San Francisco Chronicle
Olivia Wu, Chronicle Staff Writer

Seafood – the must-have omega-3 source – that we buy and eat can make a difference in the health of the oceans. Exactly what fish we take from the oceans, how much and how it is caught impacts the interconnected chain of ocean life.

“We absolutely know we cannot take out of the ocean the same amount of life that we have in the past. We will lose most of these species,” said Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group. Increasingly high-volume and industrial fishing methods don’t give fish stocks a chance to replenish. Some fishing methods – for example, most long-line fishing – capture and kill other marine animals and birds, called bycatch. Other methods, such as trawling, can rake and ruin the ocean floor, destroying the habitat of many other species.

Fish farming also can be problematic. If not done in a closed system, waste and feed can contaminate the ocean waters or other water sources, or even smother the ocean floor. Catching small fish to feed the larger farmed fish can also alter the natural food chain, depriving the wild fish of their regular food supply. Disease that spreads among densely farmed fish can also infect and threaten wild populations.

Consumers know that the oceans are in trouble and want to do something about it, Reichert said. Seafood is the most direct way consumers connect to the life of the ocean. Conservation groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium encourage the consumption of sustainable seafood – meaning seafood caught in a way that doesn’t harm the ocean or deplete the supply.

But “sustainable seafood” has no legal definition. Regulations for what type of fish can be caught and sold vary from state to state and region to region. Environmental groups also may have different ideas about how to determine what is sustainable, which can result in conflicting suggestions.

Several nongovernmental agencies are working to define sustainability and eco-friendly fish consumption. The Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit certification group, has begun checking out various fisheries to determine whether the fishing stocks are healthy, if the fishing methods are eco-friendly and whether the anglers are making the smallest possible impact on the local ecology.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has made its Seafood Watch program one of the centerpieces of its program that focuses on the health of the oceans. Its list of green-, yellow- and red-coded seafood on wallet-size cards has guided consumers on what fish are in the go-ahead, eat-with-caution or avoid categories.

Paul Johnson, a seafood wholesaler in San Francisco and author of the just-released book “Fish Forever,” has given his own take of sustainable seafood. In the face of the confusion, “a consumer’s got to educate himself,” he said. Johnson suggests consulting guides such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch cards, the Seafood Choices Alliance Web site (, or his book.

A local organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, has started a Web site called Local and Seasonal Seafood Program ( that lists local fishermen by region. While the site is still is still in development, it will also specify farmers’ markets where fishermen sell their own catch, as well as the places where you can buy fish off the boats.

What can be tricky for consumers, Johnson said, is that all too often the seafood retailers don’t know whether or not the fish is actually sustainable.

Becoming educated about sustainable seafood begins by asking the right questions, which in itself educates everyone concerned, seafood conservationists say. If we don’t, they stress, the fish we love to eat will be no more.

“They’ll become commercially extinct,” Reichert said. Our choices “will irreversibly affect life in the sea.”

Six questions to ask the fishmonger, fisherman and yourself:

Here are six basic points to help you decide about the sustainability and freshness of seafood.

When was the fish caught?
When did it come in? The answers will reveal how long the fish was on the boat before it reached shore. The less time the better. The look (bright, iridescent color, clear eyes, bright red gills) and smell (ocean breeze) should also tell you when it was caught.

— Who caught it?
An independent, licensed fisherman or a large trawler? Small, family-owned fishing boats spend fewer days at sea, catch smaller amounts and may take better care handling the fish. Large boats that drag nets (called trawling) stay out for a long time and catch in large volume, potentially crushing and bruising the fish. This method can also kill other animals, called bycatch. Often, the bycatch is thrown overboard as waste.

How was it caught?
Hook and line, small net, long line or trawling? Hook and line, small nets (often “purse seine” nets), and take better care of the harvest. Most long lines snag bycatch. However, some long-line fisheries, such as the Alaskan halibut, do not have much bycatch.

— If farmed, where was it farmed? Buy farmed fish that are not carnivores (salmon and tuna) and buy from U.S. farms. Those from Asia and Latin America are often farmed in eco-damaging ways.

If shrimp, is it wild or farmed?
If farmed, is it U.S. raised or imported? Wild shrimp caught with little bycatch (using turtle-safe devices) are friendly to marine life. American boats are required by law to use turtle-safe devices. Farmed shrimp from Latin America and Asia generally are raised in open systems that harm coastal ecology. A few American companies raise shrimp in closed, land-based systems and do not discharge undiluted waste; some of these companies are based in Latin America. Still others are certified by agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council as eco-friendly. Read the labels.

Are you current on regulations?
Wild fish fluctuate in availability from season to season, depending on how scientists and regulatory agencies track their stocks. In California, for example, several fisheries – including chile pepper rockfish, black rockfish, blue rockfish, and lingcod – have been rebuilt and been declared commercially harvestable. If they are caught by hook and line, they are sustainable.

For the latest information, look up the most recent version of Seafood Watch card at Or log on to Seafood Choices Alliance at

– Olivia Wu [email protected]

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