The pescatarian’s dilemma: Is it possible to eat seafood and not destroy the oceans?

How to shop for seafood within the framework of sustainable development is becoming more challenging. Pollution and over-fishing, coupled with environmentally damaging fishing practices, are to blame for fish populations that are becoming ever more scarce and endangered. Some experts feel we should stop eating fish altogether. If you have not yet made that choice, here are some guidelines for being a smart seafood shopper, whether you live in Mexico or another country.

Sustainable development: a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations. (Wikipedia)

“Sustainable” is a key buzz word in today’s food market, yet not generally understood or followed. As a shopper, pushing my cart in a grocery store or checking out the offerings in a fish market, how am I to know what is a smart seafood purchase and what isn’t? How can I know which species are sustainable and which are close to being endangered? Responsible, informed organizations are working to supply us with well researched information that is as accessible as our computers. We can shop responsibly.

This and all photos taken by Tony Dobek at Jalgachi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea

Seafood Watch iPhone App: Thorough Tuna List
Image by Special*Dark via Flickr

Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains the Seafood Watch Program which details seafood recommendations in four categories: The Super Green List, Best Choices, Good Alternatives, and Avoid. Individual fish names can be entered in the search feature for specific information on that species.  Their current list recommends avoiding Atlantic flounder and sole, and Mexican grouper. Pacific halibut and farmed tilapia are recommended, as are many other species. How the fish is caught determines which list it is on. To make purchases easier while you are in a store, download and print their  Seafood Watch Pocket Guide or use their Seafood Watch Mobile Guide on your iPhone.

Greenpeace’s Supermarket Seafood Sustainability Score Card rates U.S. supermarkets according to their commitment to offering only sustainable seafood. Stores are given a Fail, Pass or Good score on a scale of one to ten. Their number one ranked store is Target, Whole Foods is number three, and Trader Joe’s, with a Fail score, ranks ninth out of twenty stores. Due in large part to the bad publicity this score has brought Trader Joe’s, they have recently stated that as of December 31, 2012, all of their seafood will come from sustainable sources. Trader Joe’s is already making the transition, as it stops selling such fish as Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper.

More guidance is available from the Marine Conservation Society Fishonline where you can read “fish ratings”. Each species is rated according to method caught, whether it is from a certified fishery, if it is over-fished or endangered, and other sustainability factors. Fish are rated on a scale from one to four, Rating One being the most sustainable.

Finally, there is Neil Banas’ Eco-Health Seafood Pocket Guide. Neil is an oceanographer, teacher and artist who has put together a pdf file, rating fish in three categories of mercury and PCB content: Bad, Medium and OK. This rating, determined by combining toxity with sustainability factors, draws upon information from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Environmental Defense Fund.

In 1994, the World Watch Institute issued a warning that more fish are being caught than nature can replenish. It’s like a bank account — the withdrawals are greater than the deposits. It sounds grim, but it doesn’t have to be. We have the ability to turn this around, and it begins in the supermarket and fish market with the choices we make and the demands we make from store management. We can speak out and let them know we will only purchase sustainable seafood. Here’s one thing you can do: Tell Costco to Stop Selling Endangered Fish (


To eat small, plate-sized red snapper, one of the most popular menu items in seafood restaurants in Mexico, is unconscionable. At that size, red snapper have not reached breeding age. Without an opportunity to reproduce, they are being harvested with no chance of replenishing their species.

Shrimp purchases contribute to environmental destruction if the shrimp are harvested by dredging, a practice that can literally scrape clean the ocean floor and capture many other fish beside shrimp, known as bycatch. The bycatch can be as much as three to fifteen pounds of non-food species to every one pound of shrimp. This bycatch is thrown back into the sea, the fish already dead or dying. More modern dredging equipment is being implemented to reduce bycatch, but its use is not enforced in many countries. I will guess that Mexico, with good regulations but poor enforcement, does not practice sustainable dredging, if such a procedure is even possible.

Farmed shrimp are only a partial solution, as farming destroys thousands of acres of vital wetlands, the nurseries for juveniles of many fish species and the fishing grounds for those who live more impoverished lives and depend on estuaries and mangroves for their food and livelihood. Fish farming, if not highly regulated, can cause water pollution and higher incidence of diseased fish. Again, I suspect Mexico is not always enforcing laws designed to protect the environment and its food sources.


I invite all readers to comment on this article. Please tell us which stores in your area offer sustainable seafood. Which resources do you use to make your purchase decisions? I would especially like to hear from readers in other parts of the world as to what their countries are doing to support seafood sustainability and inform shoppers, and what are considered sustainable seafood species where they live. Finally, to answer the title of this article: can one eat seafood and not contribute to marine destruction?


More reading:

Net Loss: Fish, Jobs and the Marine Environment by World Watch Paper examines the ecological, social and economic crisis in world fisheries.

All About Global Fishing from CNN on the effects of unregulated global fishing on diminishing seafood resources.

Fresh Hope for World’s Fisheries from Optimum Population Trust on successful rebuilding of fish stock in regulated marine ecosystems.

Related articles:


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13 thoughts on “The pescatarian’s dilemma: Is it possible to eat seafood and not destroy the oceans?

  1. Pingback: Quora

  2. Kristen

    Great post, as usual Kathleen. I also found all of the links helpful. I will be printing out the pocket guide for my purse. To answer your question about where we shop, in Salem, Oregon area we shop at Safeway and Winco usually. I will use your links to see how they rate and let you know. I have never seen anything printed on packaging to inform the buyer either way about the seafood’s sustainability. Thank you for bringing this important issue the attention it deserves.

  3. Lorin Johnson

    Great information!
    In Oregon, I buy fish only from Fitt’s Seafood where they know where and when every morsel in their store was caught and how. In Mexico, I buy from Martin and his little fish market in San Pancho. I never buy small Red Snapper, but will buy a fillet from a great big one. I try to politely plant seeds when I see any small snapper there. I have also bought all kinds of fish that Martin and Alfredo suggest, usually with advice from Russ as well. How many kinds of ceviche can we try?
    I already printed a copy of today’s blog and gave it to a patient who was asking about fish in her diet. Thanks so much. I hope she’ll pass on sites and articles to those she knows.
    Take good care,

    1. Thanks for pointing out that large, mature red snapper are available and make better choices. Look for large sized “flake” of meat, if the fish is already filleted. This indicates that it is from a large fish, therefore mature enough to have reproduced before being caught.

      There is such a lack of information on endangered or threatened fish species in Mexico, and I’m not sure the fishermen are concerned with this, so it really is hard to make a ceviche recommendation. I believe that sierra is abundant, and it makes a very good ceviche.

  4. This is a wonderful article. Folks just need to be more conscious of their choices and it’s pretty easy, and a step that anyone can make, to buy more sustainable species of fish (which are often the cheapest and the healthiest) rather than those that are in danger of disappearing.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, David. Coming from you, one of my blog heroes, this means a lot.
      Each one of us is capable of making a positive difference in marine life and sustainability. It all starts with the power of one.

    1. I live on the west coast near Puerto Vallarta. The most popular items seem to be shrimp, red snapper and mahi-mahi. In the markets, I see different fish favored by the locals, but not so much by the foreign residents, such as sierra, parrot fish and rooster fish. This month, there are trucks going through towns in our area selling estuary shrimp from San Blas.

  5. Karen

    Very informative and well researched, bravo! I will be thinking twice about my fish purchases and restaurant meals from now on. Thank-you for writing this!

  6. I am curious to know what the food situation will be when my daughter is my age. It’s not just fish but pesticides, intensive farming methods for animals. And with China and India wanting their time in the sun… Well, I try to make good food choices for our household but I hate to think about the future!

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