By Lana Gunnlaugson
Last week, the David Suzuki Foundation released Suzuki's Top 10 Sustainable Seafood Picks, a simple guide that helps consumers make informed choices when choosing seafood. Since posting the guide, our office has been flooded with questions and feedback from Canadians across the country. It's so encouraging to see how many people are interested in using their consumer power to support seafood choices that are healthier for our oceans.
With all those great inquiries, we thought it would be helpful to share some common questions and their answers.
How do I choose sustainable seafood when seafood labels and retailers don't give me the information I need?
Many people were concerned about seafood labels and the fact that retailers are not giving customers enough information about where their seafood comes from or how it is caught. This is a common challenge for consumers who are trying to make better choices for our oceans.
Our advice to Canadians is to choose retailers who can provide, or at least try to find, this information. Even if your retailer can't answer your questions right away, it's important to keep asking. Businesses ultimately want their customers to be happy, so with time and enough inquiries you might just start getting your questions answered. You can also encourage your retailer to get involved with programs like SeaChoice that work to improve the transparency of seafood sources for consumers.
Why are there no freshwater fish?
Although we tried to offer a variety of best choice or green options on our seafood list, unfortunately not all of these species are available to all Canadians. For example, people living in Central Canada often have better access to freshwater species and so we received questions about which of these fish are sustainable to eat.
Seafood analysts at SeaChoice are currently working on assessments of freshwater species like walleye (pickerel) and white fish. At this time we don't have any completed assessments for the public. Stay tuned though! Soon we'll be able to offer more suggestions on best choices for freshwater fish.
Is this seafood healthy for me to eat?
Canadians care about healthy oceans, but considering the health of our families is also important. Many people wanted to know more about how healthy it is to eat the fish featured on our top 10 list.
Seafood can definitely be part of a healthy diet. With great benefits like high iron, protein and healthy fats like omega-3s, medical professionals give many of these species a thumbs-up. However, it's important to remember that that our guide recommends a variety of seafood options that are best choices for healthy oceans. It is not a list of the healthiest fish. As some people have pointed out, a few of the larger species on this list like swordfish and albacore tuna do have some health concerns around mercury content and PCBs. These concerns are important and should be taken into consideration, especially for women and children. To learn more about the recommended safe consumption of these species, visit the Environmental Defense Fund website.
Another question that came up was whether closed containment farmed salmon is healthier than open net farmed salmon. While we still have concerns with the use of chemicals and antibiotics in salmon farming, closed containment farms often operate with significantly reduced need for these chemicals because they can control the environment in which the fish are grown. To learn more about the health risks involved with open net pen farmed salmon, check out this brochure.
Are there more sustainable seafood options closer to where I live?
Many of you noted that a lot of the seafood on our top 10 list comes from Pacific fisheries and often isn't available in the east coast (and if it is, it comes with a heavier carbon footprint).
When choosing the 10 species, we aimed to feature a variety of seafood that would be available to all regions of Canada. Oysters, clams and swordfish are all harvested by Atlantic fisheries, but unfortunately many of the eastern fisheries like sardines (Atlantic herring) are not as sustainable as they are on the west coast. This is usually a result of the health of the fish stock, bycatch concerns, habitat impacts, or management not being as effective. In saying this, there are many options also available on the east coast and we encourage you to look at SeaChoice's complete best choice list when looking for fisheries in your region.
What if my favourite fish was left off the list?
If your favourite seafood was left off our top 10 picks it doesn't necessarily mean that it's not a good choice. There are many other ocean friendly options like trap-caught shrimp in the Atlantic, farmed mussels and farmed scallops. Visit SeaChoice to find out how your favourite seafood ranks. You can also learn more about the species you should avoid and why.
Can you just tell me where to shop or what brand to look for?
These days there are so many things for consumers to consider. Is my food local, organic, fairly traded and sustainable? We would love to do the work for you by simply recommending a list of brands and retailers that take all these issues into consideration, but this just isn't possible.
Consumers who want to make ocean friendly choices need to take a couple of minutes to ask where their seafood comes from and how it was farmed or harvested. Some companies are starting to do a better job of labelling their seafood like RainCoast Trading or our SeaChoice business partner Overwaitea Food Group, but we still have work to do when it comes to better seafood labelling.
Shouldn't we just choose a meat-free diet?
Many of you were concerned that eating seafood at all isn't sustainable for our oceans. Although meat-free diets are definitely an important part of the solution, we understand that many Canadians want to include seafood in their diets. For those people, the top 10 list and the SeaChoice seafood guide are tools that help empower Canadians to make choices that cause the least harm to our oceans.
Our top seafood picks are ones that are managed in ways that limit the amount caught and entail a high degree of monitoring to ensure the limits are kept. That said, it's still important for everyone to consider how much fish they're consuming and to eat seafood in moderation so that future generations can enjoy it too.
What is closed containment farmed salmon doing on your list?
After years of hearing why farmed salmon is an unsustainable seafood choice, many Canadians were surprised to find closed containment farmed salmon on our top 10 list.
This salmon, from one farm in Washington State, made the list because it passed the ranking assessment with a very green result. The David Suzuki Foundation sees closed containment technology as an important step towards addressing many of the salmon farming issues that result from open net pen farming in British Columbia. Although not the perfect solution, this innovative technology has the potential to create a strong market incentive to reduce the amount of the more environmentally harmful open net pen farming in Canada. Canadians should note that this technology is only beginning to show up on the west coast and that we still have to be careful to not confuse closed containment technology with open net pen farms.
Many raised feed as an ongoing problem with farmed salmon. While this issue (feeding fish to grow a fish) is still a major concern for us globally, this one farm has also made significant improvements in that area. Under the assessment category The Use of Marine Resources, closed containment salmon is ranked "of some concern." All of the other criteria, however, are ranked green based on our methodology, which is why the overall assessment results in a "best choice".
Lana works on the Marine & Freshwater Conservation team at the David Suzuki Foundation.