A Consumer's Guide to Buying Sustainable Fish

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Sean of Hapuku Fish Shop at Market Hall
Sean of Hapuku Fish Shop at Market Hall

You wouldn't think that something as mundane as making a sandwich for my daughters on a weekend afternoon would be loaded with controversy, but it is. You see, my daughters love tuna fish sandwiches. Easy enough, right? We all grew up on sandwiches made of canned white tuna mixed with mayonnaise and served with a pickle. Yet although this quintessential American lunch may seem benign, it's something I refuse to serve my children. The tuna fish sandwich we all grew up on is now too controversial, and potentially dangerous, for my daughters to eat.

As a recent San Francisco Magazine article entitled "The New School of Fish" by Erik Vance has helped highlight, eating carnivorous fish like tuna is unsustainable. But as a mother, I'm equally (if not more) concerned with mercury levels in the foods I give my family, along with antibiotics founds in many farmed fish stocks. Yes, I want to support sustainable fishery, but I also want to make sure I'm not dousing my children's bodies with poison.

Mr. Vance's exploration of fish sustainability and Forum's latter discussion on the topic were both incredibly informative and helpful to me as a consumer, yet I'm starting to realize that although I know more now than I did before, I am still woefully uninformed. One of the big discussions on Forum was that although fish markets and restaurants may think they're offering sustainable and healthy choices, they later find out that they were misinformed, and in some cases lied to, by distributors. On Forum, Craig Stoll of Delfina said that he found out only that morning that the Petrole Sole he offered the night before had questionable sustainability issues. If he can't figure it out, how do ordinary consumers stand a chance?

Over the years I've struggled to find a solid list of fish that I can give my family, but like a neighborhood built on landfill, what seems solid at one moment can buckle the next. So although a type of fish may seem okay one year, an El Nino season, a hurricane somewhere, an oil spill, or simply new scientific information about fish habitats and levels can change everything.


This is why I now purchase my seafood from a local fish shop that is owned and operated by someone who is passionate about providing sustainable and healthy fish to his customers. As an East Bay resident I go to Hapuku Fish Shop at Market Hall in the Rockridge District of Oakland. Going to a market like Hapuku allows me to be a little lazier. The store chooses their selection according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list and they make an effort to know where their fish selection comes from and how they were caught. I now also try to avoid all large carnivorous fish because their mercury levels are higher (and, as it turns out, these fish also dominate the overfished and endangered lists).

But shopping at Hapuku isn't always realistic for me, and not everyone has access to a fish monger who's passionate about what he sells. When I'm shopping somewhere else, I've come up with a list of resources that help me determine what I should and should not buy. Most of the resources are online, so having a smart phone is pretty helpful when purchasing fish and although I think it's ridiculous that I need to be plugged into the Internet to buy salmon, this is sadly the world we live in now. If you don't have a smart phone, you could easily copy these resources and take them with you when shopping.

Here's my list. If you know of other reliable resources, please share them in the comments section.

Consumer Fish Resource List

  • The granddaddy of all resources is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List, which catalogs every imaginable fish and details what is a best choice (taking into account both health issues and sustainability factors) and which fish should be avoided. If you have an iPhone or other smart phone, you can download their free app. If not, you can print their cheat sheets from their site; or you can pick up a nicely printed card from them the next time you go to their wonderful aquarium.
  • Only buy fish that is in season. Sausalito's Fish Restaurant has a fantastic Truly Sustainable Choices cheat sheet available for this purpose. When you look at it you'll see that fish have seasons, much like peaches and tomatoes, so if want to buy California Sea Bass, get it in the summer.
  • Monterey Fish Market has its own incredibly helpful list of sustainably-fished seafood on their site that is worth checking out.
  • Erik Vance's San Francisco Magazine article The New School of Fish provides an in-depth look at fishing and sustainability, but even if you don't have time to read the whole thing, it's worth taking a look at the visuals that go with it. I especially like the alternatives list, where Mr. Vance provides information on good sustainable alternatives (such as substitute California Albacore Tuna for Ahi Tuna). The article also details the difference between various fishing techniques, from rod and reel to long line (and I guarantee you that once you read about long-line fishing you'll never knowingly purchase anything that was caught that way again).
  • Whole Foods shoppers can look for the "Fish Forever" label, which lists fish endorsed by the Marine Stewardship Council, although beware that this independent non-profit organization has been questioned by the Times of London and that Greenpeace does not endorse it.
  • Greenpeace has its own International Seafood Red List which inventories fish to avoid.
  • And of course, there are a variety of wonderful small fish markets in the Bay Area that are run by people who are knowledgeable, so seek those out.


Sustainable Fishing Issues in the News this Week
Should selling and distributing shark fins be illegal?
Challenges to the Endangered Species Act to Protect Delta Smelt