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What is Sustainable Seafood?

By September 17, 2014 No Comments

Fish is now the world’s most-traded animal commodity, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year!

When The Healthy Butcher started offering fish for sale – first a small selection at the Queen location, and then larger selections at the Eglinton and Kitchener locations – we were faced with a myriad of options to choose from, and countless questions from customers who were fed up with asking grocery store clerks and fishmongers that could not provide answers… especially to the most basic question – should I or shouldn’t I buy and eat this fish? Without a doubt, for anyone with a conscience or who cares for their health, eating fish is much more complicated than it used to be.

To satisfy growing demand, we are catching fish and shellfish faster than they can reproduce, pushing their populations lower and lower; industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. Of course, there’s a limit to how much the ocean can produce and how many fish we can catch before fish populations are decimated to the point of no return – we’ve already seen it happen with Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, Chilean seabass, Bluefin tuna, sharks and countless other species. Some experts predict that the world’s major commercial stocks will collapse by 2048 if current fishing practices continue.

To fill the tremendous demand for fish, fish farms around the world experienced explosive growth in recent years. At first, farms were a very appealing and viable alternative – almost too good to be true; then human greed and stupidity intervened by introducing horrific practices such as the use of antibiotics & hormones and over-populating pens. Such poor practices resulted in poor fish quality, endangerment to wild fish, and pollution to the environment, and as a result today many people avoid all farmed fish regardless of the species of fish or the farm that is raising them. Is there a sustainable model to the seafood industry?

All of our products with this badge are Ocean Wise Certified.

All of our products with this badge are Ocean Wise Certified.

Sustainable seafood can be defined as seafood (we group saltwater and freshwater fish, as well as shellfish into the term seafood) from either wild or farmed sources that can maintain or increase production in the future without jeopardizing the ecosystems from which it was acquired. The goal of this newsletter is to provide you with a solid foundation to making sustainable seafood choices.

We have noticed an enormous number of articles written lately on sustainable seafood, but it seems none that we have read have dug deep into the details of how wild fish are caught, and how farmed fish are raised, and the problems of each.

The questions and research set out below are what we use to make our buying decisions for the seafood we sell in our stores. We pass them on to you so that no matter where you shop you can be an informed consumer and make educated choices. In the next issue, we will dig deep into the salmon controversy – wild vs. farmed; because of the popularity of salmon, this species of fish deserves a little more attention… stay tuned!

Making an informed decision at a seafood counter is accomplished by asking three questions:

  1. What is the species of fish? This question should be easy to answer.
  2. Where was the fish caught or raised? This is a medium-difficulty question for most grocery stores. The trick is to be detailed! The “Pacific Ocean” is not one place.
  3. How was it caught or raised? This is the question that will stump even some of the best fishmongers. There are a lot of variables at play regardless of whether the fish was wild or farmed.

Let’s delve into these questions a little deeper.


First question to ask: What is the species of Fish?

The answer lies in the specifics. It is not enough to say “tuna”, for example. Bluefin tuna is severely overfished, while Albacore tuna is an excellent choice because stocks are well managed and currently abundant. Salmon is not just salmon. Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum are all breeds of salmon. All fish identified as Atlantic salmon are farmed, as it is illegal to sell wild Atlantic salmon – we’ve seen two grocery stores selling “Wild Atlantic Salmon” – obviously a case of ignorant mislabeling.


Second question to ask: Where was the Fish caught or raised?

We practice localvorism at The Healthy Butcher as much as possible (and exclusively when it comes to meat); so, when we can source sustainable seafood that’s harvested close to home, that’s a huge bonus. Unfortunately, Toronto lies in the middle of a huge land mass; other than the freshwater fish we have available to us – like trout, pickerel, whitefish, bass, and perch – all ocean caught fish will have to travel a long distance to make it to our dining tables. But, of course, there’s a difference between fish traveling from the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of British Columbia and traveling from the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Thailand.


Third question to ask: How was the Fish caught or raised?

The third question is the doozy… asking this question will return a lot of blank stares because, simply put, most grocery stores and sadly, fishmongers, don’t know… and it is because of this lack of knowledge that unsustainable fishing practices thrive. The first and second question only bring you so far. For example, let’s say you had canned tuna for lunch. You determined that the tuna is actually Albacore tuna – great! Albacore is still plentiful. You determined that it was caught in the Pacific Ocean – great!  But how was it caught?  Well, if your canned tuna was caught in Thailand, it is likely that it was caught using long lines – shame on you! If your tuna was caught by trolling off Southern California – congratulations, you just had a sustainable seafood meal.

Wild or Farmed? What would be your choice? If you answered either wild or farmed, you’re wrong. The answer is: It depends. There are good wild fisheries and good fish farms, and there are bad wild fisheries and bad fish farms. Let’s talk about the details of both wild-caught and farmed fish.


Wild-caught Fish – Sustainable Fishing Methods

(Controlled number of fish caught, little or no bycatch, and little or zero environmental damage)

Hook-and-Line Fishing & Trolling

An illustration of a trap line.

An illustration of a trap line.

The most basic type of fishing is hook-and-line fishing, where fishers use a pole hung with one to several baited hooks. They jerk the line to mimic the motion of smaller fish, which is known as “jigging”. Unwanted catch can be released quickly. Similarly, trolling uses essentially the same apparatus, but the line is towed behind a moving boat.

Traps and Pots
A sustainable method used to catch fish and harvest shelfish, as there is little bycatch and much of it can be released alive. Environmental damage is minimal.


Wild-caught Fish – Unsustainable Fishing Methods

(Uncontrolled number of fish caught, many unwanted bycatch, and potential for significant environmental damage)


An illustration of long-line fishing.

An illustration of long-line fishing.

Long-lining uses a single fishing line hung with hundreds, often thousands, of baited hooks and laid down by boat. Fishers leave these lines in the water for several hours or overnight and then return to haul them in. Long-line hooks catch many unwanted species, including different types of fish, endangered sea turtles, and sea birds.

One of the most recent and impactful visual representations of long-lining was captured in the movie Sharkwater (definitely worth renting!); quoting from Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Center “imagine if you went into the forest and set some sort of trap line that caught moose, deer, skunks, porcupines, squirrels, dogs, when all you’re really after is one species but you have all these other species that are dying or dead. Nobody would tolerate for a minute putting down a trap line [in the forest] that caught all animals for 30 miles, yet its happening every day in the oceans.”

Seining uses large fishing nets that hang vertically in the water by attaching weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top; seining results in a significant amount of bycatch.


An illustration of bottom-set gillnetting.

An illustration of bottom-set gillnetting.

Gillnetting is a common fishing method used by commercial fishermen of all the oceans and in some freshwater and estuary areas. Because gillnets can be so effective their use is closely monitored and regulated by fisheries management and enforcement agencies. Mesh size, twine strength, as well as net length and depth are all closely regulated to reduce bycatch of non-target species. Whereas seining contains fish within closed nets, gillnetting traps fish as they swim into the mesh of the nets; the size of the mesh determines which species of fish are caught since fish that are too big to squeeze forward also cannot back out, as their gills get caught up in the net. Gillnetting results in a significant amount of bycatch, including marine mammals and turtles.


An illustration of trawling.

An illustration of trawling.

Trawling is perhaps the largest target of protests by environmentalists because of its high rate of by-catch and ecological damage. Trawling involves dragging a cone-shaped net behind a boat to scoop up fish. Floats are used to keep the upper edge of the net opening higher than the weighted bottom edge, thereby creating a net with a mouth at one end and a closed tail at the other. Trawling is generally divided into either “bottom trawling” or “midwater trawling”.

Bottom trawling is trawling along or close to the sea floor, intended to catch bottom-living fish such as sole, flounder and halibut, as well as semi-pelagic fish such as cod, squid, halibut and rockfish. Midwater trawling is towing the trawl through free water away from the bottom of the ocean.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that trawling will result in a significant amount of by-catch. And, obviously, bottom trawling results in additional serious incidental damage to the sea bottoms and deep water coral reefs. Although midwater trawling does not destroy the sea floor, it is responsible for the by-catch of cetaceans like dolphins, porpoises, and whales.

Dredging involves dragging a metal frame with a net bag attached along the ocean floor, picking up the bottom-dwelling clams, oysters, scallops, and other shellfish, along with bycatch. Dredging causes significant habitat destruction.


Farmed Fish

Fish farming involves raising fish commercially in tanks or enclosures. The most commonly farmed types of fish are salmon, catfish, tilapia, cod, carp, Arctic char and trout. In Canada, Canadian aquaculture production is dominated by four main categories: salmon 66.7%; mussels 15.8%; oysters 8.7%; and trout 3.4%. In Ontario, Rainbow trout is the main species farmed, comprising over 80% of Ontario fish farm revenue. Farmed salmon is British Columbia’s and New Brunswick’s largest agricultural export product. In the U.S., Catfish is the main farmed species, making up 50% of the industry. Let’s face it – farmed fish have developed a bad wrap in the last decade – and for good reasons. But, we really need to wrap our heads around the problems of fish farming and steer the industry to types of farming that solves those problems and positively contributes to sustainable seafood. Realistically, eating a farmed fish in many cases is a more sustainable choice than eating a wild one. If we were to eliminate farmed fish, the result would be a devastating over-fishing of our open waters. It has been predicted that without aquaculture, the world will face a seafood shortage of 50-80 million tones by 2030.

Canada has the world’s longest coastline, the largest freshwater system, and the largest tidal range, making aquaculture a very important part of Canada’s agricultural future – if done right!

Open-Net Farming
Open-net-cage fish farming was pioneered in Norway in the 1960s. Since then, the industry has expanded to Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the U.S., and Chile, and is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations. Open-net farming involves placing pens or cages made of nets in open water. Since the water circulates freely in and around these net cages, fish and shellfish are often cultivated in hatcheries where temperature and other conditions can be controlled, and then raised to maturity in these farms. Open-net-cage fish farming is a controversial practice that has raised serious environmental concerns around the world, and was brought to the spotlight in British Columbia, where the salmon farms of the Broughton Archipelago threatened the wild pink salmon population.

Problems associated with open-net farming include:

  • Diseases and parasites, such as sea lice, can be spread to wild fish living or swimming near the open-net farms;
  • Waste from the fish drops out of the pens and cages directly into the water and can be a significant cause of habitat pollution;
  • Drugs, including antibiotics, are used to keep farmed fish healthy; and
  • Escaped farmed fish (alien species) threaten native wild fish.

Essentially, large open-net fish-farming operations use publicly owned coastal waters to support what are essentially intensive private feedlot operations that dump drug-laced sewage into the ocean. But there are solutions, and we will discuss them below.
Closed-System Farming
Closed-system farming, or raising fish in closed containers made of aluminum, concrete, or fiberglass, which are located on land and filled with recirculating water, may be more sustainable than using conventional open nets. By separating the farmed fish from the environment, inputs and outputs can be carefully controlled, including eliminating the risk of farmed fish escaping and intermingling with wild stocks. The David Suzuki Foundation believes that the fish farming industry around the world, including those on Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, must move away from using net cages to using safe, fully enclosed systems that trap wastes.

Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture
Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) is an innovative new form of aquaculture in which the by-products or wastes from one species are recycled to become inputs (fertilizers, food) for another. Fed aquaculture (e.g. fish, shrimp) is combined with inorganic extractive (e.g. seaweed) and organic extractive aquaculture (e.g. shellfish) to create balanced systems for environmental sustainability, economic stability and social acceptability. Ideally, the biological and chemical processes in an IMTA system completely balance. This is achieved through the appropriate selection and proportions of different species providing different ecosystem functions. For example, an open cage filled with salmon might be placed near lines of mussels and a crop of kelp seaweed. The scientists have demonstrated that mussels and kelp then grow better, and their experiments show that organic matter residues in the mussels and kelp are always below regulatory limits. Farming these species together helps to manage the effluent from the salmon farming, and helps to save energy.


A breakdown of the problems associated with Fish farms and potential solutions.

As with the organic regulations governing the raising of meat and the farming of fruits and vegetables, organic regulations for fish farms around the world are a hodgepodge of rules and requirements.  Most organic certifying agencies – at least the larger and well-respected ones – set out strict details for fish farms.  But because there is no world-recognized certifying body, it is essential to always ask detailed questions to ensure the farmed fish you are about to buy addresses your concerns – regardless of whether it is labeled organic or not. The following is a list of problems associated with farmed fish, and the solutions for each… to us, a fish is only “organic” if it addresses the following problems accordingly:

(Further reading on organic regulations:  90% of the farmed fish we sell in our store is certified by either (or both) the German certifier Naturland and the Swiss certifier BioSuisse.  We encourage you to click the links – both organizations have their organic requirements specified online.)

Problem: Producing fish pellets to feed fish in fish farms requires catching, and potentially depleting, “fish food” species. Further, fish food may have high levels of contaminants, including persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides.

Solution: Developing plant-based food for farm fish would reduce the need to capture “fish food” species. The vast majority of global aquaculture production, about 85%, uses non-carnivorous fish species, such as tilapia and catfish, produced in land-based ponds for domestic markets. Ponds can and should be ecologically integrated into the agricultural, industrial, and community fabric, meaning, for example, that wastes become fertilizers rather than pollutants.

The heart of the problem stems from farming carnivorous fish such as salmon or shark, that are fed pellets made from other fish. Currently, about 31 million tons of forage fish are being taken from the oceans every year, and more than 90 percent of that haul is ground up into meal for farmed fish, pigs and poultry. Apart from the ecological and health concerns associated with salmon farming (which we will discuss further in the second part of Sustainable Seafood), farmed salmon actually represent a net loss of protein in the global food supply as it takes from two to five kilograms of wild fish to grow one kilogram of salmon. Highly nutritious fish like herring, mackerel, sardines, and anchovy are used to produce the feed for farmed salmon, which is essentially luxury fare for the North American, European, and Japanese markets.

The organic farmed salmon farms The Healthy Butcher deals with use exclusively fish by-products (such as organs, heads and tails) cut up and used for human consumption.  By using such by-product, not only are these farms not depleting wild fish feed species, but the biological capital – being the high grade amino acids and long chain omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – is conserved for use in human nutrition.

We have never been fans of USDA Organic labels when it comes to meat or produce, and that dislike carries over to farmed fish.  On November 19, 2008, the U.S.D.A. National Organic Standards Board approved criteria for farmed fish to be labeled “organic,” a move that pleased aquaculture producers and angered environmentalists.  At the heart of the debates is the rule that allows organic fish farmers to use wild fish as part of their feed mix provided it did not exceed 25% of the total and did not come from forage species, such as menhaden, that have declined sharply as the demand for farmed fish has skyrocketed. This rule differs from the standard used for meat whereby 100% of the feed must be organic. Critics argue that accepting a different standard for farmed fish will essentially water-down organic principles, adding that wild fish used for feed may carry toxins like PCBs.

Problem: Antibiotics are used because fish farms are too densely stocked and become a necessity to prevent diseases such as sea lice. Pesticides are fed to the fish to keep the nets free of algae.  These drugs and chemicals are passed onto humans causing antibiotic resistance and cancer.

Solution: Antibiotics and pesticides should be strictly prohibited.  Fish farms should be less populated causing less stress on the fish.  Sea lice can be controlled by stocking farms with “cleaner fishes” such as Wrasse.  Environmentally-friendly methods of controlling algae growth can and have been employed with success.

Problem: Creating space for fish farms often destroys other ecosystems and threatens biodiversity. Southeast Asians, for instance, have cleared thousands of acres of marshes and mangrove forests that grew at the water’s edge. These forests, now replaced by shrimp farms, had served as natural coastal barriers and homes to native fishing communities.

Solution: Closed-system farming does not suffer from this problem. For Open-net farming, the solution lies in the careful selection of sites for aquaculture farms. Fish farms should be placed in areas of high tidal exchange to prevent accumulation of parasites and pollutants. Further, sensitive ecological areas (like areas used by wild species for spawning) should be avoided. The solution lies in a unified government-enforced licensing system for properly selected farm locations.

Problem: Densely stocked farms generate large quantities of polluting wastes, just like other forms of intensive animal production. While livestock raised on land produce waste that enters nearby lakes or rivers indirectly, fish farms often release effluent from ponds or tanks directly into nearby bays or rivers. The waste is mostly uneaten fish feed and excrement high in nitrogen and phosphorous. This nutrient-rich waste causes oxygen-depleting algae blooms, resulting in kill-off of wild fish.

Solution: The number of fish in a farm space should be limited and strictly enforced. Improving the design and management of aquaculture facilities can reduce and prevent disease and avoid reliance on antibiotics. Further, fish farms can incorporate settling ponds, allowing the waste water to trap much sediment in the ground. Such ponds also provide wetlands for songbirds, waterfowl and other fish. New methods include integrating plants into the ponds, as well as other species such as mussels, which can be grown under salmon cages and feed on the droppings from above.

Problem: Farm fish can escape through breaks in the nets and wreak havoc on local ecosystems by competing with natural wild fish for food and reproduction. Farm fish are not bred for survival, so when farm fish mate with native fish, this negatively affects the gene pool.

Solution: Closed-system farming does not suffer from this problem. Open-nets can be designed to ensure minimal to zero escapees. There are already examples of such designs in a couple of organic salmon farms around the world (to be discussed in more detail in the next issue).


What about Mercury and other pollutants?

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is also released into the air and water through industrial pollution from pulp and paper processing, mining operations, coal-burning plants and garbage incinerators. Mercury in fresh and marine waters is converted by bacteria into methylmercury, which is easily absorbed by animals as they feed and binds to fish protein. Methylmercury accumulates in fish tissue and becomes concentrated in fish high on the food chain as well as filter feeders such as clams, oysters, mussels, and other shellfish. The larger and older the fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tuna and tilefish), the more fish it has eaten, the more mercury it will have in its flesh.

An excellent mercury calculator can be accessed online at: You will be surprised at the results… e.g. 6oz of canned Albacore tuna results in 130% of the EPA limit for a 150lb person! Authorities state that mercury levels pose relatively little risk to adults. However, during pregnancy, mercury can pass from a mother’s bloodstream to a developing fetus. Small amounts can also pass into breast milk. Further, exposure to significant amounts of mercury early in life may cause learning problems because the brain is still developing.

Sewage discharges, runoff, and other sources of water pollution also expose fish, shrimp, and shellfish to countless toxins and microorganisms, some of which linger inside the animal’s tissues. Anyone who eats such seafood is eating whatever toxins may be in it. Persistent organic compounds such as dioxins, PCBs and arsenic present health threats when consumed. For Ontario lakes and rivers, refer to the 2007 – 2008 Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish.

An annual spring event for me and “the boys” is to take a trip to the Ganaraska River during the trout runs. We’ve always practiced catch-and-release, after all, these trout are making their way from Lake Ontario of all lakes and we’re always afraid of pulling up fish with three eyes. Lake Ontario has a long way to go before it is clean – the Rainbow Trout we generally catch (18-28”) are good for maximum 2 servings in a month! And ZERO for women of child-bearing age and children under 15. Yuk!


Recommended Seafood.

There is no single seafood that is the “best” choice, but the most sustainable wild seafood to eat is typically:

  • Comprised of species whose biology is capable of withstanding fishing pressure (i.e., fast growth rates, low age of maturity and high rate of reproduction);
  • Where the status of the stock is well understood; and
  • Where the fishing methods do not adversely impact other species or habitat.

The best farmed seafood options are typically herbivorous (plant-eating) animals grown in such a manner to minimize impacts to the surrounding ecosystem.

The following are the best choices of seafood:
(All fish in GREEN are generally available at and The Healthy Butcher, limited only by season)

  • fish-farm-oceanFarmed shellfish, such as mussels and oysters;
  • Farmed Tilapia (from properly run fish farms);
  • Farmed Catfish (from properly run fish farms);
  • Sardines and herring;
  • Lake Huron Lake Trout;
  • Lake Huron Whitefish;
  • Lake Erie Yellow Pickerel;
  • Lake Erie Yellow Perch;
  • Lake Erie White Bass;
  • Salmon – farmed from one of two fish farms (to be discussed next issue);
  • Salmon – (wild from Alaska);
  • Farmed Rainbow Trout (from properly run fish farms)


Pocket Guides

Canada’s Seafood Guide, by SeaChoice
Click here to DOWNLOAD your copy in .pdf

volume27_seachoice_chartAnother good pocket reference (U.S. based):
Seafood Selector, by the Environmental Defense Fund
The website also contains recipes for each type of fish listed.

Concluding words.

It is you and I, the consumers, who have put pressure on the economy for plentiful cheap food. No chicken farmer wants a world with $5 birds, no one living near the sea thinks $3.99 per pound of salmon is realistic.  It is us who want this nearly free food.  The biggest impact a consumer can have in making positive change is to spend their money after making an informed decision.  Too many are talking about it and too few go to their wallets with the same sentiments.”  – Michael Olson


The leading organizations pushing Sustainable Seafood:

  • SeaChoice Canada was created by Sustainable Seafood Canada and is comprised of the Ecology Action Centre, the Living Oceans Society, the Sierra Club of Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the David Suzuki Foundation.  SeaChoice has created a wallet card that helps people make sustainable seafood choices. The card is divided into three sections – “Best Choice,” “Some Concerns,” and “Avoid” – with a list of corresponding species. We recommend this card as the first place to start; of course, the next move is yours… ask questions!
  • Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. Ocean Wise works directly with restaurants and markets, ensuring that they have the most current scientific information regarding seafood and helping them make ocean-friendly buying decisions.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund publishes a Pocket Seafood selector and many recipes for sustainable seafood.
  • The Marine Stewardship Council is an international non-profit organization that runs a certification and eco-labelling programme for sustainable seafood.
  • Green Peace


References and further reading.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – Contains excellent recipes from Canada’s Best Chefs: Lambert, Jill. A Good Catch – Sustainable Seafood Recipes from Canada’s Top Chefs. Toronto: Greystone, 2008.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade.” The New York Times. January 15, 2008.

“Fish farming.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 Dec 2008, 10:45 UTC. 5 Dec 2008

“Aquaculture.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Dec 2008, 23:20 UTC. 5 Dec 2008

“Sustainable seafood.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Dec 2008, 18:44 UTC. 5 Dec 2008

Knight, Ivy. “One Fish, Two Fish.” 25 July 2008.–Two-Fish.aspx

“New Report Says We Can Have Our Fish and Eat it Too.” 15 May 2008. Georgia Strait Alliance. 5 Dec 2008.

Eilperin, Juliet and Black, Jane. “USDA Panel Approves First Rules For Labeling Farmed Fish ‘Organic’.” 20 Nov. 2008. The Washington Post. 5 Dec. 2008.

Riley, Nano. “Eating Responsibly: The Future of Seafood Farming”. Winter/Spring 2009. Organica News. 12 Apr. 2008.