Many of us are trying to be conscientious consumers, but when it comes to seafood there are endless options to consider. It’s not even clear what “sustainable seafood” means.

When we buy seafood it’s easy to spend what feels like an eternity comparing the alternatives, looking for the “best” possible fish for our plate and the planet. But there are so many variables that go into making something sustainable.

Even after reading every label we still don’t know if we’ve made the right decision.

A plate of sustainable seafood, featuring fish and vegetables
A sustainable seafood plate / photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation

Where to start?

What do we need to consider when making sustainable seafood choices? And what makes some choices more sustainable than others?

At Eagle Wing Tours, we’re committed to ocean sustainability and conservation. We want to give you the tools to learn about sustainable seafood and make ocean-friendly food choices. Here are a few things for you to consider for wild-caught and farmed selections.

A fisherman guides a net bulging with fish onto a fishing boat

How much do we catch?

We’ve seen it in all the documentaries—a net scooping up an entire school of fish, leaving only a few stragglers behind. The sheer mass of fish removed from the ocean each day is the key reason so much seafood is unsustainable. A whopping 90 to 95 million tonnes of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and more are caught annually. This puts huge pressure on ocean populations.

Unfortunately—and no surprise here—many of our favourite marine cuisines are taking the hardest hit. Staples like tuna, anchovy, Atlantic cod, and (closer to home) herring and wild salmon are being erased at an alarming rate. Policy-makers often seem to ignore science-based recommendations and turn a blind eye to rapidly changing ecosystems.

With about half of all Pacific salmon populations in decline, and a 60% decline of herring in the Salish Sea alone, it’s clear that we’re taking more than our fair share of fish.

How do we catch it?

It’s not just how much you catch, it’s also how you catch it. Some fishing methods such as trawling and longlining can wreak havoc on an ecosystem.

Bottom-trawling often involves dragging a very heavy net along the ocean floor, destroying coral reefs and benthic sea life in its path. 

Longline fishing uses miles of fishing line covered in baited hooks. The average US longline set is 45 km (28 miles) long with up to 10,000 hooks! Unless they’re heavily monitored, longlines often snag much more than the targeted species. This is known as “bycatch,” and can include anything from other fish species, to turtles, dolphins and sharks. Loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, albatross, pilot whales and false killer whales are entanglement and bycatch risks with longline gear.

Gillnets are also problematic, especially when left unattended. These are walls of net that are suspended in the water. Fish attempt to swim through them, but the mesh only allows their heads to pass through the netting. Like longlines, gillnets are unable to select which species are caught which makes them a big bycatch culprit, and responsible for many marine mammal entanglements. Harbour porpoises are especially susceptible to gillnet fisheries.

There are better alternatives

Other methods such as trolling and pole and line fishing tend to be kinder to marine habitats. They’re considered much more selective. That means it’s easier for fishermen to choose the species they’d like to catch. Unlike longlining, the lines are reeled in quickly after fish are hooked, allowing bycatch to be released. 

Depending on the packaging and where you get it, catch method information is often posted on seafood available in your supermarket!

The pros and cons of aquaculture

Aquaculture accounts for more than half of seafood consumed around the world. Given the global demand for seafood, it makes sense that we’ve turned to farming so much of it. Some sea creatures are more easily farmed than others, such as clams, oysters, scallops and mussels.

An open-net salmon farm
An open-net salmon farm

But some aquaculture operations are more sustainable than others. For example, open-net pens are the primary way salmon are farmed in BC. They’re considered a high-risk system.

These Pacific-based farms are largely filled with Atlantic salmon, a species that can easily displace and outcompete slower growing Pacific salmon when escapes occur—and they do. They’re also huge pollution and disease spreaders. By the nature of being “open,” waste, chemicals, sea lice and viruses are freely exchanged with the surrounding environment and wild salmon populations.

Purchase and consumption of Atlantic salmon from BC is not recommended for these reasons and more. On the other hand, closed aquaculture systems treat and recirculate water back into the system. They also create minimal waste discharge and reduce disease transfer and fish escapes. This makes them a greener way to farm fish!

A diner holds a pocket guide to sustainable seafood from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
Browsing the pocket guide of sustainable seafood choices / Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation Photo

What can you do?

There are a couple of handy resources you can use as a consumer to see which seafood is rated “sustainable.”

Eagle Wing Tours is a conservation partner with two organizations that align with our commitment to sustainability and marine conservation—Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, and Ocean Wise.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch provides consumers with the tools to make better seafood purchasing decisions—in the form of handy pocket guides and an easily searchable website. When you’re out and about, you can quickly search for the seafood you’re considering to see if it’s sustainable.

Rating options include “Best Choice, Certified, Good Alternative, or Avoid.” To maintain the highest standards, we recommend you stick with “Best Choice.” Or simply pick something different from the menu if no “Best Choice” is available.

A newly updated version of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pocket guide will soon be available.

Ocean Wise uses similar science and certification criteria. They also certify some of the smaller, local fisheries. Ocean Wise works with restaurants, markets and suppliers to switch to responsible sourced seafood. Their choices are clearly labelled and make it easy to make the right choices. They also offer a short online training course to become an Ocean Wise Seafood Ambassador!

Look for the Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise logos on seafood sold in grocery stores and on restaurant menus!

Our role with both of these organizations is to educate our guests, friends and followers about the importance of choosing sustainable seafood. No matter where your home is in the world these are the tools you need to make the right seafood choices.

Stay in the know

For example, wild chinook salmon (also known as “king” or “tyee”) may be listed as a “Good Alternative” but there are still some concerns. Research shows that chinook salmon populations in the Salish Sea have declined by 60% since tracking began in 1984. They’re now at about 10% of historic numbers. Many of the remaining stocks are endangered.

Chinook salmon

While these tools are very useful, they’re not perfect. Their standards may be different from your own. We suggest doing your own research in addition to using these guides.

Because these large, fatty salmon are integral to the survival of the endangered southern resident killer whales our preference is to avoid chinook altogether and leave more for the whales!

Beware of “bluewashing”

Some seafood companies don’t use third parties, but still claim their products are sustainable. Without any third party endorsing or certifying them, these claims are not actually being held to any particular standard and may not have a leg to stand on.

This “bluewashing” is dangerous because it can reduce the positive impacts of organizations like the two we list above.

A study conducted by SeaChoice in 2020 showed that “self-declared” environmental claims are more common than those endorsed or certified by a third party. As a seafood consumer, be wary of buzzwords like “responsibly sourced,” “sustainably harvested” or “ocean friendly” without visible proof to back them up!

Why hasn’t overfishing stopped?

Fish and seafood are one of Canada’s largest food exports and a massive part of our culture and economy. In 2019, Canada exported a record $7.4 billion-worth of fish and seafood products. About 72,000 Canadians depend on the fishing industry to make a living.

So, we need to ensure that seafood is sustainable for ocean ecosystems—and for ourselves.

At Eagle Wing Tours, we believe that each one of us has the power to make a difference through everyday actions, like making sustainable seafood choices. The more all of make informed, eco-friendly decisions, the more those small actions will create a wave of change in the seafood industry!

Blog written by Lili Wilson, naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours

Published Feb. 7, 2022

Fish lined up at a market.