Making an informed decision at a seafood
counter is accomplished by asking three questions:
- What is the species of fish? This question should be
easy to answer.
- Where was the fish caught or raised? This is a medium-difficulty
question for most grocery stores. The trick is to be detailed! The
“Pacific Ocean” is not one place.
- How was it caught or raised? This is the question that will stump
even some of the best fishmongers. There are a lot of variables at
play regardless of whether the fish was wild or farmed.
Let’s delve into these questions a little deeper.
FIRST QUESTION TO ASK:
WHAT IS THE SPECIES OF FISH?
The answer lies in the specifics. It is not enough to say “tuna”, for
example. Bluefin tuna is severely overfished, while Albacore tuna is an
excellent choice because stocks are well managed and currently abundant.
Salmon is not just salmon. Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum are
all breeds of salmon. All fish identified as Atlantic salmon are farmed,
as it is illegal to sell wild Atlantic salmon – we’ve seen two grocery
stores selling “Wild Atlantic Salmon” – obviously a case of ignorant
SECOND QUESTION TO ASK: WHERE WAS THE FISH CAUGHT OR RAISED?
We practice localvorism at The Healthy Butcher as much as
possible (and exclusively when it comes to meat); so, when we can source sustainable seafood that’s harvested
close to home, that’s a huge bonus. Unfortunately, Toronto lies in the
middle of a huge land mass; other than the freshwater fish we have
available to us – like trout, pickerel, whitefish, bass, and perch – all
ocean caught fish will have to travel a long distance to make it to our
dining tables. But, of course, there’s a difference between fish
traveling from the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of British Columbia
and traveling from the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Thailand.
THIRD QUESTION TO ASK: HOW WAS THE FISH CAUGHT OR RAISED?
The third question is the doozy… asking this question will return a
lot of blank stares because, simply put, most grocery stores and sadly,
fishmongers, don’t know… and it is because of this lack of knowledge
that unsustainable fishing practices thrive. The first and second
question only bring you so far. For example, let’s say you had canned
tuna for lunch. You determined that the tuna is actually Albacore tuna –
great! Albacore is still plentiful. You determined that it was caught in
the Pacific Ocean – great! But how was it caught? Well, if your canned
tuna was caught in Thailand, it is likely that it was caught using long
lines - shame on you! If your tuna was caught by trolling off Southern
California – congratulations, you just had a sustainable seafood meal.
Wild or Farmed? What would be your choice? If you answered either wild
or farmed, you’re wrong. The answer is: It depends. There are good wild
fisheries and good fish farms, and there are bad wild fisheries and bad
fish farms. Let’s talk about the details of both wild-caught and farmed
WILD-CAUGHT FISH - SUSTAINABLE FISHING
number of fish caught, little or no bycatch, and little or zero
|Hook-and-Line Fishing & Trolling|
The most basic type of fishing is hook-and-line fishing, where fishers
use a pole hung with one to several baited hooks. They jerk the line to
mimic the motion of smaller fish, which is known as “jigging”. Unwanted
catch can be released quickly. Similarly, trolling uses essentially the
same apparatus, but the line is towed behind a moving boat.
Traps and Pots
A sustainable method used to catch fish and harvest shelfish, as there
is little bycatch and much of it can be released alive. Environmental
damage is minimal.
WILD-CAUGHT FISH - UNSUSTAINABLE FISHING
number of fish caught, many unwanted bycatch,
and potential for significant
Long-lining uses a single fishing line hung with hundreds,
often thousands, of baited hooks and laid down by boat. Fishers leave these
lines in the water for several hours or overnight and then return to
haul them in. Long-line hooks catch many unwanted species, including
different types of fish, endangered sea turtles, and sea birds.
|| One of the most recent and impactful visual representations of
long-lining was captured in the movie
Sharkwater (definitely worth renting!); quoting from
Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Center “imagine if you went into the
forest and set some sort of trap line that caught moose, deer, skunks,
porcupines, squirrels, dogs, when all you’re really after is one species
but you have all these other species that are dying or dead. Nobody
would tolerate for a minute putting down a trap line [in the forest]
that caught all animals for 30 miles, yet its happening every day in the
Seining uses large fishing nets that hang vertically in the water by
attaching weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top;
seining results in a significant amount of bycatch.
Trawling is perhaps the largest target of protests by environmentalists
because of its high rate of by-catch and ecological damage. Trawling
involves dragging a cone-shaped net behind a boat to scoop up fish.
Floats are used to keep the upper edge of the net opening higher than
the weighted bottom edge, thereby creating a net with a mouth at one end
and a closed tail at the other. Trawling is generally divided into
either “bottom trawling” or “midwater trawling”.
|| Bottom trawling is trawling along or close to the sea floor, intended to
catch bottom-living fish such as sole, flounder and halibut, as well as
semi-pelagic fish such as cod, squid, halibut and rockfish. Midwater
trawling is towing the trawl through free water away from the bottom of
the ocean. |
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that trawling will result in a
significant amount of by-catch. And, obviously, bottom trawling results
in additional serious incidental damage to the sea bottoms and deep
water coral reefs. Although midwater trawling does not destroy the sea
floor, it is responsible for the by-catch of cetaceans like dolphins,
porpoises, and whales.
Dredging involves dragging a metal frame with a net bag attached along
the ocean floor, picking up the bottom-dwelling clams, oysters,
scallops, and other shellfish, along with bycatch. Dredging causes
significant habitat destruction.
WILD-CAUGHT FISH - COULD BE SUSTAINABLE FISHING
Gillnetting is a common fishing method used by commercial
fishermen of all the oceans and in some freshwater and estuary areas.
Because gillnets can be so effective their use is closely monitored and
regulated by fisheries management and enforcement agencies. Mesh size, twine
strength, bottom type (sand, mud, stone), water temperature, as well as net
length and depth are all closely regulated to reduce bycatch of non-target
species. Whereas seining contains fish within closed nets, gillnetting traps
fish as they swim into the mesh of the nets; the size of the mesh determines
which species of fish are caught since fish that are too big to squeeze
forward also cannot back out, as their gills get caught up in the net.
Most of the fisheries in Ontario, such as Lake Huron Whitefish and Lake
Trout, as well as Lake Erie Perch, Pickerel, and White Bass use gillnets
sustainably. Ocean Wise also recommends gillnet-caught wild salmon from
BC or Alaska as a sustainable choice.
The key with the sustainability of gillnetting lies in the management.
If all the factors of the nets listed above are carefully selected, and
the bycatch is part of an overall management plan where they are sold,
not wasted, and the by-catch are not endangered or threatened species, then
gillnetting is an effective sustainable method.
If not managed properly, gillnetting can result in significant bycatch
and can have a higher impact on marine ecosystems.
Fish farming involves raising fish commercially in tanks or enclosures.
The most commonly farmed types of fish are salmon, catfish, tilapia,
cod, carp, Arctic char and trout. In Canada, Canadian aquaculture
production is dominated by four main categories: salmon 66.7%; mussels
15.8%; oysters 8.7%; and trout 3.4%. In Ontario, Rainbow trout is the
main species farmed, comprising over 80% of Ontario fish farm revenue.
Farmed salmon is British Columbia’s and New Brunswick’s largest
agricultural export product. In the U.S., Catfish is the main farmed
species, making up 50% of the industry. Let’s face it - farmed fish have
developed a bad wrap in the last decade – and for good reasons. But, we
really need to wrap our heads around the problems of fish farming and
steer the industry to types of farming that solves those problems and
positively contributes to sustainable seafood. Realistically, eating a
farmed fish in many cases is a more sustainable choice than eating a
wild one. If we were to eliminate farmed fish, the result would be a
devastating over-fishing of our open waters. It has been predicted that
without aquaculture, the world will face a seafood shortage of 50-80
million tones by 2030.
Canada has the world’s longest coastline, the largest freshwater system,
and the largest tidal range, making aquaculture a very important part of
Canada’s agricultural future – if done right!
Open-net-cage fish farming was pioneered in Norway in the 1960s. Since
then, the industry has expanded to Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the U.S.,
and Chile, and is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations.
Open-net farming involves placing pens or cages made of nets in open
water. Since the water circulates freely in and around these net cages,
fish and shellfish are often cultivated in hatcheries where temperature
and other conditions can be controlled, and then raised to maturity in
these farms. Open-net-cage fish farming is a controversial practice that
has raised serious environmental concerns around the world, and was
brought to the spotlight in British Columbia, where the salmon farms of
the Broughton Archipelago threatened the wild pink salmon population.
Problems associated with open-net farming include:
- Diseases and parasites, such as sea lice, can be spread to wild fish
living or swimming near the open-net farms;
- Waste from the fish drops out of the pens and cages directly into the
water and can be a significant cause of habitat pollution;
- Drugs, including antibiotics, are used to keep farmed fish healthy;
- Escaped farmed fish (alien species) threaten native wild
Essentially, large open-net fish-farming operations use publicly owned
coastal waters to support what are essentially intensive private feedlot
operations that dump drug-laced sewage into the ocean. But there are
solutions, and we will discuss them below.
Closed-system farming, or raising fish in closed containers made of
aluminum, concrete, or fiberglass, which are located on land and filled
with recirculating water, may be more sustainable than using
conventional open nets. By separating the farmed fish from the
environment, inputs and outputs can be carefully controlled, including
eliminating the risk of farmed fish escaping and intermingling with wild
stocks. The David Suzuki Foundation believes that the fish farming
industry around the world, including those on Canada's Pacific and Atlantic
coasts, must move away from using net cages to using safe, fully
enclosed systems that trap wastes.
Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture
Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) is an innovative new form of
aquaculture in which the by-products or wastes from one species are
recycled to become inputs (fertilizers, food) for another. Fed
aquaculture (e.g. fish, shrimp) is combined with inorganic extractive
(e.g. seaweed) and organic extractive aquaculture (e.g. shellfish) to
create balanced systems for environmental sustainability, economic
stability and social acceptability. Ideally, the biological and chemical
processes in an IMTA system completely balance. This is achieved through the
appropriate selection and proportions of different species providing
different ecosystem functions. For example, an open cage filled with
salmon might be placed near lines of mussels and a crop of kelp seaweed.
The scientists have demonstrated that mussels and kelp then grow better,
and their experiments show that organic matter residues in the mussels
and kelp are always below regulatory limits. Farming these species
together helps to manage the effluent from the salmon farming, and helps
to save energy.
A BREAKDOWN OF THE PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH FISH FARMS AND POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS
- WHAT ORGANIC FISH FARMS SHOULD REPRESENT
As with the organic regulations governing the raising of meat and the
farming of fruits and vegetables, organic regulations for fish farms
around the world are a hodgepodge of rules and requirements. Most
organic certifying agencies - at least the larger and well-respected
ones – set out strict details for fish farms. But because there is no
world-recognized certifying body, it is essential to always ask detailed
questions to ensure the farmed fish you are about to buy addresses your
concerns – regardless of whether it is labeled organic or not. The
following is a list of problems associated with farmed fish, and the
solutions for each… to us, a fish is only “organic” if it addresses the
following problems accordingly:
(Further reading on organic regulations: 90% of the farmed
fish we sell in our store is certified by either (or both) the German
Naturland and the Swiss certifier
BioSuisse. We encourage you to click the links -
both organizations have their organic requirements specified online.)
Producing fish pellets to feed fish in fish farms requires
catching, and potentially depleting, "fish food" species. Further, fish
food may have high levels of contaminants, including persistent organic
pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides.
Developing plant-based food for farm fish would reduce the
need to capture "fish food" species. The vast majority of global
aquaculture production, about 85%, uses non-carnivorous fish species,
such as tilapia and catfish, produced in land-based ponds for domestic
markets. Ponds can and should be ecologically integrated into the
agricultural, industrial, and community fabric, meaning, for example,
that wastes become fertilizers rather than pollutants.
The heart of the problem stems from farming carnivorous fish such as
salmon or shark, that are fed pellets made from other fish. Currently,
about 31 million tons of forage fish are being taken from the oceans
every year, and more than 90 percent of that haul is ground up into meal
for farmed fish, pigs and poultry. Apart from the ecological and health
concerns associated with salmon farming (which we will discuss further
in the second part of Sustainable Seafood), farmed salmon actually
represent a net loss of protein in the global food supply as it takes
from two to five kilograms of wild fish to grow one kilogram of salmon.
Highly nutritious fish like herring, mackerel, sardines, and anchovy are
used to produce the feed for farmed salmon, which is essentially luxury
fare for the North American, European, and Japanese markets.
The organic farmed salmon farms The Healthy Butcher deals with use
exclusively fish by-products (such as organs, heads and tails) cut up and used for human
consumption. By using such
by-product, not only are these farms not depleting wild fish feed
species, but the biological capital - being the high grade amino acids
and long chain omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids - is conserved for use in
We have never been fans of USDA Organic labels when it comes to meat or
produce, and that dislike carries over to farmed fish.
On November 19, 2008, the U.S.D.A. National Organic Standards Board
approved criteria for farmed fish to be labeled “organic,” a move that
pleased aquaculture producers and angered environmentalists. At the
heart of the debates is the rule that allows organic fish farmers to use
wild fish as part of their feed mix provided it did not exceed 25% of
the total and did not come from forage species, such as menhaden, that
have declined sharply as the demand for farmed fish has skyrocketed.
This rule differs from the standard used for meat whereby 100% of the
feed must be organic. Critics argue that accepting a different standard
for farmed fish will essentially water-down organic principles, adding
that wild fish used for feed may carry toxins like PCBs.
Antibiotics are used because fish farms are too densely stocked
and become a necessity to prevent diseases such as sea lice. Pesticides
are fed to the fish to keep the nets free of algae. These drugs
and chemicals are passed onto humans causing antibiotic resistance and
Antibiotics and pesticides should be strictly
prohibited. Fish farms should be less populated causing less
stress on the fish. Sea lice can be controlled by stocking farms
with "cleaner fishes" such as Wrasse. Environmentally-friendly
methods of controlling algae growth can and have been employed with
Creating space for fish farms often destroys other ecosystems
and threatens biodiversity. Southeast Asians, for instance, have cleared
thousands of acres of marshes and mangrove forests that grew at the
water's edge. These forests, now replaced by shrimp farms, had served as
natural coastal barriers and homes to native fishing communities.
Closed-system farming does not suffer from this problem. For
Open-net farming, the solution lies in the careful selection of sites
for aquaculture farms. Fish farms should be placed in areas of high
tidal exchange to prevent accumulation of parasites and pollutants.
Further, sensitive ecological areas (like areas used by wild species for
spawning) should be avoided. The solution lies in a unified
government-enforced licensing system for properly selected farm
Densely stocked farms generate large quantities of polluting
wastes, just like other forms of intensive animal production. While
livestock raised on land produce waste that enters nearby lakes or
rivers indirectly, fish farms often release effluent from ponds or tanks
directly into nearby bays or rivers. The waste is mostly uneaten fish
feed and excrement high in nitrogen and phosphorous. This nutrient-rich
waste causes oxygen-depleting algae blooms, resulting in kill-off of
The number of fish in a farm space should be limited and
strictly enforced. Improving the design and management of aquaculture
facilities can reduce and prevent disease and avoid reliance on
antibiotics. Further, fish farms can incorporate settling ponds,
allowing the waste water to trap much sediment in the ground. Such ponds
also provide wetlands for songbirds, waterfowl and other fish. New
methods include integrating plants into the ponds, as well as other
species such as mussels, which can be grown under salmon cages and feed
on the droppings from above.
Farm fish can escape through breaks in the nets and wreak havoc
on local ecosystems by competing with natural wild fish for food and
reproduction. Farm fish are not bred for survival, so when farm fish
mate with native fish, this negatively affects the gene pool.
Closed-system farming does not suffer from this problem.
Open-nets can be designed to ensure minimal to zero escapees. There are
already examples of such designs in a couple of organic salmon farms
around the world (to be discussed in more detail in the next issue).
WHAT ABOUT MERCURY AND OTHER POLLUTANTS?
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is also released into
the air and water through industrial pollution from pulp and paper
processing, mining operations, coal-burning plants and garbage
incinerators. Mercury in fresh and marine waters is converted by
bacteria into methylmercury, which is easily absorbed by animals as they
feed and binds to fish protein. Methylmercury accumulates in fish tissue
and becomes concentrated in fish high on the food chain as well as
filter feeders such as clams, oysters, mussels, and other shellfish. The
larger and older the fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tuna and
tilefish), the more fish it has eaten, the more mercury it will have in
An excellent mercury calculator can be accessed online at:
http://www.gotmercury.org/. You will be surprised at the results… e.g.
6oz of canned Albacore tuna results in 130% of the EPA limit for a 150lb
person! Authorities state that mercury levels pose relatively little
risk to adults. However, during pregnancy, mercury can pass from a
mother’s bloodstream to a developing fetus. Small amounts can also pass
into breast milk. Further, exposure to significant amounts of mercury
early in life may cause learning problems because the brain is still
Sewage discharges, runoff, and other sources of water pollution also
expose fish, shrimp, and shellfish to countless toxins and
microorganisms, some of which linger inside the animal's tissues. Anyone
who eats such seafood is eating whatever toxins may be in it. Persistent
organic compounds such as dioxins, PCBs and arsenic present health
threats when consumed. For Ontario lakes and rivers, refer to the
2008 Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish
An annual spring event for me and “the boys” is to take a trip to the
Ganaraska River during the trout runs. We’ve always practiced
catch-and-release, after all, these trout are making their way from Lake
Ontario of all lakes and we’re always afraid of pulling up fish with
three eyes. Lake Ontario has a long way to go before it is clean – the
Rainbow Trout we generally catch (18-28”) are good for maximum 2
servings in a month! And ZERO for women of child-bearing age and
children under 15. Yuk!
There is no single seafood that is the "best" choice, but the most
sustainable wild seafood to eat is typically:
- Comprised of species whose biology is capable of withstanding fishing
pressure (i.e., fast growth rates, low age of maturity and high rate of
- Where the status of the stock is well understood; and
- Where the fishing methods do not adversely impact other species or
The best farmed seafood options are typically herbivorous (plant-eating)
animals grown in such a manner to minimize impacts to the surrounding
The following are the best choices of seafood:
(All fish in GREEN are generally available at The Healthy Butcher,
limited only by season)
- Farmed shellfish, such as mussels and oysters;
- Farmed Tilapia (from properly run fish farms);
- Farmed Catfish (from properly run fish farms);
- Sardines and herring;
- Lake Huron Lake Trout;
- Lake Huron Whitefish;
- Lake Erie Yellow Pickerel;
- Lake Erie Yellow Perch;
- Lake Erie White Bass;
- farmed from one of two fish farms (to be discussed next
- Salmon - wild from Alaska;
Farmed Rainbow Trout (from properly run fish farms).
Regal Springs Tilapia
“It is you and I, the consumers, who have put pressure on the economy
for plentiful cheap food. No chicken farmer wants a world with $5
birds, no one living near the sea thinks $3.99 per pound of salmon is
realistic. It is us who want this nearly free food. The biggest impact a
consumer can have in making positive change is to spend their money
after making an informed decision. Too many are talking about it and too
few go to their wallets with the same sentiments." - Michael Olson
THE LEADING ORGANIZATIONS PUSHING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD
- SeaChoice Canada was created by Sustainable Seafood Canada and is
comprised of the Ecology Action Centre, the Living Oceans Society, the
Sierra Club of Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and
the David Suzuki Foundation. SeaChoice has created a wallet card
that helps people make sustainable seafood choices. The card is
divided into three sections – “Best Choice,” “Some Concerns,” and
“Avoid” – with a list of corresponding species. We recommend this
card as the first place to start; of course, the next move is yours…
Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created
to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding
sustainable seafood. Ocean Wise works directly with restaurants and
markets, ensuring that they have the most current scientific
information regarding seafood and helping them make ocean-friendly
The Environmental Defense
Fund publishes a Pocket Seafood selector and many recipes for
- The Marine Stewardship Council is an international non-profit
organization that runs a certification and eco-labelling programme for
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – Contains excellent recipes from Canada’s Best Chefs:
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
A Good Catch – Sustainable Seafood Recipes from
Canada’s Top Chefs.
Toronto: Greystone, 2008.
Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal
Trade.” The New York Times. January 15, 2008.
"Fish farming." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 Dec 2008, 10:45 UTC.
5 Dec 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fish_farming&oldid=256018276
"Aquaculture." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Dec 2008, 23:20 UTC.
5 Dec 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aquaculture&oldid=255732912
"Sustainable seafood." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Dec 2008,
18:44 UTC. 5 Dec 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sustainable_seafood&oldid=255679299
Knight, Ivy. “One Fish, Two Fish.” Gremolata.com. 25 July 2008.
“New Report Says We Can Have Our Fish and Eat it Too.” 15 May 2008.
Georgia Strait Alliance. 5 Dec 2008. <http://www.georgiastrait.org/?q=node/755
Eilperin, Juliet and Black, Jane. “USDA Panel Approves First Rules For
Labeling Farmed Fish ‘Organic’.” 20 Nov. 2008. The Washington Post. 5
Riley, Nano. “Eating Responsibly: The Future of Seafood Farming”.
Winter/Spring 2009. Organica News. 12 Apr. 2008.