Can It Be Sustainable to Eat Fish?

In the United States, science-based management works to balance needs for food, human wellbeing and ecosystem health

As the importance of environmental sustainability becomes more understood and accepted, many people are beginning to look more critically at their own daily choices—whether it’s skipping single-use plastics, reducing personal water and power usage, or reevaluating their diet. These daily choices are small individually but can make a big difference when we all act together. They are even more powerful when they are paired with larger policy and systematic changes, like the solutions that we at Ocean Conservancy advocate for on many ocean issues.

Sustainability is a big concept, encompassing considerations for every aspect of our lives, from the energy efficiency of the buildings we inhabit to the source of materials in the clothes we wear. But when it comes to fishing, sustainability at its most basic level means managing so that fish populations are healthy and can support fisheries and fishing communities now and in the future. Sustainability has three main aspects: environmental, social and economic, the so-called “triple bottom line.” For that reason, sustainable fisheries also limit impacts on the environment by minimizing effects on ocean habitats, fostering safe, fair working conditions and social well-being for those in the fishing industry, and supporting Indigenous cultures and coastal livelihoods and economies.

So how can you ensure that the fish on your dinner plate is sustainable? If you live in the United States, one good option is to shop locally for wild-caught American seafood. The United States has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world and uses strong, science-based measures that are meant to meet social, economic and environmental objectives. As a result, wild-caught American seafood tends to be a good option for sustainability.

Fisheries in the U.S. federal ocean waters are governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the landmark law that establishes long-term fishery management as a primary goal. Over the past four decades, we’ve made real progress toward ending overfishing in U.S. waters and rebuilding fish populations. These achievements are thanks both to this visionary law and to the hard work and cooperation of fishermen, managers and scientists across our coasts. This system works well, but there is more work to be done. Some fish are still at population levels that are too low, and there is a need for more equitable inclusion of Tribes and traditional knowledge as well as a focus on the health and well-being of fishing communities. In addition, our ocean ecosystems are facing increased impacts from climate change that necessitate changes to how we manage fisheries. Our approach is to keep making progress with our partners to ensure healthy, abundant fisheries for future generations.

No matter where you get your seafood, do your best to answer these questions: Where does it come from? How is it caught? Is the fishery considered sustainable? If it isn’t sustainable, are there good alternatives out there? Does the fishery have issues with human rights abuses, slavery and illegal fishing? Asking these questions and becoming more informed are great first steps, but it can still be tough to figure out what’s sustainable. Luckily, there are resources out there to help consumers find sustainable options. For environmental sustainability, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a great resource in determining what is considered sustainable. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch also offers background on domestic fish species and how they are managed. Fish and seafood products from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are also a good bet. And as with any type of food, buying local and direct from fishermen is always the best way to know exactly how your fish was caught and support local economies and thriving coastal communities.

Interested in learning more about supporting sustainable seafood and the management system that has enabled sustainable fishing in the United States? Read our blog on how to support sustainable fisheries and check out our introduction to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Supporting Fish & Fishermen.

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