In partnership withMarine Stewardship Council

Can You Eat Fish and Still Care About the Planet? We Talked to an Expert to Find Out.

published Feb 19, 2020
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Credit: Marine Stewardship Council

John B. Thomas John is a Senior Associate at CEA Consulting where he advises foundation, non-profit, and corporate clients on a range of sustainability issues. Most of his work focuses on marine conservation, including advising on sustainable seafood.

As someone who works on environmental policy issues for a living, I’m often asked by my friends and family what they can do that’s “better” for the planet. Drive an electric vehicle? Buy a reusable coffee mug? Bike to work? Eat veggie burgers? Recycle?

Most of the time, I don’t have a satisfactory answer; the answers I have aren’t always that straightforward, helpful, or even desired. If you care about climate change, eating more plants is great, but we also need a comprehensive and aggressive federal climate policy. If you care about plastic pollution, reusable mugs can cut down on single-use plastic, but they need to be used for a long time (several years) to make up for the energy used to make them.

One area that I have no reservations about, however, is seafood. It’s delicious; it’s a great source of micronutrients and omega-3s; and if you know how to shop for it, it can indeed be an environmentally responsible choice for dinner.

Make no mistake: The ocean is in dire need of protection. Overfishing, climate change, and pollution are major threats to the ocean and its ability to sustain human life.

The good news is that there are organizations working to turn those threats around — and you can help by voting with your dollars and choosing sustainable seafood at the grocery store. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international nonprofit organization that has developed a science-based standard for environmentally sustainable fishing. If a wild-capture fishery meets those standards, its seafood products can be packaged with the MSC blue fish label. 

Credit: Marine Stewardship Council

Currently, more than 350 fisheries around the world are engaged in the MSC certification program, and almost 15 percent of all global catch is now certified to MSC standards.  There are more than 1,800 everyday products with the MSC blue fish label in U.S. stores — fresh fish, obviously, but also canned fish, fish oil supplements, and even pet food! Taking the simple step to look for the MSC blue fish label before you buy helps promote sustainability from ocean to dish.

What is “sustainability,” even?

As conversations with friends and family have shown me, “sustainability” is a difficult word to define, and can mean different things to different people. So what does it actually mean for seafood to be “sustainable,” according to MSC?

MSC focuses on three main criteria to determine if seafood is sustainable: how healthy are the fish populations in the area where they’re fished; what impact does the fishing have on the ecosystem (does it avoid harming other marine life like dolphins or sharks?); and if the fish comes from an effectively managed area.

Credit: Marine Stewardship Council

For a fishery to be certified as “sustainable,” it must get an independent, scientific assessment of the health of the fish population it harvests. It must also catch its fish in ways that minimize impacts on the surrounding marine environment and not harm other marine life like dolphins, sharks, and other threatened species.

To get the certification, the seafood must be caught legally and in a way that will sustain the resources long into the future. Illegal fishing and seafood fraud are rampant issues in the fishing industry, with a recent study by the advocacy group Oceana pointing out that one in five seafood samples they tested were mislabeled. Fish carrying the MSC blue fish logo has a mislabeling rate of less than 1% — 0.09% to be exact — as verified through DNA testing by an independent research study.  

To put it simply

Independent academics agree that MSC is a credible environmental standard that does what it says it does, and accurately reports information about sustainable fish resources to consumers. Fisheries that are awarded the MSC blue fish label are audited annually to ensure they remain compliant with this standard.

As I’ve come to appreciate all too well, environmental success stories are rarely that simple. But by buying MSC-certified seafood with the blue fish label, shoppers can be part of the solution to one of the most pressing challenges facing the ocean.