The Conscientious Omnivore: From the Sea

Fish, seafood and shellfish are an excellent source of protein, and a common food choice for those on the border of vegetarianism.  But making “good” seafood (fish and shellfish) choices is perhaps one of the most complicated tasks for us Conscientious Omnivores, with even more factors to consider than with the beef, poultry or egg industry.   Most folks assume it’s as simple as Wild Caught = Good Choice, but we believe that is a dangerously simplistic view to take, and could prove detrimental to a variety of factors- the delicate marine ecosystem, the population of sea creatures, and your health, to name a few. So let’s explore some of the issues related to making seafood choices.


Our love for fish is, in fact, wiping them out. World consumption of fish products have more than tripled since the 1960’s; we eat more than 100 million tons of “seafood” a year.(1) According to a Food and Agriculture Organization estimate, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.  A May 2010 Nature magazine issue reveals that we have only 10% of all large fish— including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skates and flounder—left in the sea. Most strikingly, the study shows that industrial fishing takes only ten to fifteen years to decimate any newly-discovered fish population to one tenth of what it was originally.

To put it another way, our grandparents probably ate a lot of Atlantic halibut, but we no longer see Atlantic halibut in our grocery stores, because they’ve been over-fished to the point of collapse (along with other Atlantic flatfish like flounder).  And while you’ll still see Chilean sea bass (Patagonia toothfish) in every Whole Foods and restaurant menu, they are being over-fished at such an alarming rate that governments around the world are regulating their harvesting… to the point that criminal organizations are trading them on the black market like drugs.(2) What we choose to consume can greatly impact the marine ecosystem in this supply-and-demand market, and in the case of these exploited populations, wild-caught is certainly not a good choice.

The Marine Ecosystem


In the process of producing food, economic resources, employment, livelihood and recreation, fisheries have the potential to modify ecosystems.  In the case of over-fishing, commercial fishing operations alter or affect the target resource population.  However, all commercial fishing operations have the potential to affect  species associated with or dependent on the fish in question, such as predators or prey.  In addition, the ecosystem in which the fishery operates, and habitats in which fishing occurs, are all negatively impacted.(3)

Trawling (bottom-dragging) is the worst offender, and is often described as “fishing with bulldozers”. When fishing trawlers drag nets and gear across the ocean bottom of the ocean, they trap or kill most of the fish, mollusks and other creatures they contact.  Greenpeace estimates that a single pass of a bottom trawl removes up to 20% of the sea floor flora and fauna.   Trawls and dredges can destroy the delicate ecosystems that provide shelter, food and breeding grounds for fish and other species.  In heavily trawled areas, it’s the equivalent of clear cutting a forest several times a year.

Fishing may also disrupt food chains by targeting specific, in-demand species. There might be too much fishing of prey species such as sardines and anchovies, thus reducing the food supply for the predators. It may also cause the increase of prey species when the target fish are predators like salmon and tuna. Fisheries can also reduce fish stocks that whales, dolphin and porpoise rely on for food.


Bycatch refers to sea creatures unintentionally caught while fishing for other species.  Modern fishing involves massive technology with few (real) “fishermen”, which leads to massive catches… with massive amounts of bycatch.  Worldwide, one out of every four fish caught is discarded, dead or dying, as bycatch.  And bycatch doesn’t just include fish – sea turtles, seabirds, dolphin, seals, and other animals also suffer.  The shrimping industry is the worst offender, as the average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80-90% of the sea animals it captures – many of which are endangered species – overboard as bycatch.(4) Bycatch is often caused by less selective fishing gear like bottom trawls, which drag nets across the seafloor (catching everything in their paths), or longlines. Longlines have hundreds of baited hooks that extend out like tentacles for up to 50 miles or more. When cast out and left to “soak,” longlines attract anything that swims by, from sharks to sea turtles.(5)

Bycatch is the most egregious and wasteful consequence of our ever-increasing demand for fish. As author Jonathan Safran Foer says, “We tend not to think about [bycatch] because we tend not to know about it.  What if there were labeling on our food to let us know how many animals were killed to bring our desired animal to our plate?  Your trawled shrimp from Indonesia would read, ’26 pounds of other sea animals were killed and tossed back into the ocean for every 1 pound of this shrimp.’ ”


In an effort to preserve our natural populations and ecosystem, and to respond to concerns of  increasing demand on wild fisheries by commercial fishing operations, many have turned to fish farming as an alternative solution.  However, fish farming presents many of the same problems as factory farming, including compromises to consumers’ health, environmental pollution, unsanitary and inhumane conditions, and a serious threat to the natural balance of our marine ecosystem.

Your health is negatively impacted by the conditions to which farmed fish are subjected – most significantly, their unnatural diets.  A 2008 study out of Norway show that the health benefits of eating fish – notably, their omega-3 fatty acid content – hinge on what the fish are consuming.  Traditionally, farmed fish like salmon were fed pellets made from other fish, partly mimicking their natural diet in the wild.  As feed ingredients of marine origin became both scarce and expensive, farmers began experimenting with wheat, soy, corn and other vegetable oil-based feed.(6) However, replacing the salmon’s fish-based diet (high in omega-3’s) with one heavy in omega-6-rich components simply creates a fish version of “factory farming” – food that promotes systemic inflammation and makes you less healthy. In addition, the living conditions under which farmed fish (especially salmon) are raised are inhumane and cruel.  A 30″ farmed salmon spends its entire life in the equivalent of bathtub water, the parasitic infestations in their “pens” leads to a 10-30% death rate.(7)  To counteract their atrocious living conditions, fish are also given antibiotics and growth hormones, and a chemical to make their (abnormal) gray flesh turn a “healthier” pink.  These additives are not good for the fish, and subsequently, are not good for you.

It’s not just their diets that are cause for concern – it’s the polluted environments in which farmed fish are raised.  Farmed salmon is the worst offender, and is listed as a “worst choice” on several seafood rating agency lists. The level of pollution (in part, from pesticides designed to kill algae and shellfish that cling to pen nets) in farmed salmon populations is so fierce as to make their eyes bleed.(7)  A 2003 report from the Environmental Working Group showed that farmed salmon in the U.S. has the highest levels of PCBs (toxic man-made chemicals) – about 7 times higher than that of wild-caught fish(8) – and contained more than 100 other pollutants and pesticides.(9) PCBs were banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s, but are highly persistent, and have been linked to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.(10) Farmed salmon are fed from a global supply of fishmeal and fish oil, which studies show are the source of PCBs in most farmed salmon. In three independent studies, scientists tested 37 fishmeal samples from six countries, and found PCB contamination in nearly every sample.(11)


Finally, commercial fish farming is hurting the marine environment, and compromising our natural fish populations. Fish waste and uneaten feed covers the ocean floor below the farming pens, often killing the marine life that originally existed there.  A potentially more significant concern is the fact that many farmed fish escape from their pens and are free to reproduce among native fish, spreading those hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and higher levels of pollution into the wild.   Because of reproductive issues caused by the synthetic supplementation fed to farmed fish, this could potentially endanger the natural population of salmon.(12) Another cause for concern is the spread of disease and infection to the wild fish that swim in the vicinity of fish farms. Farmed fish living in cramped pens can spread their unnatural parasites and diseases to wild fish swimming close to the pens.

The Conscientious Omnivore

The  multiple, complex and often competing factors at play with choosing seafood for your evening meal extends far beyond the subject of just whether the fish was wild-caught. So what’s the Conscientious Omnivore to do?  It would be impossible to gather the full C.V. of every fish you eat – whether it was farmed or raised in the wild, over-fished or stable, caught on a longline or bottom trawl, and quantity of bycatch.  But there is another way to make “best choice” picks – an easier way, although not without some critical thinking on the omnivore’s part.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a comprehensive guide that takes almost all of the factors we’ve discussed into account. They rank a wide variety of fish (including sushi) and shellfish as “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative” or “Avoid” via both an on-line guide or a handy smartphone app.  The only caveat is that Seafood Watch doesn’t consider the “fish food” issue – whether the fish is fed a natural diet, or an unhealthy diet of soy, corn, antibiotics and hormones. We believe that a fish’s diet plays a large role in your health, so we’re going to offer you a hybrid decision making list to make the best of your “best choice” scenarios.

By following these guidelines, you can be sure you are making responsible, ethical, healthy decisions around an extremely complicated issue.

If choosing FISH or SHRIMP…

  • Avoid ALL farmed fish and shrimp varieties – period – even if Seafood Watch says they’re a “Best Choice”.
  • Consult the Seafood Watch guide, choosing only wild-caught options from the “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” categories.

If choosing BIVALVES (clams, scallops, oysters or mussels)…

  • No need for a blanket “avoid farmed” admonition here.  Bivalves are filter feeders that live on tiny particles filtered out of seawater.  Because they aren’t fed corn, soy, or fishmeal-based feeds, their diets aren’t a concern.
  • Simply consult the Seafood Watch guide when eating bivalves, choosing options from the “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” categories.

Special Considerations


Here are a few additional special considerations to help you navigate your way through fish and shellfish (including mollusks and crustaceans) choices.   First, consider farmed salmon your worst choice in any setting. Avoid all farmed salmon, in any form (smoked, canned, raw or cooked). Many, including ethicist Peter Singer, also suggest avoiding all shrimp, because of the unprecedented devastation done to the marine ecosystem by the shrimping industry.  There are a few “Best Choice” shrimp labels, but we get shrimp from so many different sources, and though so many different fishing mechanisms, that it’s going to be difficult to confirm what you’re eating fits the specific “Best Choice” criteria.

There are a few generally safe bets, however.  All varieties of bivalves like scallops, clams, oysters and mussels are ranked as either “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative”, and are safe choices when you can’t consult your iPhone. And for vegetarians looking to incorporate some animal protein sources into their diets, the above might be the best place to start.  Ethicist Peter Singer argues that it is unlikely that bivalves experience pain, and therefore there is no strong ethical reason against eating them.

One last note – don’t be afraid to ask your fishmonger, waiter or chef where your fish came from.  Often, general descriptors like “Pacific wild-caught” are enough to help you make a healthy decision.  And despite the fact that Whole Foods is now advertising their cooperation with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in fish labeling, you still have to do your homework.  Just last week, we found Chilean Bea bass labeled misleadingly as “Sustainable”, when in fact all wild-caught varieties are a strict Seafood Watch “Avoid”.



Questions, references or additional points to consider when making an ethical, moral, environmental and health-conscious seafood decision?  Leave them in comments.



1.  Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (Rodale, Inc. 2006), 111



4.  Jonathan Safron-Foer, Eating Animals (Back Bay Books, 2009), 49


6.  Sverre Ludvig Seierstad, The effect on fish and human health of replacing marine oils by vegetable oils in feeds of Atlantic salmon, Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, February 15, 2008.

7.  Philip Lymbery, In Too Deep – Why Fish Farming Needs Urgent Welfare Reform, 2002



10.  Environmental Working Group report, August 1, 2003.

11.  Jacobs 2002, Easton 2002, and CFIA 1999


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  1. says

    Great post guys.

    Just wanted to put it out there that theres lots of options in terms of ‘sustainable’ fishing methods, that you can purchase direct from the fisherman. Alaska air can put fish in the cargo bays for a small fee, so long as the fisherman brings it to the airport.

    I used to work at a fish processing plant where we bough fish that were caught directly off single lines, ensuring that you pulled a SINGLE fish of the right species every time. I’m not sure about other places, but in Alaska, there are severe fines for improperly accounting for your catch. Same with divers and say, Sea Urchin. A diver is underwater hand-picking a SINGLE creature. Pretty uninvasive for the most part.

    In my opinion, Alaskan seafood is a good place to start. I can only say that because I’ve seen it firsthand-

    I’ve got Fisherman friends who are on councils for that type of thing up there, I’ll put you in touch with ’em if you like.


  2. Chris says

    I have to tell you guys that I really like this series. After reading on the eggs, I was able to feel much better about choices I was making and what eggs I was eating. It is some pretty terrible stuff that you guys are writing about in these, but its important that people know what is going on.

    Keep it up please. Its helping me a ton.

  3. says

    @Mike, thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m hoping my Dad (Captain Tom) will weigh in on this one, because he’s been a fishing boat captain for a few years now, both in Alaska and the Florida Keys. He had a ton of interesting things to say on the subject on the phone the other night, and I asked him to share them here.

    Your fishing experience sounds like the height of conscientiousness – a single line is much less invasive, and ensures zero bycatch. If you’ve got any resources for purchasing seafood from a place like that in bulk, share them here, please.

    @Chris: It’s not really fun to talk about, but it’s really important, and we feel an obligation to let people know the things WE know are wrong with our food systems today. Thanks for the words of encouragement. They’re nice to hear.


  4. javier says

    thanks so much for posting this. our fish stocks are in much worse condition than most people realize.

  5. says

    I’m really glad you’ve pointed out how deceptive the labeling (marketing) can be at Whole Foods in particular. It’s intentional, as much as it might seem to be a mistake. Have you seen their “grass-fed, grain finished” line of beef? It’s a choice they make to throw that phrase “grass fed” in there, so as to fool people who are trying to be “conscientious omnivores” but don’t quite know all the details of the food system. Glad you guys are highlighting those details in this series.

  6. Alexa says

    This is definitely a tricky subject. I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast where it is definitely frowned upon to buy from outside sources when it comes to seafood – we have billboards along the highways pleading with people to buy Alabama shrimp only etc… So many people around my area make their livelihoods on the basis of the seafood industry. Between hurricanes and the oil spill this past spring we can’t seem to catch a break. Every night on the news there’s a different expert trying to say whether or not our local seafood is safe to consume after the spill. There’s also the issue of imported seafood from China which contains chemicals that have been outlawed in the US. Scary Stuff!

  7. Kurt Holm says

    Another good rule or thumb is if it’s cheap, don’t eat it! It’s either good fish gone bad or it was farm-raised in China and flown halfway around the world for your dining pleasure.

  8. John Dill says

    Great post guys. Not enough info out there about the dangers of farmed fish. In my experience, Tilapia is always corn or meal fed, so a must to avoid.

    On a side note, I encountered the same issue with Whole Foods regarding the sea bass. I researched the Monterey Bay Guide a bit more and it revealed that a small fishery called the South Georgia Patagonian Toothfish Longline Fishery was certified as sustainable by the MSC. I pressed the manager at WF and he claimed the chain of custody of their sea bass was verified as approved by the MSC. In any event, I agree that it takes some detective work to find these things out. All of which makes dining choices on the road a little more tricky!

  9. says

    ok so my question may be worthy (at least in my opinion) of a whole forum topic. I personally rarely eat out knowing my food is far superior in quality and squeaky clean as compared to what is really available in most restaurants! My question remains though, for those rare occurrences. What would you order if you want to stick to your strict paleo choices/foods when the options do not include wild fish, free range meat, free roaming eggs or pastured chicken? I mean one can always get a salad (hold the nightshades) with EVOO and lemon juice on the side. But what does one do about protein? What are the least “damaging” options for those rare times? Thanks in advance.

  10. says

    Sarena, that’s actually a really great question, and one we’re going to address in an upcoming post all about making the most of your Paleo pennies. Give us a week or two to pull it together and we’ll have the full answer for you – in detail!

    The short answer? Your healthiest protein option is either scallops/oysters/mussels/clams, if available (for all of the above reasons), or a lean cut of beef where you trim all the visible fat. We’ll explain why in our upcoming post, promise.



  11. says

    Thanks Melissa, great! The only problem is I am Kosher and none of the shellfish work for me. lol. But I do appreciate you doing a write on this topic. I am sure it sill be so helpful for many people.

    I mean I eat 95% of my food at home or home cooked and taken along. But once in a while it would be nice to chose in a restaurant and the best choices arent always available, especially in Kosher restaurants!

    For example, tonight is my nephew’s wedding and I am taking along my own food and will eat it on the side somewhere. I generally eat before I go out though.

  12. CaptainTom says

    I am with Mike (above) on this topic. If I were buying fish I would buy salmon or halibut from Alaska. The State has teamed up with commercial interests to augment the native salmon fishery by creating terminal salmon fisheries. These managed fishery operations begin with hatcheries and end with a sustainable harvest of returning salmon year after year.

    Much of the fish is sold to large aqua-businesses (e.g., BumbleBee) for mass distribution, but local Alaskan fish houses also buy and process a lot of fish. They vacuum bag and freeze prime slabs and filets and process fish into smoked product. From my own experience fishing in Alaska, the product coming from those fish houses is as fresh as you can get it if you didn’t catch it yourself. This is one I used during my time in AK: but there are lots of others.

    You can also find Alaskan Coho and Sockeye salmon and Halibut in the frozen section of the supermarket. It is less expensive than having it shipped from a fish house and the quality is very good. But be sure it is Alaskan salmon. I have seen bags of it that come from China and are labeled “wild caught”. It may be good but why take the chance when you can support our own fishery. And don’t worry about “wild caught” when buying Alaskan salmon. There are NO farm raised Alaskan salmon.

    Like Melissa said, I fish. I am fortunate to currently live surrounded by water. We catch Mahi, Wahoo, Tuna, 4 species of snapper, 3 or 4 of grouper and a bunch of other edible stuff. Yet when I go to my local supermarket there is only 1 offering of local fresh caught fish and it is the most expensive in the case. Why? Because it is not netted, long lined, trawled up or farmed. It is hook and line caught right here. That causes it to be expensive and in short supply. You simply cannot go out in boats and hook and line catch enough quality fish to feed the population. And because of the cost to produce, what you can supply may be beyond the means of most.

    So, in the interest of full disclosure, some of the salmon and halibut are caught by pole and line but the vast majority of the salmon are netted and the halibut long lined. However, I submit this is not necessarily evil. Unlike many other fisheries, Alaskan salmon and halibut are strictly regulated for sustainability, by-catch is minimal and inspection is practiced. It is the only economical way to bring these fish from the sea to your table but they are still pretty expensive compared to the farm raised, half-spoiled stuff that litters the fish counters of supermarkets.

    I am dangerously close to the soapbox here so for now so instead I’ll close with best wishes for a safe end to the holidays. I’m going fishing ;)


  13. Ashley says

    I am a newcomer to the site and finding it very informational. In Philadelphia, PA there is a place that offers sustainably-farmed Alaskan seafood in a CSA format called Otolith that I’ve been using so I’m glad to hear that Alaskan fish is recommended but I’ll still be making my CSA selections more carefully in the future.

  14. Shoshana says

    I have a few questions. Does anyone know about the safety of Pacific-caught fish since the reactors in Japan melted down? Also, I was looking for an Atlantic-based source online and came across a company named North Atlantic, Inc. They use chlorinated ice to maintain the safety of fish caught at sea. Does anyone know if this is standard industry practice? I want to avoid chemicals as much as possible. TIA! ~Shoshana

  15. says


    I can’t comment as to the Pacific-caught fish situation. Perhaps browsing the Seafood Watch site (through the Monterey Bay Aquarium) might shed some light? They keep up to date with all pertinent seafood-related issues.

    As for the chlorinated ice thing, from what I can tell, the practice isn’t designed to make fish healthier to eat – it’s designed to preserve the fish, so they could be sold for a longer period of time in stores. I am not down with that. Chlorine is poisonous to fish in even small doses (in water, at least, where the fish live), and I can’t imagine contact with chlorinated ice is a healthy thing for us fish-eaters. So, in summary, I’d skip it. Focus on finding the freshest source of wild-caught fish in stores or markets instead.



  16. Shoshana says

    Thanks Melissa! Yes, I had planned to skip the chlorinated ice. I was just wondering if this was an industry-wide practice, or limited to this company. We live in rural America and don’t have much in the way of local resources for most of the fish we enjoy (salmon, mahi mahi, halibut, cod); I’ve always just bought whatever the local Publix or Sam’s carried. I’m hesitant to buy from fresh, ‘local’ sources along the Gulf Coast because of the oil spill, and because we’re Jewish we don’t eat shellfish, so this limits our selection of appropriate seafood. Are you aware of any conscientious online sources that give good deals in bulk? Thanks again.

  17. says

    Shoshana: By chlorinated ice they are probably referring to Chlorine Dioxide infused ice. As the ice melts it releases gas. It’s hard to guess how commonly it’s used since producers are not required to (and do not) report the use of it in their process. But understand that “fresh” fish have sometimes spent days in the hold of a boat and more days in transport and distribution before they get to the supermarket fish counter. Without some form of anti-microbial treatment it would spoil long before it hit the counter. The claim is that this gas is not harmful and does not affect the taste but fish should be rinsed if it is to be eaten raw. On the other hand the gas does have a detrimental effect on the appearance of fish upon long exposure.

    I view the word “fresh” used with seafood in a supermarket setting with skepticism. If you are buying fish in a supermarket look for frozen, packaged, wild caught product. It will not guarantee that you are getting the best quality but it will be way better than “fresh” or “previously frozen” stuff decaying in the showcase.

    On a personal note, I would not dismiss the fresh fish available from the GOM. My reading, as well as conversations with guys that fish it and eat the catch, do not support the effects of the oil spill making local fish any more harmful than before the spill. If you have local fish houses nearby pay them a visit and talk to them about the quality of the local fish. You may be passing on some really good eating.

    I can’t speak to Pacific fish and radiation effects except to say that the Pacific is a vast area and I haven’t seen anything that would stop me from eating fish because they merely because they are a Pacific Ocean product.

    Finally, you can order Salmon (and Halibut) from a specialty house in Alaska. The Salmon season is winding down so supply and pricing should be good, the quality is superb and the frozen vacuum bagged fillets will last for months without losing their freshness. One I can personally vouch for is in Ketchikan, AK but an online search will yield others.

  18. says


    Tom is 100% spot-on in his analysis – he knows more about this than we do! You can consider him an expert authority because:

    1. He’s my Dad.

    2. He is a US Coastguard MASTER, which is an even higher rank than a CAPTAIN

    3. He’s run fishing charters everywhere from Key West to Alaska

    4. He’s my Dad.

    Thanks, Captain Tom!


  19. Jen says

    Wow! I really like what I’m reading but it’s all still confusing. There are so many misleading labels on meats and seafood that I still don’t know what I should exactly be looking for. I myself am not a huge seafood fan (mainly white fish) but my husband loves all kinds. I would like to make more seafood dishes for him and the hopes that I will grow to like more. Can anyone tell me what I should look for aposed to what is bad? More so when it comes to white fish. Thanks so much.


  20. Tim Maxwell says

    When talking “Farm Raised” you are referring to ocean farmed. Sustainably raised Aquaponic fish fed with naturally derived food (larvae, etc) in water kept clean by passing through unsprayed crops, resulting in a correspondingly clean produce is an excellent alternative. Such food is possibly one of the few ways uncontaminated fish and vegetables can be produced.

  21. says

    Jen, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “seafood watch” app for smartphones, or their website. Honestly, just going by their “best choices” and “good alternatives” is an easy and effective way to start.

    Tim, you’re absolutely right – those are good alternatives to farmed. As far as I know, though, fish raised in this manner are incredibly hard to find in your local community. It makes it hard to recommend aquaponic fish if nobody can actually find/purchase them in their area. If I’m wrong, let me know – and if I’m right, let’s hope this option becomes more readily accessible.


  22. Tim Maxwell says

    “Hard to tell”.
    Yes, I agree. There could be a lot of different systems running around you and you wouldn’t know. That said, knowing Aquaponics can help recognizing food produced from such systems.
    These systems range in size from apartment/home units producing salad food and some fish, community/school units producing more fish and considerable plant products on a more or less continuous basis, to commercial units producing fish & plants continuously scaled up to thousands of pound of each.
    Fish types like Tilapia are common, plants often are labeled “Organic”, with characteristically clean white roots often packaged in plastic wrap or plates with visable roots.
    Once you know what to look for you’d be surprised how much there is out there.
    The combination of Hydroponics & Fish Production using essentially Organic principals is still pretty much new. Though there are a few companies producing turnkey systems in all catagories.
    It is a good thing too, till we get our act together worldwide… It would be nice to continue eating while we work at it ;-)