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Sustainable Seafood: What You Need to Know

Want to start eating the most sustainable seafood but not sure where to begin? Check out this guide from Save!

Sustainable Seafood: What You Need to Know

Sustainability has become a bit of a buzzword as we all try to do what we can to save the planet. But it can also be confusing! When it comes to seafood, there is no single right answer to the question, “What is sustainable seafood?” There are many different governments and organizations involved, and each one uses slightly different definitions. Still, there are some key things to look out for when trying to find the most sustainable seafood. Here's what you should know.

A loose definition

Generally speaking, sustainable seafood comes from an area that is responsibly managed. The stock is healthy and not overfished, and the region is fished with minimally invasive methods. The general idea behind sustainable seafood is that the population is able to replenish itself regularly.

Wild-caught vs. farm-raised

Whether it’s better to eat wild-caught or farm-raised seafood has been a source of debate for decades. Theoretically, fish farmers can control populations and use sustainable methods to make sure there is plenty available without affecting natural populations in the wild.

However, conditions on fish farms are not always ideal. Some farmed fish can be higher in contaminants than wild-caught fish, and farmed populations may be at greater risk for disease. It all depends on the specific conditions at an individual fish farm.

Keep in mind that seafood may come from all over the world, and regulations can vary widely for both wild-caught and farmed products. So it really isn’t as simple as just deciding to always choose one or the other. You’ll need to do a little more research.

Read the labels

When purchasing frozen seafood to cook, pay attention to the Country of Origin Label (COOL). You’ll see where the item was fished and where it was packaged. Make sure to look at both, because many products are packaged in the United States but were not actually caught here. Besides the U.S., countries with strong sustainability programs include Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia (in some cases, see the sustainable seafood list below).

You might also see "certified sustainable." Be careful with this, as some certification programs are more thorough than others. It doesn’t hurt to choose a certified sustainable item, but certification is not necessarily a guarantee that best practices were followed.

Talk to the fishmonger

Fresh seafood is exempt from labeling laws, so you’ll need to do your homework. Find a fishmonger you trust and ask questions. What country is the fish from? Was it wild-caught or farm-raised? Are its current populations healthy? While some fishmongers just want to make a sale, many are experts on seafood and will give you more information than you ever realized you wanted to know!

Follow the sustainable seafood list

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch maintains guides about which species are abundant and which are in danger of overfishing. In addition to the national guide, you can also find guides for specific areas of the country. From the national guide, here are some species to look out for:


The best options are typically plentiful and fished using sustainable methods. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Farmed Arctic char
  • Farmed bass (from the U.S.)
  • Catfish (from the U.S.)
  • Farmed clams
  • Alaskan cod
  • Alaskan crab
  • Farmed mussels
  • Farmed oysters
  • Farmed scallops
  • Farmed shrimp (from the U.S.)
  • Salmon (from New Zealand)
  • Tilapia (from the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, or Peru)
  • Farmed trout (from the U.S.)
  • Albacore tuna
  • Squid (from California)


Good options are a reasonable alternative. They’re not quite as sustainable as the best choices but are generally satisfactory. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Wild-caught clams (from the U.S. or Canada)
  • Pacific or Atlantic cod (from the U.S. or Canada)
  • Argentinian crab
  • Spiny lobster (from the U.S.)
  • Mahi-mahi (from the U.S.)
  • Salmon (from Maine, Oregon, Washington, California, or the Faroe Islands)
  • Wild-caught oysters (from the U.S.)
  • Wild-caught sea scallops
  • Wild-caught shrimp (from the U.S. or Canada)
  • Farmed shrimp (from Ecuador, Honduras, or Thailand)
  • Yellowfin tuna (from the U.S.)
  • Farmed trout (from Canada or Chile)
  • Squid (from Chile or Peru; jumbo squid from China is also good)


Some seafood should be avoided due to major problems with overfishing or unsustainable methods. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Wild-caught striped bass
  • Pacific cod (from Japan or Russia)
  • Asian or Russian crab
  • Wild-caught Atlantic halibut
  • Imported mahi-mahi
  • Octopus
  • Other imported shrimp
  • Chinese tilapia
  • Asian squid (except Chinese jumbo squid)
  • Imported swordfish
  • Imported albacore tuna

As you can see, not all seafood is on one of these lists. The guides are regularly updated as sustainability conditions change. So it's worth bookmarking the guides and checking before you shop, but don’t rely on them exclusively.

Putting it all together

To find the most sustainable seafood, go to multiple sources. Check the latest sustainable seafood lists, but also read the labels and talk to your fishmonger. It's worth the extra effort to find a quality-committed fishmonger who you can trust. They can help make sure that you buy only the highest-quality seafood, advise you on species that you might like based on your personal tastes, provide tips for cooking and serving, and help you decide which products would be best for your weekly sushi! 

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