A Deep Dive on Sustainable Seafood

Ask yourselves: Do you know your fishermen?

By John Stoddard, Health Care Without Harm on January 14, 2016

different types of seafood at market, on ice

HEALTH CARE facilities serve seafood as a source of lean protein, but do they know where the seafood they buy comes from? Is it safe and free from contaminants? And is it harvested in a way that protects the oceans’ ecosystems and our future supply of seafood?

The U.S. produces approximately 4.5 million metric tons of seafood annually,1 yet 90 percent of the seafood that Americans consume is imported. About half of that is farm-raised, since imported, farm-raised seafood often has a lower price point than domestic, wild-caught fish. However, this lower price point may come at the expense of the environment, health and social justice.

Imported seafood comes to us relatively anonymously, and it is difficult to know under what conditions it is harvested. Slave labor and harsh working conditions have been documented in the international fishing and aquaculture industries. Additionally, carcinogenic and other toxic chemicals and pesticides are used in fish farms, as well as antibiotics to prevent disease. This prophylactic use of antibiotics has been shown to create drug-resistant bacteria.

Domestic seafood is more highly regulated. However, some fisheries are in danger of collapse due to highly extractive fishing methods. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees conservation efforts in the U.S., and several fisheries have rebounded. But some management policies have favored large-scale fishing fleets, leading to consolidation in the industry and pushing out our traditional fishermen. Researchers and international guidelines from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have promoted community-led, small-scale fisheries as a solution to these problems in order to maintain healthy stocks and build more resilient and sustainable fisheries and ecosystems.

Choosing Seafood for Health Care

Third-party certifications and guidelines are a good first step for identifying seafood with improved standards. Many major food distributors and food service management companies utilize the Marine Stewardship Council and others to identify more responsible choices.

However, the best approach to choosing seafood is to go deeper and follow the principles used for land-based foods. Health Care Without Harm worked closely with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (www.namanet.org) to develop seafood recommendations (www.noharm-uscanada.org/documents/choosing-seafood-health-care) for health care facilities that protect the health of individuals, communities and the environment. This environmental nutrition approach (www.noharm-uscanada.org/environmentalnutritionwhitepaper2014) considers social, economic and ecological issues that shape our food system.

A simple, commonsense strategy is to “know your fisherman”—or at least to “know your fish.”2 When buying seafood, prioritize local and seasonal, preferably wild caught. Fortunately, there are emerging alternatives to the global fish trade, and there are viable sources of local, wild seafood available to health care. When purchasing seafood, follow these five principles:

  • Buy a diversity of seasonally available species. Like most foods, seafood is seasonal. Many coastal states now have seafood calendars that show when it’s best to catch and buy certain species because of their natural spawning, migration and abundance cycles. When you buy seafood seasonally, you can support fishing communities by buying what they are catching at a given time. For example, as a seafood buyer, you might request a seasonal white fish in place of a specific species. By doing this, you are purchasing according to natural cycles and what fishermen are catching. You will also likely get a better price by buying seasonally.
  • Buy “underutilized” species. When it comes to food, it’s understandable that we often stick to what we know. However, when we focus on the same few species such as cod, salmon, shrimp and tuna, we put a greater strain on those species, drive up demand and price, and make it difficult for fishermen to sell what is in abundance during that season. In New England, for example, over 60 species are often brought to shore, many of which are an easy substitute for cod.
  • Buy local or domestic wild-caught finfish and shrimp from small and mid-sized vessels. While aquaculture practices are improving, most of the farmed fish we eat are raised abroad where standards and enforcement of standards vary. Common to the international food marketplace, only about 2 percent of seafood imports are inspected, meaning there is risk when buying imported seafood. More and more, we are finding that our local community-based fishermen are better stewards of the sea than “big seafood” companies that may have no ties to local communities and low motivation to protect local resources. Buying local supports and preserves local fishing communities that are increasingly under threat of consolidation from larger-scale operations.3
  • Connect with community seafood organizations. It’s getting easier to have access to seafood. To find sources of seafood near your facilities, you can visit www.localcatch.org, www.marketyourcatch.msi.ucsb.edu or www.fishlineweb.com. Other resources are coming online in the near future. NAMA also works with fishing communities throughout North America, and its staff is available as a resource.
  • Talk to your distributor. Ask for lesser-known species that are caught in the waters near you, or ask about the source of their seafood if it’s not domestic and local. Request the name of the boat that caught your fish in order to ensure traceability. Share your commitment to making sure fishermen are paid a fair price for their catch, and ask how you can support that effort.

As a large-volume purchaser, your decisions can help protect our oceans and support our local fishing economies. As with many foods, seafood is tied closely to seasons and the places in which we live. Third-party seafood certification programs are a good first step for making responsible purchasing decisions. However, using a place-based model allows you to go deeper in your support for fisheries and fishing communities.

HCWH recommends that health care facilities follow the same principles used for purchasing foods grown on land. We can’t emphasize it enough: Buy local and seasonal from community-based producers and directly from small- and medium-scale fishing businesses to increase the potential that the seafood you serve achieves the multiple bottom lines of environmental stewardship, economic sustainability and social justice. Just as the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages us to “know your farmer,” HCWH advises you to “know your fisherman.”

Aquaculture and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Aquaculture in the U.S. primarily prevents disease through the use of vaccines rather than antibiotics. However, in developing countries, where a significant portion of the farmed seafood we eat originates, the use of antibiotics as a preventive measure is still common. Research shows that aquaculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance is equal to that of agriculture.

This may be attributable to the fact that water provides an easy and constant medium through which antibiotics and resistant genes can disperse, increasing the impact of low levels of antibiotics. Of the antibiotics commonly used in aquaculture and agriculture, 76 percent are important to human medicine and 12 percent are on the World Health Organization’s list of critically or highly important antimicrobials. Medically important antibiotics that are used in aquaculture include:

  • Aminoglycoside: Gentamicin
  • Macrolides: Spiramycin, Erythromycin
  • Penicillins: Amoxicillin, Ampicillin, Penicillin G
  • Quinolone: Enrofloxacin
  • Sulfonamide: Sulfadimethoxine, Sulfadimidine, Sulfapyridine
  • Tetracycline: Chlortetracycline, Oxytetracycline, Tetracycline
  • Other: Trimethoprim

Health care facilities can address the threat of antibiotic resistance by ensuring that the food they purchase is not produced with prophylactic and medically important antibiotics. The simplest way to do this is to purchase local and domestic wild seafood. —J.S.

John Stoddard is the New England regional project coordinator for Health Care Without Harm.


1. “Commercial Fisheries Statistics.” Annual Landings. NOAA Office of Science and Technology, 2013. Accessed online, July 2015. www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/st1/commercial/landings/annual_landings.html
2. We use fisherman and fishermen in this document as a gender-neutral term due to feedback from fishing communities that fisherman is the preferred term among females who fish.
3. Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Reference Document 11-19, 2010 Final Report on the Performance of the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery (May 2010–April 2011), 2nd Edition.