Sustainable Seafood vs. Unsustainable Seafood: What’s the Difference?

With the demand for seafood growing at an exponential rate, many of the fish species we eat have become grossly endangered. This is why it is so important for us to be responsible and make seafood choices that are ecosystem-friendly. This means eating sustainable seafood as opposed to non-sustainable seafood.

What’s the difference?

Sustainable seafood is seafood that we eat that not only considers the long-term viability of the species but also considers the viability of the habitat – including other wildlife — from where we get the seafood. Not just seafood from the oceans, but from bays and rivers too.

sustainable fish, sustainable seafood

Image by NOAA Fisheries via FishWatch


With over 1,000 species of fish already endangered, about two-thirds of the world’s seafood populations suffering from overfishing, and bycatch, eating sustainable seafood is important, to say the least. Bycatch is an unintentional catch of fish and other wildlife when fishing, such as sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks.

When consumers eat sustainable seafood, it helps allow over-fished species to repopulate while reducing bycatches. Eating both farm-raised and wild caught sustainable seafood also helps local economies that depend on fishing, such as coastal towns and fisheries.

sustainable fish, sustainable seafood

Image by NOAA Fisheries via FishWatch

Unsustainable seafood, on the other hand, is extremely damaging to the environment, seafood species, and other wildlife. Trawlers scrape the seafloor, disturbing the natural habitat of all life that lives there, and not just the seafood being targeted for catch. Long line fishing is well known for its massive amounts of bycatch. Gill nets that are practically invisible to the fish species fishermen are after also result in bycatch, but they’re more destructive to other species such as sea turtles and dolphins, which often get caught in the nets.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an organization that certifies fisheries and farms as sustainable, states on its website that it develops its certification standards:

“…In consultation with scientists, the fishing industry and conservation groups.”

MSC states that it considers three things when certifying whether a farm is sustainable:

  1. Farming and fishing responsibly, so that the seafood population remains “productive and healthy.”
  2. Making sure that other wildlife and the ecosystem are minimally impacted by fishing and farms.
  3. Making sure that the fisheries and farms are managed well, comply with all “relevant laws,” and can change with the changing environments, adapting their operations as needed.

Although sustainable seafood includes both farm-raised and wild-caught species, keep in mind that just because a species is farm-raised, doesn’t necessarily make it sustainable.

Farm-raised seafood helps keep some species sustainable, and U.S. fisheries have helped at least partially restore about 40 species of fish to date. However, some reports say that the world’s demand for farm-raised seafood far outweighs the supply. This has led some farms to cut their standards for raising sustainable seafood, and some certification organizations to certify unsustainable fisheries and farms. Critics of the MSC, for example, have accused it of lowering its standards, certifying fisheries and farms that aren’t sustainable, and profiting from the licenses it issues.

The fishing of unsustainable seafood is one major reason that most of the fish on the endangered or vulnerable lists are endangered or vulnerable in the first place. We all want to do our part to safeguard the environment and make the planet a better place to live for ourselves and future generations – this includes our aquatic ecosystems. The actions we take now must also include those aquatic ecosystems and, more specifically, the creatures that live in them. This is why eating sustainable seafood is not only important but also the responsible thing to do.

Learn more about sustainable seafood in the U.S. here:

Featured Image via NOAA Fisheries

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Janice Friedman

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