Growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, it was easy to take fresh seafood for granted. The bounty seemed endless: salmon, flounder, rockfish, shrimp, mussels, oysters … And not only did we regularly eat fresh-caught Dungeness crab; my dad caught it himself, walking through sea grass at the crack of dawn decked out in rubber waders.
Most of the rest of the delicious fresh seafood we enjoyed—salmon, clams, prawns—we acquired with the help of a middleman: the fishmonger. It seemed that whatever you wanted for dinner, the fish market folks could pull it off ice, fillet it, weigh it, and wrap it in butcher paper in no time flat.
A good fishmonger can still do that, of course. But as consumers, we should be a great deal more choosy about our purchases than we once were. As chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver explains, “Not so long ago the ocean’s bounty seemed to have no limit. Now we know better.”
Pollution, often from runoff from both growing urban areas and farmland; increasing acidification; growing demand and overfishing; and rising ocean temperatures are all taking a toll on sea life worldwide. Many tuna, cod, and tooth fish species are severely overfished, just to name a few.
(You can read much more about the toll of rising sea temperatures on Atlantic sea life in “Warm Warm Water May Spell the End of New England’s Iconic Cod,” and “Seaweed Farming May Be the Prescription for Troubled Waters.”)
But being a conscientious seafood consumer can be daunting. Many fish species are known by a dizzying array of names, some of them misleading or inaccurate (the Chilean sea bass, for example, is a tooth fish, not a bass, and is not necessarily from Chile). Some seafoods are considered sustainable when caught wild, but not farmed. Others should be purchased farmed, unless they’ve been wild caught—in some waters but not others, or only using specific fishing techniques.
Luckily, there are resources online to help you sort out what’s OK to buy and what to avoid. National Geographic’s Oceans Initiative has a wealth of sustainable seafood resources, as does the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
These resources, combined with a good fishmonger who is knowledgable about his or her sources, can help cut down on some of the confusion. Transparency is also key; if a fishmonger seems fishy, take your money elsewhere.
To help motivate you to go the extra mile before shopping, here’s a gallery of some of the ocean’s bounty on offer from fishmongers the world over, thanks to our Your Shot community.