How an Aquarium Is Helping Us Shop for Sustainable Seafood

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is striving to maintain wild populations and preserve the environment.

Photo: Yeji Kim

When you shop for seafood, you want to make smart choices—both for your family and for the environment. For fish to be considered sustainable, it must be caught or farmed in a way that doesn't harm the environment and in which fish can thrive in the future. If you're unsure which types of seafood meet this criteria (and which don't), you're not alone.

The Environmental Impact of Seafood

The world's 4.6 million fishing boats use many catch methods, some better for the environment, others more damaging. However, most seafood comes from fish farming, called aquaculture, and there are many ways to farm fish.

In the fishing industry, most of the planet-warming emissions come from fuel. One study found that fishing boat fuel causes 4 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from global food production. Aquaculture's emissions come from different sources, including producing feed for fish, aerating water, fish waste, and transportation. Though it isn't as emission-free as one might think, farmed fish has a smaller carbon footprint than livestock (like cows or pigs).

Fresh wild fish isn't always better than farmed fish for the planet.

Transportation of both wild and farmed fish contributes to climate change in a big way. Whether shipped by truck, boat, or plane, moving fish burns fuel, creating carbon emissions. Overnighting fish via plane creates the most—one reason that fresh wild fish isn't always better than farmed fish for the planet. Wild Alaskan salmon flown from the Yukon River spurs climate change far more than locally farmed catfish, or regional oysters plucked from seabeds where they pretty much grow on their own.

By 2030, aquaculture is projected to provide nearly two-thirds of the global seafood diet. The U.S. is the world's largest exporter of fish, meaning much of our added farm fish will be shipped across borders. The potential for emissions is set to grow with time—just as it will in so many other sectors of our food economy.

Shopping for Sustainable Seafood

The biggest obstacle to eating sustainable seafood—meaning eating fish in a way that maintains wild populations and preserves the environment—is knowledge. Understanding which fish are sustainable isn't easy. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch offers an extensive online guide with over 2,000 recommendations for most of the seafood, you can buy in the U.S. There's also an interactive tool that lets you explore the climate footprint of various seafood, making it easier to eat like a climatarian.

Exploring the guide offers some surprising statistics. For example, not all oysters are perfectly sustainable, some farmed shrimp should be avoided, and wild bluefin tuna has been fished down to some 3 percent of its original population.

According to Seafood Watch, one way to preserve the environment is to shop the frozen food aisle. Frozen seafood, most of all flash-frozen seafood, has the potential to be as tasty as fresh, and the carbon footprint can be lower because it doesn't need to be shipped to you as fast, meaning lower-impact shipping methods can be used. "It is a great way to control your carbon footprint and a great way to control the quality of the fish," says Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager for Seafood Watch.

While Seafood Watch's guides are more focused on the sustainability of local environments and fish populations, these key into climate change. If we drag weighted nets across the ocean floor, destroying reefs and bottom-dwelling species, and if we fish species to commercial extinction, then we have thrown our planet even further out of balance. This is the kind of thing that can be destabilizing for the climate. In the face of changing seafood industry, it's nice to have such a trusty resource on which to rely.

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