Sustainability begins at the dinner table, whether you’re dining out or eating at home. But when it comes to seafood, making informed and responsible decisions can be complicated, especially when you’re not sure where and how your fish was caught. To complicate things even more, we also have to face questions like whether wild-caught is always more sustainable than farm-raised fish, and whether buying local species is better than buying imported species.

Swordfish

You’ve probably seen color-coded Seafood Watch sustainable seafood guides at some point, and maybe even used one while trying to decide what kind of fish to buy or avoid. While these guides are a great place to start, and give vital information about the most vulnerable and overfished species, they often don’t fully address other major issues like fishery bycatch. As a general rule of thumb, it’s always best to only choose fish from the Green sections of Seafood Watch guides, and avoid the Yellow section as well as Red because of bycatch issues. But if you want to see the whole picture of sustainability, an informed consumer has to ask the right questions and research their options.

  Ready to level up your sustainability knowledge? It’s easy— before you dine out at a seafood restaurant, take a look at the menu online, and then call or stop by to ask a server these four simple questions! The answers will not only help you make better choices, but also help you find the best local restaurants that care about sustainability as much as you do!

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1.) What are the most sustainable options on your menu?

  Things to Consider: Are these options recommended or featured menu items? Do they offer a lot of sustainable options, or only a few? Does this information match up with what you know about sustainability? If your server is excited to help you choose a sustainable meal, that’s a good sign! If they’re not too sure, offer vague statements like “All our fish are sustainably caught” with no further explanation, or change the subject to a different featured menu item, you should be on alert.

  2.) Where is this fish caught?

  Things to Consider: Location is important. If you’re along the Southern Californian coast, you might imagine that your fish is fresh from the Pacific Ocean at your doorstep, not shipped across the globe from Australia or Ecuador. Consider why a restaurant might choose to import a species from a far-flung locale when it’s readily available locally— lower costs? Underpaid fishermen? Less stringent fishing regulations? Or is it a positive reason, like avoiding overfishing local populations? It’s also good to consider the impact of the fossil fuels used to ship your fish from another hemisphere all the way to your table.  

  3.) How was this fish caught?

  Things to Consider: This is where bycatch problems come into play. Some commercial fishermen love drift gillnets because they yield big catches with less effort, but they’re a terrible choice for the environment. Stretching a mile under the sea, they catch anything that swims into their path, including marine mammals and endangered species or vulnerable like leatherback turtles and mako sharks. Long-lines are another common fishery, and this method also boats a high bycatch rate. If you’ve been following TIRN’s boycott of unsustainably caught swordfish, you’ll know that deep-set buoy gear and harpoons are the most eco-friendly methods for catching swordfish. What alternative methods are available for catching the species you’re consuming, and what are the ecological impacts? Read up on the most common fisheries here.

  4.) Do you use a distributor for this fish, or buy it directly from fishermen?

  Things to Consider: Some restaurants will be unwilling to answer this question, which may make you wonder why they’re so secretive about their fish supplies. If they do use a distributor, it’s time to revisit the first question about location— is the distributor getting them cheaper fish from far away, or are they helping the restaurant find the best local options? You may want to do a quick Google search on the distributor and get a feel for their attitude toward sustainability.

  How your server responds to these questions will tell you a lot about the restaurant’s sustainability stance. If they’re enthusiastic and open to answering your questions, you’re probably dining in a place with at least some concern for these issues. If they don’t know the answers, aren’t willing to ask around to get you the answers, or tell you they can’t share that information, it might be time to reconsider eating there.

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Lastly, much like sustainability is a full picture, so is a restaurant’s menu. Even if your chosen dish is sustainable, the restaurant may still be supporting irresponsible fishing practices. Think about the other species on their menu— do they serve shark? Bluefin tuna? How many species on their menu are overfished? Or imported? Does the menu mention sustainable choices or fishing locations? Trust your instincts: if the restaurant doesn’t seem openly invested in sustainability, they probably aren’t.

  One last word of advice: If you’re already out at a restaurant, have asked all these questions, and can’t find a sustainable choice, your safest option is eating a vegetarian dish! Even if you’re not ready to commit to a vegetarian lifestyle full-time, cutting back on seafood in your everyday life can make a big difference, and it’s especially important when you’re actively choosing vegetarian options over irresponsibly sourced fish. Your meal will also send a big message to the restaurant: we don’t want seafood unless it’s sustainable!