Summer Cooking: Does buying sustainable seafood really make a difference?

(Recipe included)

By Laura El Alam

May 27, 2020

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love the ocean. Humans have always been drawn to the power and beauty of the majestic waters that take up 71% of the Earth’s surface. Every day tourists flock to sandy beaches, mighty ships sail on the currents, and sports enthusiasts surf, swim, fish, ski, and snorkel in the waves.

As immense and wondrous as they are, our oceans are not invulnerable. Pollution -- including plastic waste, synthetic microfibers, agricultural nutrients, trash, oil spills, and noise made by commercial and military operations -- has taken a terrible toll on the oceans. “Dead zones,” or areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animal life cannot survive, are appearing at an alarming rate. The plants and creatures that live in the seas are dying in great numbers because of human carelessness and shortsightedness.

If we truly love the oceans, what can we do to help preserve them? One step we can take is to insist on sustainable seafood.

Fish and crustaceans can be a healthy, delicious ingredient in our meals. They are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals and generally low in calories and fat. A large proportion of the fat in seafood is polyunsaturated and contains healthy Omega-3 fatty acids that are required for human development. So, by cooking with sustainable seafood , we are boosting our own health as well as the oceans’.

Does it really matter so much which fish we pick up at the supermarket, or which restaurant we choose to order seafood from?

Yes, it does! When not ethically operated and carefully managed, the fishing industry can pose serious problems to the health of the oceans, such as:

  • Overfishing: the practice of catching fish faster than they can reproduce.
  • Bycatch: the fish, seafood, turtles, birds and other animals that are unintentionally caught by wide-sweeping fishing mechanisms. Seafood Watch estimates that up to 6 pounds of other species are discarded for every 1 pound of shrimp caught!
  • Habitat destruction -- such as damage to the ocean floors -- is caused by fishing gear like bottom trawls that comb the bottom of the sea, dragging away everything in their path.
  • Illegal fishing: when fisheries flout the laws put in place to protect sea life.

Consumers can make a significant difference to the health of the oceans by deliberately choosing sustainable seafood. According to the Oceanic Society, "When done correctly, sustainable seafood sourcing prevents overfishing, minimizes incidental impacts to other ocean wildlife and habitats, identifies and protects essential fish habitats, and takes into account the social and economic impacts on the communities from which the seafood is sourced."

How do we know which seafood is sustainable? When we’re out shopping or choosing a seafood restaurant, how can we make ethical choices?

Making informed decisions about seafood is easier than ever thanks to technology and an increased overall awareness of the importance of sustainability.

  • When you're at the grocery store, look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo right on the seafood product packaging. While other third party certifications exist, the MSC is the most trusted and reliable certification in the industry.
  • The Seafood Watch app by the Monterey Bay Aquarium gives recommendations for ocean-friendly seafood.
  • Ocean Wise lets you check if the fish you’re going to buy is sustainable.
  • The Good Fish Guide by the Marine Conservation Society is an app that explains which fish choices are good or bad, based on whether they come from well-managed, sustainable stocks or farms.
  • has an online Sustainable Seafood Restaurant Finder Map.

There are many recipes online that demonstrate how to cook with sustainable seafood. Below is one example from Fine Cooking.

Pan-seared Arctic Char with Olives and Potatoes

Looking for a fish you can feel good about eating? Arctic char is a fast-reproducing fish that is a good, sustainable alternative to Atlantic salmon, which it resembles in flavor and texture.


  • 4 small red potatoes (about 3/4 lb.), sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 skin-on arctic char fillets (about 5 oz. each), scaled
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, each about 3 inches long
  • 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 3 Tbs. roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
  • 4 lemon wedges


  • In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring the potatoes to a boil in enough salted water to cover them by 1 inch. Reduce the heat to a brisk simmer and cook until tender but not falling apart, about 5 minutes. Drain. Set aside.
  • Pat the fish dry and season with 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Heat 1-1/2 Tbs. of the olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering hot. Arrange the fish skin side down in the pan so the fillets fit without touching. Cook undisturbed for 3 minutes. Flip the fillets and cook until the fish is cooked through, an additional 2 to 3 minutes. With a slotted spatula, transfer the fish to a serving platter or plates.
  • Add the remaining 1-1/2 Tbs. oil to the pan and heat until shimmering. Add the potatoes and rosemary and cook, flipping occasionally, until the potatoes are tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the olives, parsley, balsamic, and a pinch of salt and pepper and stir gently to heat. Arrange the potato mixture around the fish. Serve garnished with the lemon wedges.


- Wild Seafood: Bycatch, Ocean Issues, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. 2020.
- “What is Sustainable Seafood and How do I Choose it? Your Top Questions Answered” by Lindsay Mosher, Oceanic Society. 2014.
- “Pan-seared Arctic Char with Olives and Potatoes” by Jay Weinstein, Fine Cooking Issue 101.