollution.
Practices like these affect not only your health, but also the future of wild fish stocks, which we and countless other species depend on for our survival. “There are lots of ways to identify a so-called 'Dirty Dozen' of fish, and it’s crucial to be aware of overfishing, pollution, and bycatch,” which is when other creatures (even some protected species) are caught unintentionally. “I get a lot of texts from my friends asking me which fish are okay to eat,” she laughs.
Cufone will likely be getting that question more and more: In the last couple of years, with the pandemic keeping us at home, fish consumption took a hit, she says. “People in the United States are much more likely to eat fish out than cook it at home.” she says. Now that we’re able to get out to our favorite seafood restaurants, it’s important to know what’s not only good to eat, but what was caught or raised in a sustainable way with an eye toward protecting the health of the food supply and consumers.
So which fish are okay to eat?
Let’s be clear: Fish, in general, is a very healthy, high quality protein option, often full of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and important minerals. Health orgs such as the American Heart Association recommend that we eat fish twice to three times a week, so while you want to choose carefully, don’t let the fact that some fish should be avoided lead you to steer clear of all the swimmy creatures.
Here are just a few sustainably harvested or raised and yummy choices, according to Cufone and Seafood Watch, an organization run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that tracks safe-to-eat fish based on how and where they’re farmed or caught.
- Bass (including Striped and Suzuki)
- Flounder (Arrowtooth, California, and others)
- Halibut (Pacific)
- Hogfish (Hog Snapper, from the Gulf of Mexico)
- Mahi (caught by and or with a fishing pole)
- Perch (various types)
- Any farmed shellfish
- Red Drum (a.k.a. Redfish)
- Salmon (wild caught)
- Scallops (diver caught)
Here are the 12 fish you should avoid eating:
Imported Farmed Shrimp
Why you should skip it: Shrimp is currently the most consumed seafood in the U.S., surpassing tuna some years back, says Cufone. Stunningly, about 90% of the shrimp we eat in the U.S. are imported, and mostly farm raised. “Imported farmed shrimp is one of the worst choices with respect to sustainability,” she says. “Shrimp are farmed, mostly in the global south, in Thailand, China, and Vietnam.” What happens there is that shrimp ponds replace mangroves and other coastal plants that prevent erosion of the shoreline, and serve as an important buffer from violent weather like typhoons and tsunamis. “This makes it harder to protect people and their homes,” says Cufone. And these shrimp ponds get so polluted that they often have to be continually abandoned and rebuilt elsewhere. “This can destroy entire regions,” she says.
Eat this Instead: U.S. Shrimp, Key West Pinks, Rock Shrimp and Gulf Shrimp are all a good substitute, says Cufone. “But check labels carefully. U.S. Royal Reds, for example, which are found in North Florida and Alabama, are a good choice, but they may be mislabeled. “There has been a big influx of Argentinian Royal Reds, which are not good. They’re caught with bottom trawls, so they can have super high bycatch,” she adds.
Why you should skip it: “If there’s nothing else to pay attention to, know this: Imported fish are rarely RARELY inspected for filth (which includes rat and human hair and insects,)” says Cufone. Nearly 90% of the catfish imported to the U.S. comes from Vietnam, where use of antibiotics that are banned in the U.S. is widespread. (Antibiotic use is also a problem with imported shrimp). Furthermore, the two varieties of Vietnamese catfish sold in the U.S., 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. It's often 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.
Sharkes, Skate and Rays
Why you should skip it: Problems associated with our eating too many sharks happen all along the food chain, says Cufone. For one, these predatory fish are extremely high in mercury, which is bad for human health. 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 these are eating—and depleting—scallops and other fish." That means there are fewer of those fish for us to eat, which strains coastal communities that depend on those fisheries to survive economically.
What’s more, sharks, skate and rays have long lives and they mature late, meaning they do not reproduce until they are older. Sometimes they are cut up and sold as sea scallops, says Cufone. Plus, “If you see sea scallops that are a uniform size and shape, you may be looking at shark, skate or rays.” Shark-finning is illegal in the U.S., but its practice in other areas is causing devastation in shark-populations worldwide.
Eat this instead: Among the recommendations for shark alternatives are Pacific halibut and Atlantic mackerel. (And when shopping for scallops, avoid cookie-cutter perfect ones.)
Why you should skip it: “Cod on the list breaks my heart, because it’s a New England staple and we all love to support our local fishermen,” says Cufone, “But while the Atlantic cod supply is slowly rebuilding, it’s not there yet.” Atlantic cod stocks collapsed in the mid-1990s and were in such disarray that the species has been 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.
Why you should skip it: According to Cufone, tuna is bad news all around. “We are eating it to death,” she says (it’s the second most popular after shrimp). Atlantic and Pacific Bluefin, Yellowfin … they all should be avoided. Tuna is one of the most consumed fish in the U.S., and that’s depleting the fisheries. “Yellowfin can be okay if it’s pole-caught or troll-caught,” says Cufone, but most of it is not, and has high bycatch rates of already-troubled species like turtles and sharks.
Eat this instead: For your tuna salad, substitute tinned sardines (they’re Seafood Watch recommended, and are one of the healthiest fishes you can eat) or even organic tinned chicken. “If you or your kid just love canned tuna, choose Skipjack,” says Cufone. “There’s mercury in all tuna, but Skipjack is smaller so it has less, is not overfished, reproduces more rapidly than other types, and is available at groceries.”
Why you should skip it: Caviar from beluga and wild-caught sturgeon are susceptible to overfishing, 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—that’s why any wild caviar is to be avoided, says Cufone.
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; check out California Caviar which sources only sustainably harvested fish eggs.
Chilean Sea Bass
Why you should skip it: Chilean Sea Bass, the commercial name for Patagonian Toothfish, was nearly fished to commercial extinction, are still considered a fish to avoid. 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 and 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 U.S. hook-and-line–caught haddock.
Why you should skip it: Orange Roughy has been so overfished that many restaurant chains still refuse to serve it. Further, it tends to be high in mercury levels. It is a long-lived fish, that takes ten to twenty years to reach maturity—which means populations take a long time to recover, and fish tend to accumulate toxins like mercury of lengthy time periods. Even if you see orange roughy for sale, or labeled as “sustainably harvested” avoid it.
Eat this instead: Opt for yellow snapper or domestic catfish to get the same texture as orange roughy in your recipes.
Why you should skip it: Eel remains problematic too. Most consumers see it in sushi, but it is often high in PCBs and mercury, and eel populations are too often overharvested. It is also sold as yellow or silver eel.
Eat this instead: If you like the taste of eel, opt for Atlantic- or Pacific-caught squid instead.
Imported King Crab
Why you should skip it: The thing about imported King Crab is that it comes mainly from Russia where there are no protections and the fishery is being overharvested. If you know for sure that your crab is actually from Alaska, says Cufone “you’re okay.” That’s because these crabs are actually two different critters. True Alaskan King Crab from Alaska, is a protected U.S. fishery that’s well managed, and stocks are healthy. But the “imported Alaskan King Crab” is not actually Alaskan, it’s the unprotected crab from Russia.
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 percent of the king crab sold in the U.S. is imported, so it's important to make that distinction and go domestic.
Why you should skip it: Open water, farmed Atlantic salmon contribute to pollution and interspecies mixing. These are mostly raised in offshore floating net cages and they pollute the surrounding environment with fish waste, excess fish feed, and any chemicals used to clean the cages or treat the fish for illness, explains Cufone. “They can spread pests like lice to wild fish and when fish escape (they always do) they can intermix with and change behaviors and even genetics of wild fish or outcompete wild fish for habitat, mates and food,” she says. “If you can find terrestrially farmed Atlantic salmon, that’s typically better farming management,” says Cufone. But wild is still better.
Eat this instead: Wild caught Pacific salmon have less of the problems than Atlantic farmed salmon. And wild caught salmon from Alaska is even better, since those populations are the most robust. When it comes to flavor, wild salmon is where it’s at. As one of the healthiest fish you can eat, it's higher in omega-3 fatty acids (which can help fight seasonal allergies, among many other things) and also packs less saturated fat than farmed. It’s also a sustainable seafood: the Alaskan salmon fishery—America’s main source of wild salmon—is managed to ensure the plentiful return of wild fish in the future. Varieties to look out for are King, Sockeye, Pink, Keta and Coho salmon.
Why you should skip it: The issue here is not that they are overfished — they’re not, says Cufone. It’s more that they’re extremely smart. “This is an ethics case that I’d put in the same category as eating dolphins and whales,” says Cufone. “It’s become increasingly hard to talk about eating octopus, because we’ve learned so much about their intelligence and abilities. Some people say eating octopus is the equivalent of eating marine mammals in terms of their mental capacity and abilities.”
Eat this instead: If you like the taste of octopus, opt for squid instead.
How to make a sustainable, healthy fish choice:
Let’s say you’re at the fish counter or freezer and want to make the best choice from what’s there. Below are the general guidelines Cufone gives to her friends who ask her what to order:
- Choose local seafood (if possible)
- Choose domestic seafood (from the U.S.) over imported
- Generally, choose wild-caught (there are some exceptions, like off-bottom cultured oysters or clams are also a very good choice)
- If it’s farm-raised, choose seafood from the U.S. — even better if it’s from recirculating systems
- Favor fish caught by hand line, hook and line (rod and reel), trolling, or spearfishing
- Limit consumption of fish that are high in mercury, PCBs or other contaminants
What else to know about consuming fish:
The list will change because the industry is changing — what might be the worst thing to eat now because of severe depletion could rebound a few years down the road with proper management. To know if your choices are healthy — for themselves and the fishery itself — check one of the below sites before you make your purchase.
- Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch A respected and increasingly well-known resource for consumers, businesses and chefs around the country, to help them make healthy choices for the oceans.
- NOAA Fisheries For those who want useful, regularly updated science info and detailed specs on various fisheries tracked by the US government, this is your go to.