Sustainable seafood refers to seafood that has been caught or farmed in a way that minimizes harm to the marine environment through the employment of responsible fisheries management and traceable sourcing. It provides consumers with seafood options from managed fish stocks while mindful of leaving plenty of fish for future generations.
When choosing sustainable seafood, you are selecting products that promise at least one or more of the following:
- legally acquired from source
- fishing methods to reduce catch of non-target species (by-catch)
- effective management of fish stocks
- avoiding destructive fishing methods
- not targeting endangered species
- sourcing sustainable fish feed when farming
A fishery refers to the harvest of one particular aquatic species in one particular place (for example, the harvest of Leopard Coral Trout in Queensland Australia). There are many ways to assess whether a fishery is sustainable. Here are some of the most widely-applied standards:
- The seafood should come from a healthy fish stock where the population is large enough to withstand harvesting pressure (e.g. catch is slower than the rate at which the species can reproduce to replenish stocks).
- The fishing process should minimize its impact on the marine environment by:
minimizing bycatch of other non-target species e.g. dolphins, sharks, sea turtles to name a few species;
avoiding destructive fishing practices, such as bottom trawling, the use of poison, and explosives.
- Fisheries should have good management practices to ensure the long-term livelihood of local communities.
- Good fishery management should take local ecology, marine ecosystems, communities, and the economy into account.
Variables to consider include the health of fish stocks, food provision for people, costs, and benefits of fishing.
It’s a common belief that farmed fish or seafood from aquaculture is sustainable because they don’t impact wild populations, but this is not always true. In reality, the sustainability of these products depends on several factors. Let’s look at some examples of sustainable and unsustainable farmed or aquaculture products.
Good examples: reduced impact on the environment
Giant Groupers (Epinephelus lanceolatus)
Farming Method: Indoor Recirculating Systems
An indoor system can minimize altering natural land uses, reduce the impact of discharges, and contain disease outbreaks within the system.
As indoor recirculating systems can reduce the impact of aquaculture on the surrounding environment, Giant Groupers farmed in this way is a sustainable choice.
Shellfishes (Geoduck clams, Oysters, Clams)
Farming method: Outdoor mudflats & vertical hanging nets & lines
As shellfishes feed on phytoplankton from naturally incoming seawater, farmers do not have to feed them.
As a result, the aquaculture of shellfishes has a relatively minimal impact on the environment and the survival of other marine species, making most shellfishes a sustainable seafood choice.
Bad examples: increased impact on the environment
Farming method: outdoor ponds
Most shrimp farms are established near mangroves or tidal areas. As a result, the establishment of shrimp farms often involves the removal of natural mangrove habitats.
Shrimp farming accounts for 38% of the world’s mangrove loss.
Mangrove loss means a loss of natural barriers from waves for residents of the area. The loss of mangroves as a natural barrier can expose residents to the danger of incoming surges and storms, endangering their safety and well-being.
Improvement in progress: aquaculture can become more sustainable
Large yellow croakers (Larimichthys crocea)
Farming method: Floating net cages
As the Large yellow croaker is carnivorous, fish needs to be fed to the croakers to raise them.
It is estimated that 5kg of wild-caught fish needs to be fed for each kilogram of large yellow croaker. These wild-caught fish includes important commercial species such as anchovy and over 100 other fish species.
As a result, farming large yellow croakers can place considerable pressure on other smaller fish species.
Fortunately, croaker farms have started to adopt plant-based compound feed to reduce their reliance on wild fish feed. As a result, the environmental impact of croaker aquaculture is beginning to diminish.
All kinds of “sustainable seafood” labels can be found, in supermarkets or online, and each label represents its own standard of what counts as “sustainable”. You can be a responsible consumer by looking up the certification process behind each label to identify and recognize credible sustainable seafood labels.
These labels exist for both wild-caught and farmed seafood. Each of them comes from organizations or certification schemes that follow a particular standard before claiming a product to be sustainably sourced.
To decide whether a product behind a certain label is truly sustainable, we recommend consumers look into the following aspects of its certification scheme:
1. What is the scope of assessment? (How much emphasis is put on assessing population levels, bycatches, habitat impacts, source of labor, and presence of management?)
2. Who carries out the assessments? (Are the assessors independent of the certification scheme?)
3. Are the certification standards reviewed regularly?
4. Is the standard-setting process transparent to the public?
5. Do the labels conform to the guidelines from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)?
6. Are the labels recommended by any other scientific institutions or marine conservation NGOs?
You can find the answers to these questions by browsing the certification scheme’s website to find documents on their certification requirements and their standard-setting procedures, or by contacting the certification scheme.
Consumers can also consult the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI), which recognizes seafood certification schemes formally based on FAO guidelines, such as The FAO Guidelines of Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine/Inland Capture Fisheries.
When shopping in the wet market, it can be cheaper to choose “Recommended” and “Think Twice” species in the WWF-HK Seafood Guide rather than “Avoid” species.
This is because the stocks of “Avoid” species are often depleted, causing their prices to be higher. Meanwhile, “Recommended” and “Think Twice” species are often species with a healthier stock, which ensures a stable supply in the market with relatively fewer price fluctuations.
In the case of packed certified sustainable seafood, it is possible to find certified seafood at more or less the same price as non-certified ones. As more and more fisheries are getting certified, certified seafood is not necessarily more expensive than their non-certified counterparts.
More importantly, consumers can get a higher quality product in return with certified products. In the case of ASC-certified products, the ASC certification ensures cleaner farming practices with reduced use of chemicals. Consumers can also trace ASC-certified seafood back to the farm, providing extra assurance of food safety.
Eating in restaurants
It is easier than you think to find sustainable seafood in cheap-eats restaurants or even snack stalls! View our directory of restaurants serving sustainable seafood here.
Check Your Sustainable Seafood Guide
It is easy to eat seafood more sustainably! Start by asking 3 questions about what you are eating:
What is the species?
Where is it from?
Is the fish farmed or wild-caught?
Once you have this information, you can cross-check it with the WWF Seafood Guides, or other overseas seafood guides such as the Good Fish Guide and Seafood Watch. If you are traveling, you can always search for and consult the seafood guides specifically designed for the particular country/region.
Know Your Eco-Labels
If asking questions is too cumbersome, you can also look out for sustainable seafood labels. There are many different kinds of sustainable seafood labels and they certify seafood as “sustainable” based on different standards. To be sure of the sustainability of your seafood product, look up the certification process of your label of choice.
Visit restaurants that serve sustainable seafood
There are more restaurants serving sustainable seafood out there than you think! When dining in a restaurant, look out for wordings such as “sustainable”, “responsibly-sourced” or sustainable seafood labels on the menu. Alternatively, you can also consult our sustainable seafood restaurant guide here to find out the best restaurants to dine in for you and for sustainability!