Seafood Watch: The Eastern Seaboard

Oceana, an organization seeking to protect and restore the world’s oceans, offers information on the environmental impacts of eating various types of seafood.
Man holding a King Mackerel in the Florida Keys
WATCH WHAT YOU EAT: Take responsibility when choosing your seafood dinner (Photographer’s Choice/Mark Lewis/Getty)

Whether you crave shrimp, lobster, striped bass, or Atlantic cod, flash freezing and overnight shipping have made it possible enjoy your favorite seafood practically anywhere in the world. It's tempting to order whatever your mouth is watering for; however, it's important to take a look at the plummeting populations of wild seafood around the world and try your best to avoid the species in peril. To make our lives easier, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch offers an online guide detailing the environmental impact of eating various types of seafood, with a list of items that are environmentally okay to eat (download their wallet–sized guide and carry it around with you).

In that same vein, Oceana and have joined to give readers an idea of what to eat while traveling, and we begin with the U.S. East Coast, offering a list of delicious beach fare from the right coast, in descending order of sustainability:

The self–proclaimed Catfish Capital of the World, the Delta hamlet of Belzoni, Mississippi boasts about 60 percent of United States farmed catfish, raised within an hour's drive and supporting an industry worth half a billion dollars. Since farmed catfish often feed on soybean pellets and live in contained ponds where its waste can't contaminate the environment, it ranks as one of the best choices when it comes to sustainable seafood. Just make sure it's U.S-raised, and then enjoy in chowder, gumbo, or fried with hush puppies.

Striped Bass
This colorful fish, also known as rockfish, is a conservation success story. After overfishing drove its population to the brink of extinction two decades ago, careful management helped the striped bass return to abundance. A popular sport fish in the Mid–Atlantic, striped bass is easy to prepare on your own or to track down in a local restaurant. Farmed striped bass, raised inland in ponds, is also a good conservationist choice. Women of child-bearing age and children should limit their consumption of this fish, however, as it can contain mercury.

Maine Lobster
Few geographic locales and sea critters are as strongly associated with one another as New England and the lobster. Trap-caught lobster is abundant as well as delicious, but the lobster's continuing success is thanks to another fish's unfortunate decline. Since the Atlantic cod population collapsed in the early 1990s due to overfishing, the lobster's main predator has been off the scene. Now they just have us and our wily traps to worry about. Some scientists are concerned that lobsters can't withstand the growing pressure from restaurants and markets for much longer, so save lobster-eating for special occasions. In addition, lobster pot lines can entangle the critically endangered right whale, although studies have shown that fewer traps can still catch the same amount of lobster, protecting right whales and lobstermen's bottom lines.

In the Chesapeake Bay, oysters were once so common that they collectively filtered the entire bay's water in the space of a week. Now, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it would take the remaining oysters more than a year to do the same. Overfishing and habitat destruction caused the wild oyster population to plummet in the 1980; however, farmed oysters are a good alternative. Raised in artificial oyster bars along the coast, the filtering action of the bivalves helps improve water quality. Eat your farmed oyster knowing that it helped clean up muddy waters.

Blue Crab
Quirky blue crabs are, as Miles might say, only kind of blue. They're also green and red and feature a distinctive protruding lateral spine. Also called Jimmies and Sally crabs in the Chesapeake, blue crabs are quick enough to catch fish in their pincers. They will snap at your fingers even out of the water. Kept in a pen and allowed to molt, they become soft-shell crabs. While trap-caught blue crabs are minimally invasive to the environment, conservationists worry that the growing popularity of blue crab could overwhelm the population. Enjoy blue crab in moderation.

Sea Scallop
This is a tough one. These tasty bivalves recovered from past overfishing and now rate at healthy levels from Canada to Florida. Unfortunately, most wild sea scallops are caught using dredges that rip up the sea floor, destroying habitat including coral reefs. Look for diver–caught scallops, plucked from the sea floor by hand with minimal habitat damage.

The powerful grouper doesn't bite its prey—it opens its gaping mouth and literally sucks them in. Unfortunately, it holds no such skill for deflecting fishermen's lines. In the Gulf of Mexico, home of most of the grouper served in the U.S., overfishing is a serious threat to this fish. Grouper also contains high levels of mercury, which can be harmful to children and women of childbearing age.

Atlantic Cod
Is Atlantic cod the tastiest food in the history of the world? Based on its sheer popularity, you might think so. As detailed in Mark Kurlansky's Cod: The Fish That Changed the World, this bottom feeder was once so abundant that intercontinental voyagers discovered waters thick with the bronzed fish and soon battered cod with potatoes—better known as fish and chips—became the poor man's dinner. In the early 1990s, however, the cod population nosedived after decades of overfishing. Avoid Atlantic cod unless you can find one that's been line-caught rather than trawled.

Bad news for crustacean lovers: the shrimp industry is extremely harmful to the environment. Farming shrimp creates pollution. Wild shrimp is caught using bottom trawls, weighted nets that drag along the sea floor and obliterate everything in their path. This harmful technique results in bycatch, the accidental capture and killing of untarget=ed wildlife including fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, and corals. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, shrimp trawling is the biggest cause of bycatch in the world, killing 1.8 million tons of marine life each year. U.S.-based shrimp trawlers aren't as bad as many other countries, but they're still responsible for 50 percent of U.S. bycatch. How about some delicious catfish instead of that shrimp cocktail?

Published: 10 Sep 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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