When did buying fish become so complicated?

Imported or domestic? Atlantic or Pacific? Wild-caught or farmed? Organic? There are so many decisions to be made in the seafood market in 2015.

And no wonder. Seafood production is a huge, globalized industry involving all sorts of convoluted supply chains. The US is second only to China in seafood consumption, but 91% of the seafood that we consume is imported, meaning that our purchasing power can influence production trends on a global level. With nearly 30% of fish stocks worldwide being exploited above biologically sustainable levels, our consumption choices matter more than ever for the well-being of the world’s oceans.

Many Americans already care about the sustainability of their seafood, and are willing to pay more for the certification to prove it; it’s finding out what’s actually sustainable that’s the challenge.

As with so many things these days, there’s an app for that.

It’s called Seafood Watch, named after the conservation and consumer awareness program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

How Seafood Watch Works

The program breaks down seafood into three levels of sustainability:

1. Best Choices (green)

2. Good Alternatives (yellow)

3. Avoid (red)

These classifications are based on scientific evidence, and are updated every six months. Seafood Watch is very open about its assessment methodology, actively solicits input, and isn’t backed by any corporate interests.

How to Use Seafood Watch

With the app—which is free and available for iPhone and Android devices—users can either read through the entire, alphabetized list for each sustainability level, narrowing down by geographic region; or enter a type of seafood or sushi into the search bar and see what category it falls into.

I tried the app both ways.

The guide for my region gave me a list of 60 “Best Choice” options, ranging from Abalone (farmed in land- and sea-based enclosures, but not from sea ranches in China and Japan) to Skipjack Tuna (caught without the aid of unsustainable “fish aggregating devices”).

Then I searched for ‘salmon,’ one of America’s favorite fish. Seafood Watch turned up 21 hits, together with alternative names that ‘salmon’ could go by, like “sake” if it’s in sushi form.

Seven of the 21 hits were considered “Best Choice” options, including wild salmon from Alaska (but only if caught using the drift gillnet, purse seine, or troll methods) and Sockeye Salmon from the Fraser River in Washington State (but only if caught using a reef-net during the early summer run).

Two thoughts strike me about these results.

First, this is a lot of information. There are so many factors that go into assessing sustainability and health, and I really appreciate that Seafood Watch is distilling them for me. It would have taken a ton of research to come to the answer that this app gave me in under 20 seconds.

Second, this is still a lot of information! Most seafood packaging does not provide anywhere near this level of detail. At my local supermarket, I’m lucky to find out if a product is wild or farmed, and what country it comes from, let alone how it was caught and when. So trying to apply the knowledge that Seafood Watch provides isn’t always that easy.

Maybe it just isn’t possible for an issue this complicated, but I wish this app were a little simpler.

One way to do that might be to expand the app’s “Project FishMap” feature, which allows users to publicly map out places where they found sustainable seafood. It would also be great it Seafood Watch made its own sourcing recommendations, similar to the way that Greenpeace ranks the seafood sustainability of US supermarkets.

Despite being a bit tricky, the Seafood Watch app is still worth using because it’s a reliable source of comprehensive, fair information.

But if it isn’t your style, keep in mind these general guidelines for sustainable seafood shopping:

      • Avoid processed seafood.

Products like frozen fish fingers are exempt from any labeling requirements, and are good candidates for fish fraud.

      • Buy domestic.

US fisheries management isn’t perfect, but our federal commitments to sustainability and health standards tend to be stronger than those in major export regions like Asia.

      • Look for seafood with an eco label.

The easiest place to do this is at Whole Foods Market. All of their farmed seafood is verified by a third party, and all of their wild-caught seafood is either labeled by Seafood Watch and the Safina Center, or is approved by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). But do note that the MSC has been the subject of investigative reports by NPR and others, questioning the MSC’s standards.

And for those who just want to spend less time on their phones, Seafood Watch has printable, regional guides that can be conveniently slipped into a wallet.


Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.