How to Give Positive Seafood Sustainability Advice

Last weekend University of Washington fisheries expert Dr. Ray Hilborn and I chatted with registered dietitians at the 2016 Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) Symposium:  Prescriptions for Sustainable Health, Performance and Practice in – the land of sustainable living – Portland, OR about how to incorporate seafood sustainability science into nutrition advice.

Dietitians and the families they work with are used to the old good fish/bad fish list approach to the topic of seafood sustainability.  But Dr. Hilborn, who literally wrote the book on the evolution of marine conservation, made the following points that call into question a prescriptive green fish/red fish approach:

  1. Fish lists are subjective and only consider the very specific issue of marine impacts. For example, skipjack tuna is plentiful, but shows up on both the green and red list of this fish card depending on how it’s caught (poll vs. net).  Net gets dinged because of bycatch, but what isn’t mentioned is the increased carbon footprint of poll fishing.  The bottom line is that there are trade-offs, and growing/harvesting ANY type of food makes some environmental mark.
  2. 2016-04-13_10-42-33Seafood is one of the most sustainable food choices, relatively speaking. Sometimes we forget that people have to eat something, and seafood has among the lowest overall environmental costs compared to other types of food.

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So if the lists are no good, what are some sound resources for seafood sustainability advice?  I shared the following ideas for people who simply want to ensure their food choices are good for themselves and the environment:

  1. NOAA Fish Watch  – This site features science-based, well-rounded profiles of all different species of fish including information on the population, fishing rate, and habitat impacts as well as taste, texture, and health benefits.
  2. Grocery stores and restaurants  – Many retailers have seafood sustainability policies ensuring every type of fish within their store meets standards for sustainability.
  3. 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report – The DGAC brought in expert marine science consultants and made three conclusions related to seafood sustainability.

    Eat a wide variety of seafood.  Whether wild-caught or farmed, most species of fish have about the same amount of omega-3s.

    The recommendation to eat seafood at least twice each week could likely be met with continued careful fishing of wild seafood and increased amounts of farm-raised fish.

    Both farmed and wild-caught seafood are safe and healthy choices.

Seafood has such a promising story from both a nutrition and sustainability standpoint.  I loved this opportunity to talk with fellow dietitians about this often confusing topic and look forward to continuing the conversation.