A No-Sweat Primer on Buying Sustainable Seafood

We rely on the friendly faces at the supermarket butcher counter to do our dirty work for us – portioning steaks, cubing stew meat, recommending cuts for braising or grilling – so it stands to reason we should do the same with our seafood purchases. So why does the idea of buying a simple piece of salmon make most of us break out into a cold sweat? Carrie Brownstein, Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, offers up insight on managing fear of the fish counter.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that there are multiple organizations that monitor and rate sustainability in different ways, like the international Marine Stewardship Council’s certification standards and color-coded ratings from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. It’s also overwhelming to remember which ways of catching fish are good – like hook-and-line or pole-caught – and which are bad, like trawling.

So it’s best to open your big mouth and ask. Your fishmonger knows what’s safe and sustainable, and can tell you where, when and how each piece of seafood was caught.

Feeling shy? A few across-the-board safe recommendations include:

  • Wild-caught Alaska salmon
  • Wild-caught Pacific halibut
  • U.S.-farmed catfish
  • U.S. wild caught shrimp
  • U.S.- or Australian-farmed barramundi
  • U.S.-farmed tilapia
  • U.S. trap-caught crab
  • Avoid Chilean seabass, orange roughy and red  snapper
  • These are three of the most overfished species out there, and choosing alternatives that are just as tasty and more sustainable can help their populations recover. Whole Foods no longer carries red-rated wild-caught seafood at any of its fish counters, so you can breathe a little easier when making your choices from their selection.

    It’s a little embarrassing to ask if you can sniff your fish fillet before you buy it, so look for easy-to-spot signs of freshness that give you the all-clear. Brownstein says, “If you’re buying a whole fish, the eyes should be clear, and if you’re buying a fillet, see if there’s any liquid on the fish. If there is, it should be clear as well.” Look for shiny, metallic skin on both whole and portioned fish.

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