How sustainable is seafood?

Fishing for a supplement


The recent horsemeat scandal served to raise once again the debate on whether or not non-vegetarians would be advised to switch from meat to fish - not solely to avoid contamination of the meat supply, but for reasons of health.  But while most dieticians seem to support the health benefits of fish contra meat (particularly red meat), it does raise another issue: how sustainable is the supply of seafood?

In simple terms, a particular seafood is sustainable if it comes from a fishery with practices that can be maintained indefinitely without reducing the target species' ability to maintain its population and without adversely impacting on other species within the ecosystem by removing their food source, accidentally killing them, or damaging their physical environment.

Identifying which fish come from sustainable sources is extremely difficult. Because of the difficulties in accurately assessing fish populations and because it is very difficult to trace the supply of fish from the ocean to the shop there is no one, truly effective 'green label'' that consumers can look for on fish products.

Greenpeace have identified a list of species which are under particular pressure. They have been asking supermarkets to stop selling these species, and suggest that consumers can help influence further by avoiding these species when they buy fish. The species are:

Atlantic cod (except cod from Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, and line-caught Icelandic)


Tuna, including Albacore, Bigeye and Bluefin (but excluding Skipjack)

Tropical prawns (wild and farmed)

Haddock (except line-caught Icelandic)

European Hake

Atlantic Halibut


Atlantic salmon (wild and farmed)



Sharks (including dog fish and huss)

Skates and rays.

[The full list of non-sustainable fish may be found on the Greenpeace website or directly from this link:

There are very few sustainable fisheries. In the UK, the best are line-caught mackerel, line-caught seabass, and farmed mussels. Rod and line caught tuna and herring are also good fisheries. Between 2004 and 2006 Greenpeace ran a campaign to ban pair trawling for seabass in UK waters because this fishing method kills large numbers of common dolphins. However, seabass caught using a hand line eliminates the problem of bycatch. In this example, if the fish comes from a healthy stock, what determines its sustainability is the method used to catch the fish.

Buying sustainable fish is difficult because there is no clear label that marks out products as good to buy. Wood products, for example, are marked with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo if they come from sustainable sources. There is no equivalent labelling scheme for seafood.

Marks and Spencer have invested considerable time and effort in improving the way that the fish they sell is caught and farmed. Not all fish sold by Marks and Spencer are from fully sustainable sources, but it is certainly the best available from a UK supermarket.

Buying direct from a fishmonger is no guarantee that the fish comes from a sustainable source. Fishmongers often buy fish from big fish markets that are in turn supplied by a large variety of commercial fisheries that are not sustainable.

Buying from a local fisherman can have advantages because it allows you to ask exactly how the fish was caught (which method) and where. Buying fish caught locally also means that it has not been flown halfway around the world! Never buy fish that has been caught using a bottom trawl.

[Much of the above has been taken from the Greenpeace website.  Another very important advocate of measures to protect environmental seafood is Friend of the Sea ( who support aquaculture, the farming of freshwater and saltwater organisms, as well as approved fisheries.]

Another active participant in this battle against over-fishing is the Marine Conservation Society .  MCS maintains that over 80 percent of European fish stocks are overfished. 

In Canada, Sea Choice ( ) strongly support aquaculture as a sustainable seafood system and give as an example that of closed containment farmed salmon. Closed containment systems, they say, remove the operation from the natural environment which eliminates the risk of escape or disease transfer.  Another great farm-raised product, they say, is shellfish.  These creatures require no feed input at all, and actually clean the water as they grow.

The World Wildlife Fund ( ) produce guides to over 20 countries' situations with regard to overfishing and sustainability of seafood.

The American Eartheasy site also provides a number of useful suggestions, much of which echoes some of the earlier comments made in this article, but are worth repeating:

"You can help support sustainable fisheries with the choices you make at the restaurant or the seafood counter. Try to choose shellfish grown on farms using racks, lines or nets which are suspended in the water.  These methods minimise damage to bottom habitat during harvesting.  Ask your local seafood dealer, or restaurateur, about the source and catch method of your seafood choices.  Consumer concern is the best promoter of sustainable fisheries.

"Seafoods can be contaminated with mercury, PCBs and other pollutants.  Contaminants are mostly stored in fatty tissue, so grilling and broiling when cooking fish is recommended to allow fats and juices to drain away.  Deep frying can seal in toxins which may be stored in fat."  I