Ceviche, bouillabaisse, tacos de pescado—this is a globe-trotting seafood lover’s mantra. But food-obsessed travelers are increasingly keeping another term in mind while eating around the world: sustainability. As news about declining fish populations due to warming ocean temperatures and questionable fishing practices continues to pepper headlines, it’s becoming more important to make smart choices concerning seafood, whether you’re indulging in a Michelin-starred feast or digging into a whole fish at a Bangkok market.
The sustainable seafood problem
For chef Joshua Skenes, founder of San Francisco’s Saison and Angler (with forthcoming locations in Los Angeles and Bellevue, Washington), choosing sustainable seafood is about the future: “Sustainability means managing our wild places and wild things for the long-term benefit.” With fishing, that means using methods and strategies that have minimal impact on the environment.
“[Many] parts of the world are consistently depleting their local fisheries,” says Joe Conte, founder of the San Francisco–based company Water2Table—which connects small-scale, Northern California fishermen directly with chefs. “Their biggest concern is earning enough money to eat.” In these places, sustainable practices aren’t affordable; low-impact methods often result in smaller yields, which forces fishermen to charge higher prices for their products. And if their consumer base can’t afford pricier seafood, they can’t earn a living.
Skenes recognizes this divide in eateries as well: “Small family restaurants need to keep a price point which their community can afford,” he says.
But smaller, remote areas aren’t the only ones with an unsustainable seafood problem—it’s possible, even likely you’ll see branzino from the Mediterranean on menus in Hawaii or overfished Atlantic halibut in New York.
Finding sustainably caught fish can be complicated no matter where you are in the world, but it’s not impossible—and your action helps create demand. Here’s how to make smarter decisions about the seafood you eat around the world.
A cheat sheet
When it comes to seafood, Conte breaks down sustainability into three major components, with specific terms to look for when perusing a menu and questions to ask of a server, chef, or fishmonger.
- Species Population: “You don’t want to deplete the population with your fishing practices,” he explains. Find out if the species in question is in danger of being overfished. (More on how to seek that information below.)
- Method of Catch: “If you’re dragging the seafloor with giant nets, you’re doing damage to rocks, reefs, and habitats.” Look for terms like “rod and reel,” “hook and line,” and “dip net”—methods which have a lower impact than large-scale dragging and long-line fishing.
- Bycatch: “If you’re netting tuna, and in that net [are] 20 other kinds of fish, are you just killing these species and tossing them overboard?” Menus with unfamiliar fish may indicate that a chef is serving bycatch, which gives fishermen reason to keep them alongside their “target” species, rather than discarding them.
Once you have the basics down, you can dig a little deeper.
Arm yourself with information
A number of well-established resources can help you navigate the specifics of this world when you’re on the go. First and foremost is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (highly recommended by most of the chefs we spoke to). It tracks and categorizes seafood species worldwide and catalogs fishing and aquaculture methods using a regularly updated set of standards determined in part through expert review and a consultation period open to the public.
The organization also partners with a growing number of chefs, such as Sheila Lucero, executive chef of Seafood Watch partner Jax Fish House in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, to help bring sustainable seafood directly to consumers (and to increase awareness in the process). Lucero is a big fan of the organization’s app, Seafood Watch.
Monterey Seafood Watch is a part of the Global Seafood Ratings Alliance, a good resource for any traveler; it includes seafood watch lists based in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, and other countries.
Research the region
Information about how the country regulates fishing practices can indicate the sorts of seafood to look for and when. The United States, for example, has tight restrictions on how much of a certain type of fish can be caught at a time and during which seasons it can be caught. Then, investigate the types of fish found in nearby waters. If a fish is caught locally, it’s more likely to be a good choice. Explore seafood markets to see what’s frequently available, and if you’re on a coast, head to a marina and ask what fishing boats are bringing in that day.
Generally, you’ll find better options in areas with coastal access and readily available local fish species—these places often have long-standing fishing practices that serve their communities. But things aren’t always so straightforward—culture and custom can come into play.
Gabriela Camara, chef-owner of San Francisco’s Cala and Mexico City’s Contramar notes that Mexico City, despite its landlocked location, has a deep, rich history of fish eating. This not only gives her access to quality seafood products for her restaurant, but it also means the population is eager for fresh, delicious fish.
“So much of understanding what quality seafood looks and tastes like has to do with tradition,” she says. “Mexico City isn’t on the ocean, but everything in the country is centralized there. That’s created a historical precedent of transporting fresh fish from the coasts.”
Be open to unexpected dishes
Often, the most “coveted” fish are the least sustainable because of intense consumer demand. Bluefin tuna is a universal no-no, for example, because it’s so highly sought after for sushi and sashimi—its status as a delicacy drives up prices, leading to major overfishing. Avoiding these species opens chefs, and therefore diners, up to new culinary adventures. Teresa Montaño, chef-owner of Otoño in Los Angeles, is passionate about high-quality conservas, canned seafood that’s common to Spain and Portugal, and “garbage fish” like fresh anchovies and sardines.
Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham, Alabama, has built the menu of his new restaurant around bycatch, including tilefish and sheepshead, which he purchases from an outfit that works directly with captains in the Gulf of Mexico. While the main target for these fishermen may be snapper or grouper, knowing they have buyers for other species means they won’t simply toss the bycatch overboard.
“We’re creating a market for these fish,” he says. “It helps produce less waste.”
Similarly, Skenes loves serving jellyfish, which are abundantly available in the Pacific, “right out of the ocean just sliced and eaten like sashimi,” he says. “Tastes like the pure deep ocean water.”
Take seasonality seriously
Fish, like produce, have appropriate seasons. You won’t find fresh, local tomatoes in December, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect local salmon year-round, too. Camara notes that it’s worth recognizing in-season fish as a luxury. “It’s a precious thing,” she says.
Most of us aren’t necessarily experts in seafood seasonality (yet!), so reading a menu is a great way to get in the chef’s head. “Look at the menu as a whole,” suggests Montaño. “If someone is serving pomegranate in June, it’s a pretty good indicator that seasonality is not the chef’s priority.”
And avoiding that summer pomegranate or overfished bluefin tuna is a great way to support sustainable choices. “The demand for berries in the dead of winter, or salmon out of season, have created markets to satisfy the consumer demands,” Skenes explains. “What gets compromised to satisfy these demands are usually how items are farmed, fished, or harvested.”
When in doubt: ask, ask, and ask again
No matter how diligent your research, it can still be difficult to be sure that those fish tacos you’re eating on the beach are checking off sustainability boxes. The best thing to do, per Conte, is ask questions.
“Whether it’s a person behind the counter at a restaurant, waiter at a restaurant, or a fishmonger at a market, they should know where their fish comes from, and how it was caught,” he says. “If they’re knowledgeable, and excited to tell you about it, you know that they care.”
And the more people ask questions, the more the demand for sustainable seafood will grow.
“Let people know what you want,” Conte says. “It can change the industry.”