Fri, November 02, 2018   |    Download PDF of this article

Seafood is a nutritious and environmentally efficient protein that can complement almost any operation’s sustainability platform. Americans eat most of their seafood away from home, which offers opportunities for culinary professionals to provide diners with delicious menu choices highlighting fish and seafood, with a focus on sustainably sourced and underutilized species.

The sustainable seafood movement has been working for two decades to lessen the environmental impacts of the way these products are harvested from fisheries, or produced in aquaculture. This movement has worked to lessen the impacts from fisheries including ensuring that we don’t catch more than is biologically appropriate (overfishing), catch other species than what is targeted (bycatch), have excessive habitat damage, or support fisheries where illegal, unreported, or unregulated catches occur. In aquaculture, the emphasis has been on minimizing the nutrients that are added to the environment, being efficient in the use of resources for feed, minimizing and eliminating the use of antibiotics, and ensuring that more animals are not farmed in an area than is biologically appropriate. Chefs have been involved in this movement by advocating for the use of lesser utilized species, and by creating linkages from the boats and the farms to the plates. For all of the work over the last two decades, it is important to understand that there is still a great deal of advancement that remains to be accomplished. Issues such as the use of slave and indentured labor still remain problematic in this industry, and new initiatives continue to be developed.

From a health standpoint, current dietary recommendations are that we should eat two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week. In other words, this means we should eat 26 pounds of seafood per person per year, and yet Americans average only 14.9 pounds per person per year. However, the U.S. only produces 9.4 pounds of seafood per person per year (adjusted for waste), and since we cannot produce enough seafood for our own citizens, we are reliant on imports.

Consumers and culinary professionals alike also rely on imports not only because of supply but because of long-standing dining preferences. Shrimp continues to be the most consumed seafood item, averaging 4.1 pounds per person, with salmon, canned tuna, and tilapia in second through fourth place, averaging 2.2, 2.0, and 1.2 pounds per person respectively.

Relying on imports has its benefits and risks. The benefits are that the economic and environmental burden of many species is lower outside of the U.S., and this is prudent from a cost and sustainability perspective. The risk is that sourcing product from so many countries makes it challenging to ensure management and environmental ethics are maintained. This is why independent third-party certifications have been instrumental in creating strategic sourcing plans. However, certifications are not a one-approach-fits-all solution. For example, nutritional guidance and the total amount of energy used for production are lacking from certifications. Therefore, creative culinary establishments can use extant certifications to create a base platform, but then differentiate themselves by adding layers to push the bounds for nutrition and sustainability.

As is true for the push towards a more plantforward diet in the terrestrial areas, the same should be true of the seafood sector. There are many nutritious plants (seaweeds and algae), and filter feeders (oysters, mussels, and clams) that rank high from a sustainability standpoint. Any institution with any type of sustainable seafood program should increase the offerings of plants from the sea along with shellfish.

One of the greatest nutritional benefits of eating seafood is the high levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that are healthy for both the heart and the brain. As aquaculture diets substitute plants for fish meal and oil (a positive step in terms of sustainability), there are some concerns that the nutritional benefit will drop. Although this is happening to some extent, salmon still remains the best source of omega- 3s. In addition, herring, mackerel, and sardines are excellent sources and should have a greater presence on restaurant menus.

Acknowledgement is growing that sustainability in seafood incorporates more than just good management. Ultimately, the drive toward more sustainable seafood is a journey that cannot be achieved in a single step. It is imperative that communication of a sustainable seafood program not be defined by adherence to a sourcing strategy. Adhering to a specific sourcing strategy does not equate to 100 percent sustainability, even if the sourcing strategy is defined around solid sustainability guideposts. The best case for restaurateurs is to be open and transparent about your sustainability goals, and to communicate how you will meet the goals.


Many of the problems in the seafood industry come from a lack of traceability. Thus, the quest for fully traceable seafood from boat or farm to plate remains a high priority. The U.S. is mandating the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) beginning in 2018. This is a risk-based approach where key data for traceability will be reported for 12 species. SIMP is attempting to force the collection of vessel information in an effort to curb Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing runs counter to good management, and it also harbors the use of unregistered and forced labor. SIMP is not a labeling program, but it will make it easier for culinary establishments to create boat to plate messaging, while eliminating IUU fishing from U.S. restaurant supply chains for some of the most common types of fish and seafood.

One reason the U.S. has been able to rebuild the fish stocks that have been overfished is because of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a 1976 law that sets quotas as a way to rebuild overfished stocks. However, there has been recent political pressure to extend fishing seasons, and to give regions more control over their fisheries. The U.S. Commerce Department extended the red snapper (a species that has been overfished) season this year in the Gulf of Mexico. The senate voted to overhaul the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and conservation organizations are concerned change could negate the past three decades of work to rebuild U.S. fish stocks.

For all of the progress that the seafood industry makes, it is plagued by individual cases of bad decision-making that shine poorly on the rest of the industry. Cooke Aquaculture let old salmon cages break apart and release 300,000 fish off Washington State; a Starkist Tuna cannery in Samoa violated the Clean Water Act for spilling wastewater into Pago Pago Harbor; Carlos Rafael of New Bedford, MA was indicted on 28 counts, including falsifying fishing quotas, false labeling, conspiracy, and tax evasion; and finally, 17 right whales died this year out of a population of less than 500. While not all deaths were related to fishing, a significant number were, and this exemplifies the ongoing challenge for fisheries to achieve greater sustainability.

Seafood represents a dichotomy in that there is the scientific advice that Americans need to eat more fish and seafood because they are among the healthiest animal proteins, but usually purchase only the handful of varieties they know, which might come from unsustainable practices and/or be greatly overfished. Chefs have a large role to play in helping the general public expand their knowledge. This starts by chefs offering affordable options as well as diversifying their fish and seafood offerings by focusing on the most sustainable varieties they can find. This requires research and recipe development that they should consider an investment in the future of their menus, to be able to continue offering fish and seafood 10 or 20 years down the road. Then, they need to explain to their customers how a particular variety relates to something they know, whether it is in texture or in optimum mode of preparation, to take away the fear of ordering or purchasing something new. In foodservice operations, the service staff can provide that information, and in grocery stores, a small placard can provide cooking tips.


Americans eat most of their fish and seafood away from home but only eat half as much as they should. Making responsible choices is difficult, although recent federal action will help reduce illegal fishing. The restaurant industry can play a lead role in helping Americans eat more fish and do so responsibly, but there’s much work ahead and new approaches are needed.


  • Know and trust your supplier. You can be confident the product you purchase meets your sustainability and traceability requirements.
  • Be engaged. Ask questions of your suppliers, and comment while certification organizations are revising their standards.
  • Americans eat most of their fish and seafood away from home but only eat half as much as they should. Making responsible choices is difficult, although recent federal action will help reduce illegal fishing. The restaurant industry can play a lead role in helping Americans eat more fish and do so responsibly, but there’s much work ahead and new approaches are needed.