Is Eating Seafood a Sustainable Choice in 2021?

As more people become educated on living clean and green, the word sustainability will pop up more often. The past few years have been all about trying to live life with minimal impact to the environment as well as focus on workers’ rights and safety. The media, including social media, marketing concepts, products, and advertisements everywhere you look about how to lessen your footprint and make a positive change. While some actions, such as going minimalist, seem to be more of a trend, choosing sustainability is definitely more of a lifestyle. There is much research and data to support that living a sustainable life is better for our health and the world around us. 

All of the food we come in contact with is on a spectrum of sustainability, meaning it is either highly sustainable, not at all sustainable, or somewhere in the middle. Where a product lands on this spectrum depends on several factors, which can fluctuate from time to time. A certain type of seafood, like albacore tuna for example, may be a sustainable choice in certain areas of the world during a certain time period, while it is unsustainable in other locations; furthermore, while albacore tuna may be sustainable in a region one day, it could be considered unsustainable in the same region the next day. This article will dive into many of the factors that make a product sustainable versus unsustainable.  

Making sustainable food choices is up to you. Taking some time to do research on where your meal comes from and supporting environmental efforts to keep products sustainable will help in the long run. 

Keep reading to learn more about what sustainability is and why it matters, what sustainability looks like in the seafood industry, a look at the Dungeness crab regarding sustainability, what type of farming is not sustainable, and the laws and regulations that are put in place to ensure sustainability, as well as how consumers can make smart choices. 

Fisherman Bait

What is Sustainability? 

The experts at EnvironmentalScience.org give a clear and concise definition of sustainability:

“The definition of ‘sustainability’ is the study of how natural systems function, remain diverse and produce everything it needs for the ecology to remain in balance. It also acknowledges that human civilization takes resources to sustain our modern way of life. Sustainability takes into account how we might live in harmony with the natural world around us, protecting it from damage and destruction.”

They also list the primary goals of sustainability:

  • The end of poverty and hunger
  • Better standards of education and healthcare - particularly as it pertains to water quality and better sanitation
  • To achieve gender equality
  • Sustainable economic growth while promoting jobs and stronger economies
  • All of the above and more while tackling the effects of climate change, pollution and other environmental factors that can harm and do harm people's health, livelihoods and lives.
  • Sustainability to include health of the land, air and sea.

As you can see, sustainability is all about ensuring we are responsible with our footprint upon this earth, and that the products we choose to purchase and consume are done so with thought. It is about meeting our present needs without compromising future generations. 

In 2005, the World Summit on Social Development identified three core areas, or pillars, that refer to sustainability. These include: 


Economic Development

Being sustainable is not always the cheapest, and because sustainability is so very important, it is also imperative that we find ways to incentivise businesses who follow guidelines and regulations, as well as find ways to make it worth it to individual consumers.

The supply and demand market is consumerist in nature and modern life requires a lot of resources every single day for the sake of the environment, getting what we consume under control is the paramount issue. Economic development is about giving people what they want without compromising quality of life, especially in the developing world, and reducing the financial burden and “red tape” of doing the right thing. 

Economic development in relation to sustainability entails jobs, incentives, supply and demand, natural resource accounting, costs, and prices. 

Social Development

This pillar is all about protecting people from environmental factors and to promote health and wellness in communities. A lot of this comes down to education. In order to be successful in this area, we must “encourage people to participate in environmental sustainability and teach them about the effects of environmental protection as well as warning of the dangers if we cannot achieve our goals.”

Social development in relation to sustainability entails environmental justice, human health, participation, education, resource security, and sustainable communities. 

Environmental Protection

This last pillar of sustainability refers to ensuring we all (businesses and individuals) do what we can to protect the environment as we go about our lives. “It defines how we should study and protect ecosystems, air quality, integrity and sustainability of our resources and focusing on the elements that place stress on the environment.” 

Environmental protection in relation to sustainability entails ecosystem services, green engineering and chemistry, air quality, water quality, stressors, and resource integrity. 

Ships docked ocean

Why Does Sustainability Matter?

Focusing on sustainability is important. As our population grows, our resources need to grow with it; and that needs to be done ethically and with the least amount of damage to our environment. We cannot continue on a path of using our earth for its resources and not giving anything back. We will all destruct. 

When it comes to seafood, sustainability matters because there is a lot that goes into the seafood business that has potential for using environmental resources and leaving quite the footprint. From the second fishermen and women set foot in their boats to get their catch until it is on the dinner plate of a consumer, it is all of our responsibilities to ensure the process is done so in the most sustainable way possible. 

What Does Sustainability Look Like in the Seafood Industry? 

The average person is able to check for themselves to determine whether or not their seafood purchases are considered sustainable. Some companies pride themselves in their sustainability and make it obvious on their website and packaging how they derived their products and brought it to customers in a sustainable manner. But sometimes consumers have to do a little digging online or by calling the company to find out the sustainability status on a particular item. 

One website that consumers can utilize to check for sustainability is called Seafood Watch. Their site states-

When you choose to buy sustainable seafood, you push suppliers to source more environmentally responsible products, driving significant improvements throughout the industry. Ultimately, your choices have an impact on the health of the ocean. 

When you browse their site, consumers can learn the ins and outs of what it means to be sustainable and they are able to research any type of seafood and its current status. 

For example, Seafood Watch has created a National Consumer Guide for January to June of 2021 for individuals to see which seafood are considered the best choices, which are good alternatives, and choices to avoid. 

Although this guide is research-based, the information should be taken with a grain of salt, and responsible individuals should look at additional sources to make their decisions. The sustainability of the seafood listed on the guide may not be completely updated or current to what is happening in one particular area over a specific time period. 

What makes seafood sustainable versus unsustainable?

There are a few factors that ensure the sustainability of seafood. 

First, how seafood is caught and/or farmed creates a level of sustainability. 

Examples of sustainable fishing methods include:

  • Hook-and-Lining (pole catching)
  • Harpooning
  • Pots and Traps
  • Trolling
  • Purse seining
  • Longlining
  • Sustainable aquaculture operations
  • The use of exclusionary devices to avoid catching non-target species
  • The prohibition of shark finning and other unsustainable fishing practices
  • Targeting only plentiful species and those species smaller and lower on the food chain
  • Mitigating bycatch and reducing the practice of dredging
  • Managing wild fisheries and monitoring populations accurately
  • National and international enforcement of fishing regulations

Next, the environment in which the seafood lives can either help or hinder sustainability. If there is poor air and water quality, pollution, climate change, chemicals, or poor weather conditions, these all play a factor in how safe it is to fish in a particular area and how safe the seafood is to eat. 

An infographic from Regal Springs shares the following advice…

“Sustainable and ethically harvested fish are generally exposed to fewer chemicals and better taken care of, resulting in a healthier final product. By checking the label, you can often learn if the seafood contains additives, chemicals, or preservatives. The best seafood is free from chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics, and carbon monoxide (a common preservative used in seafood).” 

Alternatively, for seafood to be considered unsustainable, certain factors must be in play. Overfishing, for example, is one major concern in the seafood business and there are laws and regulations fishermen and women must follow to avoid decreasing populations due to overfishing. Weak management can cause a lack of sustainability. If individuals are turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviors and regulations are not being enforced, this can create unwanted effects. A failure to follow scientific advice can lead to harmful and even catastrophic events. 

There are various organizations out there that promote sustainable practices in regards to seafood. 

To celebrate National Seafood Month, Food Tank highlighted 16 fisheries and fisher groups working to establish and support a sustainable seafood system. These organizations are working across the entire fish supply chain, from subsistence fishers to large retail companies, from scientists and researchers to chefs and consumers. 

They are:

  1. Aquaculture Stewardship Council
  2. Fisheries Innovation Scotland
  3. Institute for Fisheries Resources
  4. International Collective in Support of Fishworkers
  5. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation
  6. Marine Conservation Alliance
  7. Marine Fish Conservation Network
  8. Marine Stewardship Council
  9. Monterey Bay Aquarium
  10. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  11. Natural Resources Defense Council
  12. Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance
  13. Oceana
  14. Sailors for the Sea
  15. Sustainable Fisheries Partnership
  16. World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers

You can also visit FishWatchthe nation's database for sustainable seafood to find up-to-date information on the status of some of the nation’s most valuable marine fish harvested in U.S. federal waters as well as U.S. farmed fish that help meet our country’s growing seafood demand.

Dungeness Crabs

Is the Dungeness Crab a Sustainable Seafood Choice? 

Dungeness crabs are for the most part sustainably harvested. California, Oregon, Washington State, and Alaska all take part in fishing for and harvesting Dungeness crab. Individuals, local, state, and federal government all take a part in making sure seafood, such as the Dungeness crab, continue to be an available choice for consumers. Commercial crabbing is closely monitored and regulated and sustainable fishing practices are chosen over ones that do more harm to the environment and living species. 

In Washington and across the Northwest Coast, there are continuous efforts to ensure that the Dungeness crab population is monitored and that fishermen and women catch them in a sustainable manner. 

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are constantly monitoring the Dungeness crab to ensure that the population continues to flourish.

 “The efforts to monitor and study Dungeness crab are important steps to continue to provide sustainable recreational, Tribal, and commercial opportunities now and in the future.”

Sustainability isn’t just a seafood term; from farm to table, it is an important part of the world of agriculture. 

Sustainable Agriculture 

When you think of sustainable agriculture, the first few buzzwords that may come to mind are new technology, organic foods, and farmer’s markets. 

In the 1990 Farm Bill, the term “sustainable agriculture” is defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that will, over the long term do the following: satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources, sustain the economic viability of farm operations and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Again, think about the three pillars of sustainability and how they correlate to a chicken farmer, for example. How will the farmer ensure sustainability while keeping economic development, social development, and environmental protection in mind? What does he need to do or omit in his process from the very beginning once a chick is born all the way along the journey until it is sitting on a consumer’s dinner plate, to make that process sustainable? There are a lot of factors and steps that go into creating sustainable practices in the world of agriculture. 

Local and organic foods are not always necessarily sustainable foods. 

These are some of the factors that play into agriculture not being as sustainable as we think:

  • The use of fertilizers and pesticides 
  • The amount energy used along with the output of carbon emissions
  • Contribution to greenhouse gas emissions
  • Deforestation and lost of land
  • The interruption of natural habitats 
  • The use of certain farming technology 
  • The use of antibiotics and hormones
  • The mistreatment of livestock 

Of course there are numerous others that can be added to this list. Fortunately, you as a consumer can make a change. 

How can consumers contribute to sustainable agriculture?

The Daily Meal offers some tips:

  1. Ask questions and get curious about where your food comes from.
  2. Buy organic as much as possible.
  3. Buy as much seasonal produce as possible.
  4. Eat fewer animal products.

Did you know that according to the World Health Organization, if U.S. consumers cut back their meat intake by 40%, they’d be doing their part to reduce global food-related emissions!?

  1. Choose free-range.
  2. Be cautious of food waste.
  3. Look for Fair-Trade Certified labels. 

When you see the Fair Trade Certified seal, it means that the product you are buying meets certain standards in the areas of...

  • Safe working conditions
  • Environmental protection
  • Sustainable livelihoods
  • Community Development Funds

How are governments and communities working hard to ensure sustainability of products? 

Laws and Regulations That Ensure Sustainability 

First and foremost, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the primary Federal responsibility for the safety of seafood products in the United States. There are other federal agencies that play a role in regulating and monitoring the sustainability of seafood, which include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NMFS), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Next, each individual state has its own regulations to ensure the safety and sustainability of its seafood. For example in Washington state, there is the Coastal Commercial Dungeness Crab Fishery, which is considered the most important in the state. By visiting the site, anyone can find current information on rules, regulations, and licensing. Another example is the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website that lists their state’s commercial regulations. 

When individuals go to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s site and browse around, they will see meeting minutes and presentations related to updating those in the commercial fishing industry with new information. For example, there has been an issue of whales getting entangled in commercial crab fishing gear; therefore they met on Reducing Risk of Whale Entanglements in Oregon Dungeness Crab Gear in October of 2020 to resolve the issue. They are transparent about their actions and everything they put on their site is public record. 

It is quite easy to research and be informed of each state’s requirements and how they promote sustainability. 

Going Forward

After reading this article, you should be more informed on what sustainability is and is not, along with what sustainability means in the seafood industry and in the world of agriculture. It is the responsibility of each individual to do their part in ensuring a safe and clean world and environment for all species, now and in the future. When you purchase a product, do some research into the origins of the product, how it was produced, and what impact that had on its surrounding environment. Start to make smarter food choices and select quality and sustainable seafood for you and your family. 

How do we at Fathom Seafood work to provide you with the best quality and sustainable choices? 

Our mission is to provide access and education on one of the most forgotten treasures in the United States: Live Seafood. We go to incredible lengths to build relationships directly with fishermen and docks up and down the West Coast to provide the absolute highest quality Live Seafood possible. From our fishermen, docks, drivers, warehouse staff and logistics partners to our state of the art tanking facility and our modern and sophisticated take on the industry’s status quo, to our proprietary, science based methodology – we are changing the game, one box at a time!


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