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Sustainable Seafood: Can You Afford Safer Fish?

Katie here 🙂 For years I was afraid to buy more expensive, sustainable fish and then ruin it because I didn’t know how to cook it! It didn’t help that my husband only begrudgingly eats it when it’s coated in this spicy fish seasoning.

Thankfully, I’ve moved past that and we eat fish regularly now, but it’s still challenging to navigate the lingo and know which seafood is good for you and the environment. Here’s Becca to guide us through the options! 

sustainable seafood

“Eat more fish! It’s brain food! Clean protein, healthier than meat!”

“Our oceans are drowning in pollution! Seafood’s not safe anymore!”

“Greedy corporations are destroying dolphins and poisoning pregnant mothers! Only buy sustainable seafood!”

Are you confused yet?

I’ve been trying hard to choose the right fish, but the rules keep evolving as pollution sources shift and scientists learn more about the huge and complex ecosystems of our oceans.

It’s time for a refresher on what seafood sustainability means and how it plays out in my kitchen.

Is Sustainable Seafood Better for You, or Better for the Environment?

It’s both! There are three main issues: mercury pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices.

Mercury Pollution in Seafood

Mercury pollution comes from power plants that burn coal to make electricity. The pollution is released into the air at first, but it contaminates rain clouds and then drops into oceans and lakes, causing mercury to build up in the bodies of fish. Eating mercury along with our fish causes brain and nerve damage, especially in unborn children and very young children.

Some types of seafood are higher in mercury than others. Ahi tuna have 4% more mercury in their bodies each year recently! Large fish who eat smaller fish collect more mercury.

Problems of Overfishing

Overfishing means catching too many of a species of fish in an area. When there aren’t enough adult fish in the area, there won’t be enough baby fish to replace the ones who were caught, so there just won’t be many fish there next year. Overfishing just one variety of fish can disrupt the whole food chain, leading to shortages of more species every season.

fishing nets

Damage Done with Destructive Fishing Practices

Destructive fishing practices damage an aquatic habitat so that seafood species can’t live there. For example, collecting fish from the ocean floor with a big scoop destroys coral reefs so that the surviving fish have nowhere to live and their food cannot grow.

Damage to the marine ecosystem harms only the local water-dwelling animals and plants at first. But over time, habitat destruction not only reduces our supply of tasty seafood but also literally threatens the air we breathe: More than half Earth’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton, tiny ocean plants that are eaten by smaller sea creatures–and those sea creatures breathe oxygen, too!

Breaking the food chain in the ocean can leave us with not enough phytoplankton to convert our carbon dioxide into oxygen–or with too much algae blocking the sunlight so that deeper-water plants die and some fish are left without food.

Sustainable practices harvest healthy food while respecting the delicate balance of the ecosystem so that next year’s harvest will be just as healthy.

Our own health is tied right into our planet’s health. What makes the Earth healthier (or less healthy) tends to have ripple effects on us.

Is It Safe to Eat Fish After Fukushima?

Remember how a nuclear power plant in Japan was destroyed by a tsunami in 2011 and leaked radiation into the Pacific Ocean?

Is Alaskan salmon dangerous because of nuclear spill into the body of water that touches both Japan and Alaska? You may have heard that we should never eat Pacific fish again!

Snopes and Politifact each debunked this idea and explained how the rumors started.

The truth is that seafood contamination was found only in the immediate area; in general, Pacific fish are no more radioactive than bananas.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has found no evidence of Fukushima contamination in the U.S. food supply. Here’s more information from an expert on this issue.


Seven years after the Fukushima meltdown, studies off the Pacific coast of the United States concluded, “The levels [of radiation] are so low, that swimming eight hours every day for a year would only increase a person’s annual dose of radiation to an amount that is 1,000 times less than a single dental X-ray.”

Radiation leakage is bad, but the Fukushima disaster was tiny compared to the size of the Pacific. Thank goodness some of humankind’s mistakes can be absorbed by our planet!

RELATED: Why Lamb is Good For You

What About Seafood Packaging?

In addition to the seafood itself, the package it comes from has an environmental impact and may have health effects, too.

Let’s start with the good news: Canned fish is safe! Most food cans’ linings no longer include BPA, an endocrine disruptor that may cause cancer. Steel food cans are efficiently recycled, and the typical can contains at least 25% recycled metal.

So if affordable canned salmon, tuna, or sardines is your seafood choice, you’ve got a responsible package! Just wash out the can to avoid stinking up your recycling bin, and tuck the sharp-edged lid inside so nobody gets hurt.

If possible, buy fresh fish from a counter and get it wrapped in a big sheet of butcher paper, instead of plastic-wrapped onto a plastic-foam tray. You’ll have less garbage and minimize health effects from PVC and polystyrene, two of the riskiest plastics!

Many frozen fish portions are individually wrapped in plastic, in addition to the outer bag or box. That’s a lot of single-use plastic! It can’t be recycled because it’s coated with fish fat and usually isn’t labeled as to what type of plastic it is.

Some people like individual wrapping because they can defrost wrapped fish in water and then “simply” cut open the bags and arrange the fish in a baking dish. Personally, I don’t find that simple at all! I get fish juice all over myself and my kitchen as the slippery bag tries to escape!

“Individually quick frozen” portions don’t need their own wrappings–they can be stacked in a package without sticking together. Just be careful not to let them thaw and re-freeze, which damages their taste and texture as well as getting them stuck together.

Fish market

What about the outer packaging of frozen fish? Don’t assume that a frozen-food bag can be recycled in a plastic-film recycling bin at Target or your local supermarket. Many bags designed to protect food in the freezer have layers of different kinds of plastic, so they’re too difficult to recycle. If a frozen-seafood bag doesn’t clearly state that it’s recyclable, throw it away.

Similarly, many frozen-food boxes aren’t recyclable because they have a plastic coating to protect the food from condensation. Boxes that enclose a plastic bag of food may be recyclable, though. If your frozen-seafood box’s interior is white or feels slicker than plain cardboard, throw it away.

Why Is Wild-Caught Better Than Farm-Raised Fish?

In general, wild fish living in their natural habitat, eating the amount and type of food that calls to them, and getting plenty of exercise are going to be healthier and thus provide healthier food to humans. Farmed fish are confined to pens and fattened up as quickly as possible to maximize profits, often eating cheap food laced with nutritional supplements and drugs.

Also, pollutants aren’t as thoroughly diluted in small farming pens as they would be in the open sea. Excess fish food and fish waste can build up, creating a breeding ground for disease.

Antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides used to control the effects of overcrowding also get absorbed into the fishes’ bodies. Pollution from other industries can drift in without fish farmers being aware of it, but it can really build up in the seafood.

Farmed salmon are 5-10 times higher in cancer-causing PCBs and 52% higher in fat yet 35% lower in valuable omega-3 fatty acids that protect our brains and hearts, compared to wild salmon. Katie’s got some tips for busy shoppers to remember which salmon to buy!

However, growing seafood in captivity isn’t always bad! Recirculating Aquaculture Systems filter and reuse water, reducing both the pollutants that get in and the nasty stuff that accumulates in the ponds. Being separated from the ocean or lake, these systems reduce the need for chemical control of diseases or insects, and they also prevent any chemicals that are used from contaminating the body of water.


As we’ll see below, experts actually recommend farmed over wild for some species of seafood: catfish, oysters, scallops, and trout. “Suspension farming” is a gentler alternative to destructive dredging for shellfish that live on the ocean floor. Fish farmed in the United States can be safer than wild (or farmed in Asia) because of fish-farming practices that reduce exposure to dangerous pollutants found in the open water.

How to Find Sustainable Seafood

Several nonprofit organizations provide lists of the best and worst seafood choices:

Here are some fish and other seafood that these sources agree are low in mercury and sustainably caught:

  • catfish (U.S. farmed)
  • clams
  • croaker (Atlantic)
  • flounder/sole
  • haddock (Atlantic; Maine is best)
  • mahimahi (U.S.)
  • mullet
  • mussels
  • oysters (farmed)
  • salmon (wild Alaskan or U.S. Pacific is best)
  • sardines (U.S. or Canadian, Pacific Ocean)
  • scallops (farmed)
  • squid (U.S.)
  • tilapia (U.S., Canada, Ecuador, Peru)
  • trout (U.S. farmed)

Pollock, the mild white fish typically used in breaded fish sticks, is low in mercury but sometimes caught by methods that damage the ocean floor or inadvertently trap and kill large numbers of marine mammals like dolphins. EDF’s pollock comparison tells us what fishing lingo to look for, and it shows that U.S. pollock is “OK but not best,” whether it comes from Alaska or the Atlantic Ocean.

Tuna, shrimp, and crab are complicated: Different subspecies, as well as different catch locations, have different levels of mercury and other environmental impacts. EDF’s tuna and shrimp and crab comparison charts sort out the details.

The fish to avoid completely are grouper, marlin, orange roughy, shark, and swordfish. All of these are high in mercury and caught by unsustainable methods.

RELATED: How to cook fish and a creamy halibut with caramelized onions recipe.

Budget-friendly sustainable seafood guide

What Seafood Can We Find in Stores?

Do some of those sustainable seafoods sound alien or expensive to you? I decided it was time to take a hard look at the fish my family’s been eating and the options available in our local stores.

Here in Pittsburgh, everybody knows Robert Wholey Company is the place to buy fish! A century-old local business that also sells meats and produce, Wholey is known for a wide selection of seafood.

I hadn’t been into their store in years…and I wasn’t impressed. Yes, they have lots of seafood, but much of it is from China. They had all the fish we’re not supposed to eat but very few of the specifics I sought!

I wanted to try striped mullet–after reading that it’s an “often overlooked” tasty, affordable, sustainable fish–but the only mullets at Wholey were whole fish I’d have to clean at home. I decided I’m too squeamish for that, even at $3.79 a pound!

I did find wild Alaskan sockeye salmon at Wholey, a nice family-sized portion, frozen, for $14.99. That’s similar to the supermarket or Costco price for fresh salmon–but it’s hard to find wild Alaskan salmon around here, except in cans.

Many brands of canned salmon are wild Alaskan, but not all. At Giant Eagle, my neighborhood supermarket, only StarKist canned salmon is wild Alaskan–Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea don’t say where they’re from! Trader Joe’s and ALDI canned salmon are wild Alaskan and usually lower-priced than name brands. Use canned salmon any way you’d use tuna, try this super simple soy-ginger salmon bowl, or fancy it up with my lemon creamy salmon recipe!

Gordon Food Service stores have great prices on 3-pound bags of frozen flounder, haddock, and pollock. When I reported on shopping at GFS, their pollock was wild-caught Alaskan. Smaller bags of sustainable frozen fish are sold at Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s, and our local food co-op, but the price per serving is higher.

I looked into the pollock procurement methods of my kindergartner’s two favorite brands of fish sticks. Trident Seafoods uses wild Alaskan pollock in their “Ultimate Fish Sticks” sold at Costco, and they have some commitment to sustainability although they’re not very specific about it. Gorton’s, the brand we get at the supermarket, is also wild Alaskan, and they get into more detail on environmental issues. Now I’m more concerned about the ingredients in the breading than I am about the fish!

Sustainable sardines are harder to find than I’d expected! EDF’s sardine comparison says North American Pacific sardines are best, European sardines are worst, and some others are in the middle. All the sardines at Wholey and ALDI were from Morocco! I learned that the Moroccan sardine industry is making progress on sustainability, but I still wanted North Pacific sardines.

cooked fish

At Giant Eagle, sardines come from Poland, Thailand, Morocco…and they also have Wild Planet sardines, wild-caught from the North Pacific. (Their FAQ explains that their sardines are not caught in North American waters but near Japan–but they’re low in radiation!) I’d already picked up some Wild Planet sardines at East End Food Co-op, on sale for $2 a can!

Sardines, canned salmon, and frozen pollock (with or without breading) are among the best choices for a tight budget: sustainable, versatile, inexpensive, and nutritious! We’re going to get back into the habit of buying sardines, a superfood for protein, Vitamin B-12, omega-3s, Vitamin D, phosphorus, calcium, iron, and niacin!

Community-Supported Fishing: Like a CSA for Seafood!

I love buying locally-grown veggies every summer through a Community-Supported Agriculture farm share, so I’m excited to learn that there’s a similar way of buying seafood! Local Catch can help you find a fishing operation that will sell you a share of fresh fish.

If you’ve been “trying” to work more fish into your diet, but it never quite seems to happen…committing to a weekly or monthly fish subscription might be just the motivation you need!

I’m relieved to learn that my family can go on relying on wild Alaskan salmon and pollock for our two weekly fish meals, but I’m also eager to branch out into other sustainable seafood!

Have you changed your seafood strategies because of health concerns? Which fish are your favorites?
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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