Sustainable seafood FAQs

Q: What is ‘sustainable’ seafood? What seafood/fish can I eat?A: In simple terms, a particular seafood is sustainable if it comes from a fishery with practices that can be maintained indefinitely without reducing the target species’ ability to maintain its population and without adversely impacting on other species within the ecosystem by removing their food source, accidentally killing them, or damaging their physical environment.

Identifying which fish come from sustainable sources is extremely difficult. Because of the difficulties in accurately assessing fish populations and because it is very difficult to trace the supply of fish from the ocean to the shop there is no one, truly effective ‘green label” that consumers can look for on fish products, as there is with wood products for example (the FSC logo).

Always ask the person you buy fish from where and how their fish is caught – if they can’t tell you or if you are not completely satisfied with their answer, don’t buy the fish!

Q: What seafood should I avoid?

A: Greenpeace have identified a list of species which are under particular pressure. We are asking supermarkets to stop selling these species, a process that concerned consumers can help influence further by avoiding these species when they buy fish. The species are:

  • Atlantic cod (except cod from Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, and line-caught Icelandic)
  • Plaice
  • Tuna, including Albacore, Bigeye and Bluefin (but excluding Skipjack)
  • Tropical prawns (wild and farmed)
  • Haddock (except line-caught Icelandic)
  • European Hake
  • Atlantic Halibut
  • Monkfish
  • Atlantic salmon (wild and farmed)
  • Swordfish
  • Marlin
  • Sharks (including dog fish and huss)
  • Skates and rays.

Read the full fish list here »

Species not listed here may also be unsustainable – indeed many are. This list represents the major species sold in UK supermarkets and fish shops, that are under the most pressure or are caught using the most wasteful or destructive fishing methods.

Q: Do you have any examples of a sustainable fishery?

A: There are two key issues determining whether or not a fishery is sustainable. The first is how healthy the population or ‘stock’ is and the second, the method used to catch the fish. Some methods are clearly very destructive (like bottom trawling, which ploughs up the sea floor) or indiscriminate (like pair trawling that catches non-target species such as dolphins).

There are very few sustainable fisheries. In the UK, the best are line-caught mackerel, line-caught seabass, and farmed mussels. Rod and line caught tuna and herring are also good fisheries. Between 2004 and 2006 Greenpeace ran a campaign to ban pair trawling for seabass in UK waters because this fishing method kills large numbers of common dolphins. However, seabass caught using a hand line eliminates the problem of bycatch. In this example, if the fish comes from a healthy stock, what determines its sustainability is the method used to catch the fish.

Buying sustainable fish is difficult because there is no clear label that marks out products as good to buy. Wood products, for example, are marked with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo if they come from sustainable sources. There is no equivalent labelling scheme for seafood.

The Marine Conservation Society produce a well researched guide to fish and we would recommend this as a good source of additional information to help consumers buy sustainable fish.

Q: Where can I buy sustainable fish?

A: Marks and Spencer have invested considerable time and effort in improving the way that the fish they sell is caught and farmed. Not all fish sold by Marks and Spencer are from fully sustainable sources, but it is certainly the best available from a UK supermarket.

Your local fishmonger may sell fish from sustainable sources. You’ll need to be prepared to ask lots of questions about where the fish came from and how it was caught. As mentioned above, the following fisheries are about the best: line-caught mackerel, line-caught seabass, and farmed mussels. Purse seined herring from the Cornish coast is also a good option.

Q: Is it OK to buy fish direct from a fishmonger or from fishermen on the beach?

A: Buying direct from a fishmonger is no guarantee that the fish comes from a sustainable source. Fishmongers often buy fish from big fish markets that are in turn supplied by a large variety of commercial fisheries that are not sustainable.

Buying from a local fisherman can have advantages because it allows you to ask exactly how the fish was caught (which method) and where. Buying fish caught locally also means that it has not been flown halfway around the world! Never buy fish that has been caught using a bottom trawl.

Q: Fish are really healthy to eat. Are you saying we should stop eating fish?

A: All of the nutrients, vitamins and oils contained in fish can be found in other food stuffs. For example, high levels of omega oils can also be found in walnuts and walnut, linseed and flax oil, all of which are available from supermarkets and health food stores.

Greenpeace believes we should eat less fish. Fish are supplied in a fundamentally different way to other animal food products. Meat and dairy products are farmed – as we consume them, more animals are reared to ensure continued supply. In stark contrast, the vast majority of fish we eat are not farmed but essentially mined – taken from the ocean without consideration for maintaining the source sustainably.

Academics around the world now agree that we are taking too many fish from our oceans and that this is having a detrimental impact on our marine life. Not only are some stocks of fish collapsing (not able to support their own populations anymore) but other species are suffering as their food sources are depleted.

The Food Standards Agency recommends that “people should consume at least two portions of fish a week, of which one should be oily”. However, to increase fish consumption by this amount for 49 million adults in the UK would require an extra 33 million portions of oily fish per week. This implies an increase in present levels of total fish consumption of over 40%, and of oily fish by 200%. This would place even further pressure on already stretched fish stocks.

Q: Is it OK to buy farmed fish?

A: Fish farming has been promoted by the fishing industry and governments as the solution to ever-decreasing stocks in our oceans. However, in most cases fish farming only makes the problem worse! This is because:

i) Wild-caught fish are used for fish meal and oil to feed farmed stocks which increases the pressure on the marine environment rather than reducing it. The fish meal and oils used in fish farming come from fish such as sand eels. Their removal in massive quantities by industrial fishing vessels has a devastating effect on the marine ecosystem.

ii) Some breeding stocks are taken from wild populations.

iii) Diseases spreads from farmed fish to wild populations making wild populations further depleting their numbers.

iv) Water and environments surrounding fish farms are polluted by fish waste, uneaten food and the chemicals, antibiotics and vaccines used to control disease.

Q: Should I buy MSC labelled seafood products?

A: The Marine Stewardship Council runs a labelling scheme that ‘certifies’ fisheries that are sustainable or are making efforts to become sustainable.

Greenpeace does not currently endorse the MSC scheme because under its rules, fisheries that are still unsustainable (even though they are working to improve) can be awarded the MSC logo.

Greenpeace and many other campaign groups are working with the MSC to try and resolve this issue.

Q: If we stop eating fish surely small fishing communities will be devastated by unemployment?

A: Greenpeace isn’t against fishing. On the contrary, we want to see a fishing industry that is strong and stable and able to fish sustainably in to the future. But the fact remains that we are taking too many fish from our oceans and destroying ecosystems in the process – if we carry on like this many fish stocks will collapse and the marine ecosystem may be irreparably damaged. This would lead to a collapse in the fishing industry and the loss of many jobs. To protect fishing industry jobs in the long-term, the fishing industry needs to become fully sustainable.

We do need to reduce our fishing effort globally, but even if this means fewer jobs at least the industry and its employees have the luxury of time to retrain. The government should provide funds for decommissioning boats and retraining.

Q: Is ‘Dolphin Friendly’ tuna ok to eat?

A: ‘Dolphin Friendly’ labels generally mean very little since they adhere to no legal standard or minimum criteria. The term usually refers to the type of fishing gear used but gives no consideration to the broader impacts associated with tuna fishing. This means that while the tuna may have been fished using methods less likely to catch dolphins, it may come from overexploited tuna stocks or have been caught using methods that impact on the marine environment in other ways. For example, longlining for tuna is associated with a high bycatch rate of turtles, sharks and seabirds.

If you have to eat tuna, only buy line-caught skipjack tuna.