Stories / Impact

4 Sustainable Seafood Terms You Need to Know

Katherine Miller

March 29, 2017


Americans consume almost 16 pounds of seafood each year. Most of what we eat is shrimp, salmon, and sea bass, and 90 percent of it is imported from outside the United States (mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador). But our love for fish has left some species, such as sushi favorite bluefin tuna, on the brink of being overfished, and unless we do something, those species will not available for future generations to enjoy.

You may be aware of some of the resources available to help you vary your seafood selections while you’re shopping, including Seafood Watch, or new services to help you source sustainable seafood at home, like Sea2Table. With this information, you may be starting to make changes in what types of seafood you eat.

But maybe you’re also a little like me: overwhelmed by all the information out there and still confused when trying to figure out what to buy or order. Do I trust signs at the grocery store claiming that a fish has been raised sustainably? What about farmed, frozen, or wild-caught salmon? Which is the best choice? There’s lots of information about environmental impacts, but what about human impacts such as slave labor? Does it matter if something is raised sustainability but shipped thousands of miles away? Isn’t local better than frozen?

The questions can go on and on. As part of our ongoing education about sustainable seafood here at JBF, we’ve put together a list of a few terms we think you should know in order to help you sort through all the information out there:

  • Seafood Certifications
    Back in the 1990s, the tuna industry created the “dolphin-safe” label to show that tuna were harvested without harming dolphins. This was one of the first seafood certifications, or the process for assuring that fisheries or fish farms have met certain environmental criteria. The Marine Stewardship Council administers one of the most prominent certifications in the United States. So at your grocery store or fishmonger look for MSC-certified seafood and other eco-certified products Seafood Watch recommends.
  • Traceability
    Much of the focus on where our food comes from is on fruits, vegetables, and animal proteins, but not seafood. Yet news reports and studies from experts such as Oceana and the University of British Columbia have begun to show that more than one-third of our seafood is mislabeled in North America. This means that consumers might be eating something that isn't labeled correctly, that may have been caught illegally, or that involves slave labor at some point in its process. Learning where your seafood comes from is just as important as with any other food and starts with a few basic questions at the store and in restaurants: when was it harvested? Where was it caught? And where was it packaged?
  • Organic Seafood
    Consumers love organic foods, but there are no official standards for organic seafood in the United States. This means that fish labeled “organic” are imported, usually from northern Europe. And keep in mind that seafood labeled as organic is farmed, not wild-caught. For more information about farmed seafood, check out this piece by chef and activist Barton Seaver.
  • Magnuson-Stevens
    For those who are interested in policy, get to know Magnuson-Stevens. Since 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the law that aims to help curb overfishing and rebuild overfished species in both U.S.-controlled and global fisheries.. Representative Don Young (R-AK) recently introduced legislation in the current Congress which experts believe will weaken the law and could lead to overfishing in American waters. To track this bill as it travels through Congress, check out the work of PEW Charitable Trusts and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The issues related to sustainable seafood are as numerous as the species in our waterways. We are consuming more and more seafood each year, and seafood is often a healthy, delicious choice. We can all learn more about where our seafood is from, how it is raised, and how we can all make better decisions about what to buy and serve.

Learn more about JBF Impact programs. 


Katherine Miller is senior director, food policy advocacy at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter.