Buying Sustainable Seafood:
A new shopping guide for the grocery store
This guide aims to provide you with practical advice on how to buy healthy, sustainable seafood at the grocery store that you can feel good about serving to your friends and family. It’s a long guide. It goes beyond ‘eat this, not that’ or ‘look something up on your phone while standing in the grocery aisle.’ It’s designed to give you the scientific and contextual knowledge behind seafood so you can quickly and confidently make a sustainable choice at the fish counter or in the frozen food section.
Why eat seafood at all?
Seafood is probably the healthiest protein available in your local grocery store. It’s leaner than other animal proteins, provides the best ratio of protein to calories, and contains high concentrations of rare micronutrients that can’t be found in other types of protein, like selenium, Omega-3 DHA, and EPA. Seafood also has a much lower environmental and carbon footprint than other animal proteins—some seafood products even have lower impacts than plant-based foods. Wild-caught seafood requires no land, no fresh water, and no inputs. With food production already occupying half of Earth’s arable land, and requiring countless freshwater and fertilizer inputs, you can see the benefits of letting the ocean grow our food for us. At the same time, terrestrial food production is the most significant driver of habitat and biodiversity loss on the planet.
Meanwhile, climate change is by far the most significant threat to life in the ocean. Warming seawater is altering the chemistry of the ocean putting entire habitats, like tropical coral reefs, at risk of extinction. The scale and impact of climate change on the ocean is hard to fathom—even marine protected areas do little to stop the effects. Most ocean scientists agree that the best way to conserve the ocean is to reduce carbon emissions. And so, eating a low-carbon diet (and reducing your carbon footprint in other ways) is a great way to personally contribute to marine protection. Ironically, that often means eating more seafood in place of other proteins.
What is sustainable seafood?
One of the reasons there is so much controversy about seafood is because there is no set definition of “sustainable.” A broad, simple definition would be:
Sustainable seafood is caught or farmed with minimal environmental and social impacts, and in such a way that it can be produced in perpetuity.
But is sustainable seafood possible? A popular Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, concludes, “there is no such thing as sustainable seafood,” however that is patently false: fishery and seafood experts around the world agree that Seaspiracy is full of harmful misinformation. This guide is here to help correct some of it.
The guide focuses on three crucial pieces of information that can tell you everything you need to know about a seafood product’s sustainability.
- The country of origin can tell you if the fish population it comes from is appropriately managed.
- A certification label tells you if a team of scientists and experts has assessed the product’s origin and examined its supply chain.
- Your favorite grocery store chain probably has a seafood sourcing policy. This guide shows you how to find it and evaluate it.
Armed with an understanding of how seafood products end up on your local grocery store shelves, you’ll be able to choose environmentally sustainable seafood products anywhere, confidently.
Step-by-step guide to buying sustainable seafood:
Step 1: Choose seafood products from the USA (whenever possible) or other countries with good management
The simplest way to make sure that the seafood you buy is sustainable is to look for seafood with “USA” as the country of origin. Generally, if it’s caught or farmed in the U.S., you can have a much higher level of confidence that the product is environmentally sustainable.
Why? The U.S. has robust fishery management laws designed to maintain and/or rebuild commercially harvested species, or “stocks” (i.e. fish populations), and prevent and penalize overfishing. The use of “best available science” and “maximum sustainable yield (MSY)” is written into the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the legislation providing for the management of marine fisheries in U.S. waters. Couple the Magnuson-Stevens Act with the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Aquaculture Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and NOAA Fisheries’ commitment to ecosystem-based management, and you have a system entirely devoted to maintaining and rebuilding fish stocks.
If you know your fish or shellfish comes from the U.S., then you can generally rest assured that these environmental sustainability principles apply to that item. The bottom line is that it is literally against the law to harvest seafood unsustainably in the U.S.
How do I know where my seafood comes from?
Country of origin labeling (COOL) is a U.S. law that requires food retailers to tell customers the origins of meat, seafood, and produce.
However, in 2008, the law was modified to allow certain commodities that are further processed outside the U.S. to retain their U.S. origin on the final package. A typical example is Alaskan wild salmon, caught in the U.S., sent abroad to be processed at lower labor costs, then re-shipped to the U.S. and sold with “Product of U.S.A” on the label. The robust fishery management laws in Alaska still apply (the fish came from a biologically sustainable population), but shipping the fish abroad to be filleted raises questions of carbon footprint, social responsibility, and traceability, since we now must rely on the systems of other countries. A piece of salmon caught, landed, processed, and sold in California would carry the same COOL as a piece of Alaskan salmon sent to another continent for processing.
It is important to note that the U.S. COOL does not guarantee human and labor rights were upheld throughout the supply chain, even if it stays within the U.S. border throughout production. Human rights abuses have been reported in processing facilities in New England, the Gulf Coast, and Alaska in recent years as well aboard a few Hawaiian fishing vessels. Few countries, and even fewer industries (especially food-producing ones), are exempt from human and labor rights challenges. While the U.S. offers better supply chain oversight than most, it would be inaccurate to state that all U.S. seafood products have perfect social responsibility.
Country of origin labeling should be visible for all seafood products, even fresh fish behind the seafood case. Seafood from the U.S. or other countries with comprehensive fishery management laws are most likely to be environmentally sustainable.
Most of our seafood is imported
It’s worth noting that the two most popular seafood species for U.S. consumers are farmed Atlantic salmon and shrimp, both of which are mostly imported. So, while it might seem straightforward to look for the U.S. COOL label when purchasing seafood, you will see that most of the seafood available in grocery stores is imported. The U.S. imports most of the seafood it consumes, with the most comprehensive estimate being between 62-65%.
Other countries with excellent fishery management
Just because seafood comes from outside the U.S. does not mean that it is not sustainable. Iceland, Norway, and New Zealand feature some of the healthiest fisheries when measuring research, management, enforcement, socioeconomics, and stock status. By these measurements, well-managed fisheries exist worldwide and will be represented at your grocery store.
Other countries with excellent fishery management include:
- New Zealand
- See how others stack up here
Buying seafood from places with good fishery management is supporting the type of systemic change that needs to happen to get 100% of seafood sustainable.
Wild vs. farmed fish in the U.S.
Many people believe that farmed fish or aquaculture cannot be sustainable. This is absolutely untrue. Most farmed seafood industries based in the U.S. have solid environmental sustainability reputations (oysters, mussels, clams, and barramundi are examples that come to mind). Farmed shellfish are one of the best foods to eat for the planet—they generally have lower environmental costs than plants.
Step 2: Understand the role of ratings and certifications
Though it’s the first detail to look for, country of origin is not always enough when buying sustainable seafood. Before delving into complex environmental concerns like catch methods, fish stock abundance, and regional fishery management schemes as they relate to the piece of swordfish or bag of shrimp you’re thinking about for dinner tonight, it’s worth first considering seafood ratings and certifications. These tools are the backbone for how many grocery stores choose what seafood to stock. They are the benchmark, the global standard for environmental sustainability, and based on the best available science.
Ratings and certifications can be tricky to understand and use correctly—they may require information not available at the seafood counter or on the packaging of a seafood product—however, when you can get the information you need, they can provide the most straightforward understanding of a seafood product’s environmental sustainability.
The most common environmental rating in the U.S. is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program (SFW). It rates seafood sources from all over the world, both wild and farmed, but emphasizes those most relevant to the U.S. market. This means some near-shore fisheries, bycatch species, or international fisheries might not be rated—which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unsustainable—they just fell outside the bandwidth of the SFW assessment team. SFW updates each rating every few years, with priority given to those atop the U.S. market. This is a massive undertaking and one which deserves more acclaim and support.
Environmental sustainability ratings for seafood generally measure three primary considerations:
- Fish stock abundance
- Ecosystem impacts of harvest and/or production
- Fishery management effectiveness and regulation
This is a major oversimplification of seafood environmental sustainability ratings and certifications. Still, if the fish is abundant, the harvest of that fish has minimal impact on the surrounding marine environment (in the case of farmed seafood, the inputs to grow that seafood have a low environmental impact), and there is robust management in place to hold harvesters and producers accountable, then that source will be rated favorably for environmental sustainability.
SFW has communicated its ratings in a variety of ways over the years. Initially, the program created wallet cards found on the tables at some seafood restaurants or the fish counter at grocery stores. They also had a mobile app for quick access to ratings. Now SFW ratings are solely presented on a recently overhauled website to be more consumer-friendly.
But finding the correct rating can still be overwhelming to the uninitiated. You must know the fishing method, catch region, and both the FDA common name and the scientific name to properly navigate all SFW ratings. This can be tricky even for trained professionals, let alone the average shopper.
Unfortunately, SFW can’t be flexible on these key data elements without losing some of its consistency and credibility, so you’ll just have to work with it the best you can.
SFW ratings follow the traffic light system:
Most grocery stores and restaurants that rely on SFW ratings consider green or yellow-rated seafood as “sustainable.” SFW uses a precautionary approach to its ratings, so if a product ranks as green or yellow, you can feel confident buying it for environmental reasons. To read more about the exact methodology of the SFW rating system, go here.
It is important to note that SFW does not currently consider social responsibility indicators in its seafood ratings. The organization includes social responsibility into its definition of “sustainable seafood” and helped develop the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool, but they defer to other organizations on this subject.
SFW works closely with wild fishery and aquaculture certification schemes to avoid duplicative efforts. For example, SFW has retired all of its Alaskan wild salmon ratings. Of course, wild salmon caught in Alaska is highly sustainable and very relevant to the U.S. market; however, much of it is also Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified. Rather than duplicate the existing certification, SFW has deferred its environmental sustainability ratings for all Alaskan salmon fisheries to eco-certifications.
There have been practical efforts to streamline how certifications and ratings co-exist, including Seafood Watch’s use of the deferral system. However, there are inevitably situations that can be confusing to navigate. For example, customers that rely on Seafood Watch ratings might wonder why a highly sustainable product like Alaskan salmon appears unrated when it is technically MSC certified. Another gap exists where smaller domestic producers might not have a rating or a certification, barring them from selling to companies with stricter sustainability requirements. If you generally favor U.S. seafood, or seafood from countries with excellent fishery management, the confusion amongst environmental sustainability schemes shouldn’t be as much of an issue.
Additional certifications to consider:
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
The largest seafood certification body in the world, currently assesses about 17% of global wild fish production. The MSC has not historically incorporated social responsibility considerations into its certifications, but they are beginning to expand its scope to address forced and child labor issues.
Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP)
The most widespread certification for farmed seafood. BAP also has standards that address “social accountability” in farmed seafood.
MSC and ASC are a pass/fail system—a product is either certified or not.
BAP, on the other hand, uses a 4-star system. Each star applies to one element of input for the product being certified: farm, processor, feed-mill, and hatchery. If a product has a 4-star rating on the package, it means all of these facilities were assessed for environmental and (some) social sustainability considerations. The most common ratings you’ll see are 2-star (farm and processor) and 4-star.
One last important note: everything involved in these ratings and certifications is publicly available. The MSC has a diversity of private, public, and non-profit voices on its advisory boards, they publish reports on the progress of their certified fishery partners, and every pending certification is open to comment and critique from environmental groups. SFW invites industry to rating update calls each month and publishes public reports on every rating change. Consumers can sign up for email alerts to make sure they are continually updated.
Pre-packaged, shelf-stable and frozen seafood products are most likely to feature sustainability certification information.
Step 3: Rely on your local grocery store’s Seafood Sourcing Policy
The majority of the largest grocery stores in the U.S. have publicly available seafood sourcing policies, easily findable on their websites. These policies dictate what seafood products they carry in-store. When evaluating a seafood sourcing policy, look for answers to these questions:
Which products does this policy actually cover?
- What is the scope of the company’s seafood sourcing policy? Does it cover all seafood products or just private label brands? Sometimes a grocery store chain will only apply a sourcing policy or goal to a discrete set of seafood products while still offering other seafood products outside those specifications.
How does this company define “environmental sustainability?”
- The more specific language you find, the better. If a retailer’s website just says “our seafood is sustainable” without providing additional details, you have good reason to be skeptical. If you’re still unclear after some online research, ask by email, on social media, or in the store on how they define environmental sustainability.
- Some smaller retailers may not have the capacity to invest in a specific sourcing policy, or at least not one that is published on their website. This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t source to specific sustainability standards. When in doubt, ask them about their standards, and you might be reassured. This also signals to them that you, the customer, cares about these details being described publicly, a positive message to send to the industry.
How are companies verifying sustainability claims?
- Some grocery store chains self-regulate and self-report on sourcing standards and progress (small retailers usually must do this themselves for practical limitations), but having an independent, third-party partner (like FishWise), and a reliable electronic traceability platform, adds credibility to a retailers sourcing program. If such partnerships exist, they will be described somewhere on the grocery store’s website. Look for third-party partnerships like this whenever possible.
Is the company making progress, or is it static in its sourcing goals?
- Another way a company can demonstrate it is serious about sustainability is by making an explicit time-bound commitment. “By year X, we will source X% of X.” In the eyes of shareholders and upper management, these milestones are never overlooked, but proper accountability varies—there have been plenty of corporate milestones quietly missed that consumers don’t remember. Even so, a time-bound and specific seafood sourcing goal is definitely a good thing: it adds an extra step not all companies are willing to take, and provides important transparency and practicality to a sourcing strategy.
Do they address social responsibility?
- Social responsibility issues in seafood are often linked with environmental, but social responsibility is a distinct field deserving its own considerations and planning. It includes responsible recruitment, decent work at sea, and worker engagement. Because social responsibility is confusing to navigate, not only for consumers but for companies too, FishWise developed the Roadmap for Improving Seafood Ethics (RISE) to consolidate guidance and provide businesses with streamlined human rights resources to meet their specific needs. Choose grocery store chains that incorporate RISE guidance.
- Many large U.S. retailers may already have some social responsibility considerations for their supply chains related to other product categories. However, there are some uniquely difficult challenges in seafood supply chains that require special consideration (transshipment and distant water fleets, for example). If a brand is making specific efforts to assess its seafood supply chains for these vulnerabilities, they deserve your patronage.
- The Kroger Co. (Kroger, Ralphs, QFC, Fred Meyer)
- Costco Wholesale Corporation
- Albertsons Companies Inc. (Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Acme)
- Ahold Delhaize USA (Aldi, Trader Joe’s)
Because each policy above requires investment, it is possible these recommendations for evaluating a seafood sourcing policy may favor larger corporations. It is time-consuming and expensive to create and execute a traceable, auditable, and accountable seafood program. In some instances, regional and local grocery store companies may not be able to keep up with the national and international competition in this regard. This certainly does not mean you should avoid purchasing seafood at smaller stores. Many smaller retailers have seafood sourcing standards and are often selling sustainable, local items not found in larger grocery store chains. Ask your smaller neighborhood grocery store about its sourcing considerations before taking your business elsewhere.
Some retail stores will have their seafood sourcing policy or sustainability guidelines posted in the seafood department. If you can’t find any information in the store, try the store’s website or ask an employee.
You can buy sustainable seafood if you know how to look for it
An overwhelming amount of time, expertise, and care has been (and continues to be) invested into environmental sustainability measurements for seafood. When understood properly, all the hard work seafood sustainability experts have done behind the scenes can be used to make a quick decision when selecting seafood at a grocery store or restaurant.
The best advice is to do your research and find as much information as possible when shopping for seafood. If you can confirm that the product is from the U.S., or you can identify the correct environmental sustainability rating or certification, you’ll be supporting well-managed fisheries or aquaculture farms.
But for many of us, that piece of fish we buy for dinner at the local grocery store chain may not come with all the information we need on the packaging to ensure its environmental and social sustainability. In these situations, lean on the grocery store to provide you with some guidance. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find many large U.S. retailers are already into a multi-year seafood sourcing commitment measured regularly by robust assessment practices. These efforts partly protect the brand from risk, but they also serve to take the responsibility out of the shopper’s hands and onto experts like FishWise and other similar organizations that partner with retailers.
Rewarding grocery store companies that invest in these commitments will signal the importance of expanding these efforts to the entire industry and will allow you to navigate the seafood section at your local supermarket with confidence.