What’s the catch? Choosing sustainable seafood

aweigl@newsobserver.comAugust 13, 2013 

  • What’s the catch? Here are definitions of the various fishing methods and their impact on the sea floor and other animals:

    •  Hook and line: A low-impact method that does not damage ocean floor and allows fishermen to throw back unwanted species, usually without causing any damage.

    •  Pots and traps: Intelligently designed pots and traps that allow young fish to escape. Fishermen can set the traps without damaging the sea floor.

    •  Midwater trawlers: These boats drag nets below the surface that can unintentionally capture forage fish, sea turtles, birds and marine mammals. However, there are ways to set these nets to minimize damage to sea birds and marine mammals. These nets do not damage the sea floor.

    •  Longlines: This method involves fishing lines that are often miles long with thousands of hooks. Sea turtles and birds can get caught in the lines and die as a result. Newer designs called circle hooks can reduce sea turtle deaths by 90 percent.

    •  Bottom trawlers: This method is often compared to clear cutting a forest because these large nets are dragged across the ocean floor, killing coral, forage fish, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.

    For a more complete list of methods and the issues surrounding them, go to goo.gl/32tgFc.

    Source: Natural Resources Defense Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment and Earth Sciences.

  • Is this seafood a sustainable choice? Here are some websites to learn about what kinds of seafood are more sustainable choices for consumers.

    Blue Ocean Institute offers a list of sustainable seafood choices with red, yellow and green icons and descriptions about how the fish should be caught to be sustainable. blueocean.org

    Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector rates seafood varieties as best, OK or worst options and offers comparisons within species, based on where and how they are caught. seafood.edf.org

    Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch offers a search tool that tells which types of seafood to avoid and identifies where and how various types of seafood are caught. It also offers a downloadable app called Seafood Watch for iPhone and Android phones. montereybayaquarium.org

  • Want to learn more?

    Natural Resources Defense Council has helpful information about fishing methods and how to shop for seafood. It offers an excellent guide to what you need to know about the five most popular seafood items in the U.S.: shrimp, tuna, salmon, pollock and tilapia. nrdc.org/oceans/seafoodguide/ Duke University Nicholas School for the Environment and Earth Sciences also offers a good sustainable seafood primer. goo.gl/rCY2Xo

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

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