Making the right seafood choices

My wife and I dine out more often during the summer, especially when we’re on vacation. And for some reason, we favor the seafood part of the menu during warmer weather. And with that choice comes the uncertainty of knowing what meal to select. Many types of seafood are overfished, and our meal choices can compound the problem.

Conservation publications publish stories about these concerns, but it’s difficult to remember the recommendations while watching others’ delicious dishes emerge from the kitchen. Still, the more we learn about problems facing oceans and some species of fish and shellfish, the more we wonder what’s okay to eat.

A primary objective of the Blue Ocean Institute is to “enhance the current, scientifically sound, and accessible information that helps consumers make wiser decisions about seafood.” It studies and explains how the ocean is changing and how everything humans do affects the waters, wildlife, and people of the world. The Blue Ocean Institute translates scientific information into language people can understand and use to make better choices on behalf of the sea.

One terrific example is its “Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood.” Free upon request via the website (, the guide evaluates and ranks the sustainability of 35 types of fish and shellfish in five categories: life history, abundance, habitat, management, and bycatch. Color-coded rankings reflect recommendations from green (few problems exist, okay to eat) to yellow (some problems exist, use your conscience) to red (major problems exist, better to avoid).

For example, pole- and troll-caught mahimahi gets the green light because they grow fast, live short lives, and can withstand intense fishing pressure. Pacific halibut also gets the OK despite its slow growth and long life. Responsible management has maintained healthy populations.

Atlantic halibut, on the other hand, get a red light. Its population has not yet recovered from overfishing in the 1980s. Other red light species to avoid include Atlantic bluefin tuna, groupers, and orange roughy.

Tilapia is another eco-friendly fish. Though not native to the U.S., it is farmed in closed freshwater systems with minimal environmental impact. The same goes for farmed catfish as long as they are raised in ponds, and there’s no chance of escape.

Wild clams are typically well-managed and deserve a green rating. Farmed mussels and oysters grown in bags, nets, or cages are also ocean-friendly alternatives. And lobsters, dungeness, king and stone crabs rate a green light. Traps used to capture these larger crustaceans take few nontarget species.

Bottom dredges and trawls used to harvest sea scallops damage habitat, and the unintended catch can include sea turtles. Similarly, bottom-dwelling Atlantic flounder remain depleted in many areas from overfishing, though stronger regulations are helping them rebound.

My favorite fish is swordfish, and shortly after I ate my first steak about 10 years ago I learned they were seriously overfished. I haven’t had a swordfish steak since. Today their population is healthy in the north Pacific, and even north Atlantic populations are responding to stronger harvest regulations. Unfortunately swordfish also are flagged as containing levels of mercury or PCBs that may pose a health risk to humans.

Finally, recommendations for shrimp consumption vary depending on the source of the shrimp. Farm-raised U.S. shrimp are OK because discharge water from shrimp farms can be treated to minimize pollution. Trawlers used to catch wild shrimp both here and abroad damage the ocean floor and kill countless invertebrates, fish, and sea turtles. And coastal shrimp farms in other parts of the world pollute the water around the farm.

For your own Seafood Guide that folds accordion style and fits in a wallet, simply request it from the Blue Ocean Institute website. Then when you’re in a grocery store or restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask the clerks and waiters the source of the seafood. Only by hearing from customers will businesses learn that people care about the health of the fish they eat.

Note to readers: I recently began a blog at I keep entries brief and try to add links to interesting websites and information that supplements my column. Feel free to stop by often.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by e-mail via my Web site,

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