« November 2008 Table of Contents
Consumer Buying Guides: Guiding lights
Seafood advice is at consumers' fingertips
By James Wright
November 01, 2008
Consumers seeking advice in making sustainable seafood
purchasing decisions have many resources at their disposal -
all it takes is a quick check in their wallet or a simple text
message. The only problem is, there are enough buying guides
out there to make your head spin and the advice isn't exactly
the same. Another difficult decision, then, becomes which
source to listen to. But as you can see below, the various
consumer seafood guides all collaborate with each other in
making their determinations.
The most widely recognized consumer-based seafood buying
guide is Seafood Watch, a program the Monterey Bay Aquarium in
Monterey, Calif., launched in 1999. The MBA has slotted U.S.
consumers' favorite seafood species into three categories: Best
Choices, Good Alternatives and Avoid. Their advice is based on
the overall health of wild species' populations and the methods
of harvest or the aquaculture industry's track record of
While other readily available consumer guides may provide
conflicting information, most follow a similar, easy-to-follow
format on a convenient, pocket-sized card; some also use a
digital format aimed at on-the-go PDA users.
According to Seafood Watch, Best Choices species are
"abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally
friendly ways," while Good Alternatives have "concerns with how
they're caught or farmed - or with the health of their habitat
due to other human impacts." Species that fall under the Avoid
category are "caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine
life or the environment."
One complicating factor with the various guides concerns
fishing methods and origins. Certain species, as a result, may
appear in more than one category. For example, Environmental
Defense Fund's Pocket Seafood Selector lists U.S. king crab an
"OK Choice" while imported king crab is a "Worst Choice."
Tilapia from Latin America gets the OK while tilapia from Asia
does not. Other recommendation variances are based on fishing
methods, such as longlines versus hook-and-line.
And, while the three main guides agree by advising to avoid
Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, sharks and farmed salmon, only
Environmental Defense says to avoid buying haddock from trawl
fisheries. The species does not appear on any of the other
Regardless of congruity, the guides are resonating with
consumers, who use them while shopping at their favorite
grocery store or when they sit down to eat at a restaurant.
Jeremy Anderson, director of operations for Consolidated
Restaurants in Seattle, which operates Elliott's Oyster House,
says diners are increasingly concerned about
"Some people come straight from the aquarium, holding their
cards as they order," says Anderson.
Bon Appetit Management Co., which operates about 400 cafés
in corporate offices, universities and other specialty venues,
ships Seafood Watch cards to all of its restaurants twice a
year so they have up-to-date handouts.
Helene York, director of the Bon Appétit Management Co.
Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif., says this is done for two
"One is to [foster] conversations with our chefs about ocean
health and guidelines about our seafood procurement," says
York. "The other reason is a lot of our guests buy seafood at
supermarkets outside of our business. We want them to have that
information available to them so they can feel confident that
the seafood they [buy elsewhere] follows MBA guidelines."
Even staunch supporters of seafood buying guides admit
convenient information is only a starting point. True growth of
sustainability, says York, will have to come from the seafood
"The real change is going to come from supplier education
and from companies making commitments to purchase sustainable
seafood. I don't think we should rest more responsibility on
consumers than we already have."
Assistant Editor James Wright can be