Gillnets. Bycatch. Longlines. Bottom trawlers. Dredge.
Those words can make anyone’s head spin when trying to become a well-educated seafood consumer. To better navigate what can be confusing waters, we’re offering a quick guide on what you need to know in order to ask your fishmonger, waiter, even chef at a favorite restaurant about the sustainability of the seafood they’re selling.
Chefs and restaurant managers should be expecting these questions. Sustainable seafood and local seafood were among this year’s top 10 culinary trends cited by chefs in a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association. And more consumers are asking questions about where and how their seafood was caught or raised.
“We as consumers have so much power,” said chef Ben Sargent, host of “Hook, Line & Dinner” on the Cooking Channel and author of a new cookbook, “The Catch.” “If you walk into a restaurant and say, ‘You shouldn’t have that fish on the menu,’ that’s our right.”
Eighty-six percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported from other countries, about half of which is wild caught. Imported seafood creates increased competition for U.S. fishermen, who already feel beleaguered by regulations and efforts by environmental groups and recreational fishermen to limit their catch. Several websites, including the Blue Ocean Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund, share information about the issues surrounding imported versus U.S.-caught seafood and which may be a more sustainable choice.
Is it local?
Consider seeking out North Carolina seafood at grocery stores and fish mongers. When choosing local seafood, the first thing to understand is that seafood has a season. Like strawberries only being available locally from late April to early June, certain seafood is only caught off the North Carolina coast at certain times of year.
Most people know that oysters are harvested in colder months, but they may not realize that shrimp is only caught here from July to November, scallops in February and March and mahi-mahi in June and July.
To help consumers, N.C. Sea Grant offers a seasonal seafood chart at goo.gl/cwFWUI.
How was it caught?
Then there are the various methods for catching seafood, some better than others in terms of how they affect other sea life and the ocean’s ecosystem. Simple hook and line, either on poles or trolling, and various pots and traps are considered ideal methods with minimal bycatch, or the catching of unintended fish, birds or marine mammals.
Bottom trawlers, which drag nets across the ocean floor, are considered the worst. They are often compared to clear-cutting a forest, and they capture and can kill a lot more than the targeted fish, including sea turtles, coral, dolphins and whales.
How was it raised?
Another question along these lines relates to aquaculture: how was the fish raised? Almost half of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is raised on farms. The sustainability of those operations depends upon the species, the methods and the farm’s location. Such operations can limit habitat damage, disease, the introduction of non-native fish and wild fish being consumed as feed.
We offer a basic guide to the various wild-caught methods and resources to learn more about wild-caught and farmed fish.
Is this sustainable?
Consumers also need to know if what they are buying or ordering is being overfished. Luckily, there are a number of websites that rank seafood based on its current population and how sustainable are the methods being used to catch it. The well-known Monterey Bay Aquarium even offers a Seafood Watch app for iPhone and Android phones.
Some seafood is verified as being from sustainably managed sources by such groups as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Look for their labels when buying packaged seafood at the grocery store.
Weigl: 919-829-4848, or on Twitter, @andreaweigl