Sustainable and Healthful Seafood

Salmon leaping Willamette Falls

By Catherine Haug, July 13, 2014 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

This posting was originally published on The EssentiaList, a local sustainability blog for which I am the editor, and author of this article.

Fish has long been my favorite food (beginning with lutefisk when I was a toddler). Growing up here in the Flathead, land-locked Kokanee salmon is another favorite, along with native cutthroat trout and other native trout. As native fish, these are the most sustainable we can get here in the NW Montana

(NOTE: lake trout is not native in our Flathead lake), and they are out-competing our native bull trout, which to me is very very sad, but that’s another article).

If you are not a fisherman, what are your best sustainable (and healthful) fish and seafood you can buy in the store?

  • If your main goal is healthful fish, definitely avoid farmed fish, as they are not fed their natural diet and may carry disease. Many are treated with antibiotics in their feed, and are likely exposed to PCBs;
  • If sustainable seafood is your main goal, the Center for Food Safety (1) provides guidelines and recommendations; read on.

See also: 1. Fish and Seafood Menu; 2. Foods (About) Menu; 3. See also 2017 posting on The EssentiaList: Dietary fish & seafood: Which are/are not healthful – and Why

Best Sustainable Seafood

Because we import fish from different climates and places, we forget that fisheries are seasonal. For example, wild winter flounder is a winter fish; river-run wild salmon is a summer fish. So to be most sustainable, the seafood fishery should be in season.

If you want sustainable AND healthful,  the Center for Food Safety provides the following five tips (1), which are the basis of their seafood recommendations:

  1. Choose local seafood if possible, and always choose domestic over imported;
  2. Choose wild;
  3. If it’s farmed, choose seafood that is from the U.S., especially in low- or no- output, recirculating systems; however, if you want to avoid antibiotics and/or PCBs in your fish, avoid farmed fish.
  4. Favor fish caught by hook and line, handline, troll (not to be confused with “trawl” fishing, which can be very destructive), jig or speargun;
  5. Avoid fish that are high in mercury, PCBs or farmed fish that are given antibiotics (2).

For the rationale behind their recommendations, see Center for Food Safety article (1).

Recommended Seafood

The following are in alphabetical order, by fisheries:

  • West Coast Fisheries:
  • Abalone (farmed)
  • Albacore Tuna (troll, pole)
  • Dungeness Crab
  • King Salmon from Alaska (pole, troll)
  • Oregon Pink Shrimp
  • Pacific Cod (hook & line, longline & trap)
  • Pacific Halibut
  • Rainbow Trout (farmed)
  • Sablefish, a.k.a Black Cod or Butterfish (Alaska wild)
  • Salmon (Alaska wild)
  • Sardines, Pacific (US wild-caught)
  • Shellfish (mussels, oysters, clams; farmed)
  • Striped Bass, a.k.a Rockfish (hook & line or farmed)
  • White Seabass (hook & line)
  • East Coast Fisheries:
  • Mahi Mahi (troll, pole)
  • Shellfish (mussels, oysters, clams; farmed)
  • Snapper (preferably Yellowtail)
  • Stone Crab
  • Striped Bass, a.k.a Rockfish (hook & line or farmed)
  • Swordfish (harpoon, troll, pole)
  • Yellowfin Tuna (troll, pole)

Fish to Avoid

(this has been updated based on my article on The EssentiaList: Dietary fish & seafood: Which are/are not healthful – and Why):

  • Sea species:
    • Canned tuna
    • Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
    • Atlantic Cod (East coat fisheries)
    • Atlantic (farmed) Salmon
    • Mackerel, swordfish
    • Grouper
    • Halibut
    • Marlin
    • Orange roughy
    • Oysters (Gulf of Mexico)
    • Shark
    • Snapper
    • Swordfish
  • Freshwater: 
    • walleye
    • northern pike
    • largemouth bass

About Mercury and other Contaminants in fish

Two excellent sources/guides regarding mercury in fish:

  • “Mercury and Fish: The Facts.”  from Mercury Policy Project (2a), and their helpful printable pdf guide (2b) They have a helpful guide you can print out for reference.
  • Investigate West’s 2015 article includes a guide for how many meals per week you can safely eat based on any given seafood’s contamination level. (3) It includes an image you can cut out that provides recommended seafood meals per week of various species. That image is also included below (right click on the image to save it as a file on your desktop; or print out the image saved as a pdf file: Mealsperweek-fish-seafood (links to The EssentiaList))

Seafood Meals per Week Guide

What is the problem with mercury? 

It is the most toxic element; in elemental form or as methyl mercury, it does extensive damage to nerve and brain tissue. In addition to fish and seafood, a significant source of mercury contamination is ‘silver’ fillings in your teeth (mercury-amalgam fillings) (1c), and in some vaccines where it is added as an adjuvant (4).

The most common form of mercury present in fish and seafood is methyl mercury:

Mercury is released from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, cement kilns and certain types of mining activities. Once in the air, the toxic mercury rains down into bodies of water. From there it is converted by bacteria into a particularly dangerous form called methylmercury, where it finds its way into fish, accumulating especially in fish that are higher up the food chain. (1b)

Fish like tuna, sea bass, marlin and halibut show some of the worst contamination, but dozens of species and thousands of water bodies have been seriously polluted. (1c)

Mercury exposure is especially dangerous for pregnant women and small children, whose brains are still developing. If infants or fetuses are exposed to mercury, it can cause (1b):

  • Mental retardation
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness
  • Blindness

In adults, mercury exposure can cause:

  • Fertility problems
  • Memory and vision loss
  • Trouble with blood pressure regulation
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Neuro-muscular dysfunction

Other contaminants in fish:

  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • dioxins, especially in farmed fish
  • disease, especially in farmed fish


  1. Center for Food Safety, Best Sustainable Summer Seafood (
  2. Food and Water Watch  (
  3. Investigate West, March 10, 2015: Balancing Risks and Rewards of a Seafood Diet 

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