The Secret to Sustainable Seafood

Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory | Edited by Carol Coutinho

Understanding sustainable seafood may seem as vast and complex as the ocean itself. One might even wonder, what is sustainable seafood? The Marine Stewardship Council defines sustainable seafood as seafood that was fished (1) from stocks with healthy populations, (2) with minimal impact on the marine environment, and (3) in an area with effective, responsive, and responsible management. This means that we are able to meet our needs, while ensuring the longevity of the species we consume, so that our future generations may access them as well.

Unfortunately, the way we conduct our fisheries today is not meeting these standards. In fact, ninety percent of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed. Luckily, the US, which supplies about a fifth of the seafood we eat here, ranks second to Norway in compliance with the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. There is an immediate need for change in fishing regulations globally, before the damage becomes completely irreversible. 

The Problem

Tragedy of the Commons: This refers to the phenomenon when a shared resource is exhausted because people act based on their own needs, without considering the needs of others. This was coined by Garret Hardin, who used the analogy of ranchers grazing their cattle on a common field. The ranchers will continue to add more cattle (thus generating more profit), resulting in overgrazing of the field. The ranchers will not think of the strain they are putting on the land as a whole, they only think about their individual capacity. This often occurs in areas that are shared by groups of people, with no clear regulations in place. The ocean is a perfect example of this tragedy. Most people view the ocean as a fast and endless supply of fish – but when everyone thinks like this, it is easy for this resource to be abused.

Poor Regulations: Another issue facing ocean life is the lack of enforced regulations. The lines between sea territories blur and international waters are poorly monitored, meaning that it can be easy for fishermen to practice illegal or irresponsible fishing. Luckily, regulations are increasing, but illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) in some countries can account for 30 percent of fish taken from the ocean in these regions. 


The Consequences

Bycatch: refers to the unwanted fish or marine animals caught during the commercial fishing for another species. Different fishing techniques result in varying amounts of bycatch. This not only depletes species that may already be overfished, but it also puts endangered species at risk of being caught. 

Overfishing: According to a 2020 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of all fish stocks are overfished and that another nearly 60 percent cannot sustain any increases in fishing.”  

Extinction: The United Nations’ report also claimed that 33% of marine mammals, sharks, and similar species are facing extinction. This is the result of poor regulations, along with species lost because of bycatch. 

Ecosystems and Habitat Lost: When fisheries are not managed properly, ecosystems may be abused or harmed in the process of catching seafood. For example, bottom trawling (a process discussed later on), can disrupt marine life along the seafloor, destroying delicate corals which serve as habitats for a myriad of creatures. This could be avoided if fishermen monitor the areas they fish from, and avoid fragile habitats.

fishing ships during sunset


Problem solving is always easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best! By improving these areas, we can work towards a more sustainable future for our oceans.

Enforce stronger regulations. It’s not enough to simply have the laws in place, we need proper management and oversight to guarantee those rules are being followed properly. 

Alternative gear and new fishing methods. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States is developing innovative solutions such as building better fishing gear. They even developed a turtle excluder device that reduces turtle mortality rates in shrimp trawling. Improvements to fishing technology can pave the way towards more sustainable fishing.

Seasonal fishing. This solution requires combined effort of both the fishermen and consumers. If we (consumers) continue to demand a particular species, then the companies will work to meet our demands. Though giving up sushi for a few months sounds less than desirable, closing off a season for fish to spawn can ensure that we can go on eating the foods we love. A few months with no sushi sounds better than no more sushi forever, right? 

Balance of aquaculture (farm-raised) and wild-caught seafood. Sourcing our seafood from both wild and farmed sources eases the pressure off wild populations at risk of being overfished. Later on we’ll go into detail about which species you should buy from wild-caught sources, and which are better to buy from aquaculture sources.  

fresh seafood at a fish market

A Brief History of Fishing Regulations

Fishing has always been a vital part of human survival. Industrialized fishing began in the 1800s and gradually grew into the mega-industry we know today. Due to the initial lack of regulations, by the 1900s fish populations were already struggling to keep up with demand. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the annual global fishing catch quadrupled. As the world population increased, fishing populations were rapidly decreasing. This led to a series of regulations enacted in the 1970-80s. Notably, the Law of the Sea was created in 1983, which established areas known as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) allotting countries designated areas for fishing. Moreover, commercial fishing areas outside of these zones are overseen by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs).  With the evident decline in seafood populations, sustainable seafood became a growing trend in the 1990s. Fisheries began using science-based research to assist in managing populations more appropriately. Today there are many organizations dedicated to preserving marine life. Fisheries can apply for certifications that regulate their practices to ensure they are doing things as sustainably as possible. 

a fisherman on a boat hauling in the fishing net

Different Methods of Commercial Fishing


  • Purse Seines: this is the most common practice used to catch seafood. Purse seines are large circular nets used to encompass schools of fish and then synched together at the top to enclose the fish. This type of fishing typically has a low bycatch, meaning there is a low probability of catching unwanted species of fish.
  • Trawling: this refers to the practice of dragging the net through the water behind a boat. There are two types – bottom trawls and midwater trawls. Bottom trawls used nets weighed down to the seafloor that drag along and catch fish. While bycatch may be low, this kind of fishing can damage marine life along the seafood. This habitat damage is detrimental to the ecosystem and can cause irreversible damage to corals and sponges. This practice is best done in sandy or rocky areas where fewer ecosystems will be disturbed. Mid-trawls have a fairly low bycatch. 
  • Gill Nets: these nets form a wall with holes in it. The fish swim into the wall and get stuck. This form of fishing does not require a large boat or a crane, so it is more accessible to people in less developed areas. These nets have the highest bycatch of any nets. 


  • Long Lines: these are long fishing lines with hooks every few feet. These can be several miles long. Bycatch on longlines varies depending on the location of the line and how well the line is managed. For example, long line tuna fishing can have about 20% bycatch. 
  • Pole and Line: this fishing resembles the standard fishing rod style most of us are familiar with. There is little problem with bycatch. 


  • Dredging is mainly used for harvesting shellfish along the bottom of the seafloor. This can also cause habitat damage. 

Traps and Pots

  • Traps and pots are lowered onto the seafloor with bait inside to attract prey, such as crabs and lobsters. Once the catch is inside, they cannot escape. While bycatch is not an issue, the traps and pots may drift away and can entangle sea life. 


  • Diving has some of the least environmental impacts. People go diving for sea urchins, geoduck, and sea cucumbers. This process is mainly done by hand, so there are no complications of bycatch or habitat damage – unless a diver is careless.
fishermen with container full of oysters

Aquaculture vs Wild-Caught

In order to guarantee that marine life has a sustainable future, it is important to source our seafood from both natural and man-made sources. Finding the balance between aquaculture and wild-caught seafood diverts some of the demand for seafood off of ocean populations, allowing for more responsible resourcing. This may seem simple, but not every species is better farm-raised, nor all species better to get wild-caught. Below we breakdown what works best for the continuation of different species


Aquaculture refers to the farming of fish and seafood. While fish-farming may sound bizarre, it has been in practice for hundreds of years, and today, half of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is farmed. These are the same fish that you would get from the wild, but they were born and raised in a fishery. Aquaculture is strategically done so that seafood populations are regulated in a safe environment without the risks faced by wild-caught fish. On the other hand, it is not efficient to farm-raise all seafood. For some species, the cost and environmental impact of raising them is more damaging than catching them in the wild. Thus, research is an important aspect in determining which species can sustain themselves in the wild, and which are more efficient to raise in aquaculture.

aerial view of fish farm and ship

Best Choices for Aquaculture

  •      Abalone
  •      Arctic char
  •      Barramundi (US & Vietnam farmed)
  •      Bass (US farmed)
  •      Clams 
  •      Mussels 
  •      Oysters
  •      Scallops
  •      Shrimp (US farmed)
  •      Sturgeon (US farmed)
  •      Trout (US farmed)


         Wild-caught seafood refers to the seafood that we fish from its natural environment (whether from freshwater or saltwater sources). For most people, wild-caught sounds like the most enticing option. While it may be tempting, we have to consider the impact of always eating wild-caught. It is not practical, because the supply cannot keep up with the demand. Below is a list of seafood that is more practical to eat wild-caught than farm raised. 

Best Choices for Wild-Caught

  •       Catfish (US)
  •       Cockles
  •       Cod: Pacific (AK)
  •       Crab: King, Snow, and Tanner (AK)
  •       Lionfish (US)
  •       Oysters (Canada)
  •       Prawns (US & Canada)
  •       Rockfish (AK, CA, OR, & WA)
  •       Sablefish/ Black Cod (AK)
  •       Salmon (New Zealand)
  •       Sanddab (CA, OR, WA)
  •       Squid (US)
  •       Tilapia (Canada, Ecuador, Peru, US)
  •       Tuna: Albacore (trolls, pole and lines)
  •       Tuna: Skipjack (Pacific trolls, poles and lines)
shrimp fishing boat out on water

What You Can Do

1. Don’t be afraid to ask restaurants where they source their seafood from! It may seem like an awkward conversation, but it shows establishments that you care about their practices. If the location doesn’t seem too sure, perhaps go with another option that is more sustainable (read all about sustainable diets here). Similarly, when purchasing fresh seafood from markets, have a conversation with the appropriate employee to see if they can inform you about their seafood sources. 

2. Learn your labels! If you would rather skip the chit-chat at the store, learning what different labels mean can help you identify sustainable seafood on your own. 

3. Visit this website for a regional specific guide!

This week we challenge you to find out where your seafood is sourced from! If you are grabbing something from the frozen aisle, check the back of the bag, or stop by a fresh market and ask the fishermen yourself! Knowledge is power, and knowing where your seafood is coming from is the first step in making more informed decisions to support our oceans!

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