Chefs Guide to Sourcing Sustainable Seafood

As chefs, we spend a tremendous amount of time in our restaurants, absorbed and enriched by our daily lives in food. As members of Chefs Collaborative, we add value to that time by buying ingredients from responsible, trusted, and sustainable sources.

Through our purchasing decisions and our behavior, chefs can affect critical change in our food system: we can help to preserve biodiversity and artisanal methods of food production, and we can lend support to local fishing and farming communities.

With 70% of seafood purchases in this country made in the food service industry, we need the latest information before we make purchases with consequences that reach far beyond our tables.

More people are considering the ethics of how they eat, yet consumer demand for seafood shows no sign of slowing down.

Chefs must balance an understanding of marine conservation with the business demands of running a restaurant while responding to a shifting culinary landscape. Seafood Solutions is designed to guide chefs through their seafood purchasing decisions.

We offer ideas for simple, effective culinary solutions to the current ecological challenges we face.

Sustainable Seafood

Sustainable Seafood

As chefs navigate the seafood world to meet rising consumer demand, they’re faced with constantly changing information. A supplier says one thing, a seafood guide another, a news report something else. What and what not to offer on nightly menus changes with these new discoveries and the findings made public each day.

In light of dwindling fish populations and rising global demand, chefs must make tough decisions daily. Sustainable seafood refers to fish and shellfish caught or farmed with consideration for the long-term viability of individual marine species, fishing communities, and the oceans’ ecological balance as a whole.

Sustainable seafood comes from well-managed fisheries or aquaculture operations where measures are taken to maintain a strong, diverse marine ecosystem and a healthy population of the species in question. And beyond the health of the fish and their surroundings, sustainable seafood must be managed in such a way that it meets present-day needs without compromising the needs of future generations, as articulated by the United Nations.

Know your sources: When it comes to tracing the origins and catch methods of your seafood, a solid chef-supplier relationship will allow the chef to define standards and ask for the type of fish they want.

Ask lots of questions: If your current supplier is not familiar with sustainability issues, start here:

  • Where is the fish from?
  • Is it farm-raised or wild?
  • How was it farmed or caught?

Think locally and seasonally: The seasons have a much greater influence on seafood than on terrestrial animals. Considering seafood’s seasonal availability (sometimes determined by fishing regulations) when planning menus will help prioritize choices and improve the quality of the fish you’re serving.

If you live on a coast, buying locally will bring both fresher fish and fewer food miles.

Buy low on the food chain: Large predators like blue fin tuna and swordfish are critical to maintain the balance of the food chain, yet many of these species are at risk of commercial extinction from overfishing.

Bluefin tuna populations, for example, have declined by 90% since the 1970’s. Predator species also have higher levels of mercury than most other seafood, and the tracking, capture, processing, and shipping of these larger fish require intensive energy use. For a more balanced marine ecosystem, less risk of contamination, and a smaller carbon footprint, choose species lower on the food chain, like sardines, anchovies, and shellfish.

Be flexible and creative: A fluid approach to developing menus allows chefs to adapt to changes in availability of certain species, while experimenting with lesser-known species will increase the ability to make well-chosen substitutions.

Support small-scale fisheries: Like small-scale farmers and food artisans, small-scale fishers those using hook-and line, harpoon, reef-nets, and other low-impact methods are under pressure from policies that often favour industrial-scale methods.

Chefs can be an important source of revenue and support for sustainable fishers and their ways of life, by buying their products and highlighting their stories on menus or restaurant websites.

Educate and engage your customers: Chefs have a unique opportunity to influence public opinion about food choices. Besides posting menus online, make websites a destination by adding materials and resources for further information. Some chefs slip seafood guides in with guest checks, others hold educational dinners featuring sustainable seafood menus and guest speakers.

Diversify demand: Tuna, salmon, and shrimp are the three most widely consumed seafood species in the U.S. But finding sustainable sources for these species isn’t enough, say conservationists. Cooking with lesser known species, like wreck fish, wahoo, or mackerel, can ease pressure on more popular species while expanding the public’s palate and the chef’s range.

Continue your education: Keep up-to-date by researching information (www. ), Environmental Defence Fund (, Monterey Bay Aquarium (, the Seafood Choices Alliance (, and aquariums around the country.

As commercial fishing has become a high-tech, high-stakes industry, species are being quickly removed from the ocean. In addition, global warming is raising water temperatures and contributing to the collapse of marine ecosystems. An increasing awareness of the issues affecting the oceans and their inhabitants can help chefs prioritize their seafood purchasing decisions.
The more you know, the more responsible choices you’ll be able to make. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over the past 10 to 15 years, 75% of the world’s fish species have been fully exploited, over exploited or depleted. And since the FAO began monitoring global fish stocks in 1974, the populations of under exploited stocks have been in consistent decline, as well.

We have reached the limits of what we can harvest from wild stocks. From the shore, changes in the ocean are hard to detect. But for those who make their livings catching or preparing seafood, numerous signs point to trouble in the world’s fisheries. Coastal towns and communities with once-thriving fishing operations now struggle to maintain a fraction of their business.
From fishermen selling their boats, to declining business on the docks, the evidence is everywhere. Fish markets sell little-known species to replace those no longer abundant enough to be commercially viable.

When purchasing seafood, chefs may notice that certain species have become prohibitively expensive; some are younger and smaller than those traditionally sold in the past, and others aren’t available at all.

Sustainable Seafood Guide

Over fishing

Occurs when species are caught at a rate faster than they can reproduce or be restored through fisheries management. Over fishing has increased significantly as advances in tracking equipment and fishing gear technology have allowed wild fish yields to increase far beyond manageable levels.

Recovery is possible only through limiting fishing of the at-risk species, and even then, species replenish at differing rates based upon both the age at which the fish reproduce, and the degree to which the stock is endangered.


Refers to species unintentionally caught in fishing gear or unwanted because they’re too small or otherwise not marketable. About one quarter of the global fish catch is by-catch. The use of non-selective fishing methods, using gear types like trawl nets, purse seines, or long-lines, is estimated to produce 27 million tons of by-catch annually.

Get Close to the Source

Removing a few links in the supply chain and purchasing from regional sources, makes it easier to know which boat the fish came off of, how long the boat had been out, and how and where the fish were caught. Chefs can talk to fishermen through their suppliers.

Exploitation of the oceans: fishing practices that threaten fish populations and habitats Who’s watching over the ocean? In 1976, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act

According to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, nutrient over enrichment via water run-off from the land is one of the major stresses to coastal ecosystems. When excess levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are released from fertilizers and animal wastes, they stimulate massive algae blooms downstream, which use up all available oxygen in the water, and make it impossible for marine species to survive.

The effects of these algae blooms are called Dead Zones and can be found all over the world, including in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Dead Zone is fuelled by nutrient run-off from the entire Mississippi River watershed, which encompasses 41% of the continental United States, including 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Scientists and fishermen are concerned that the growth of the Gulf Dead Zone will soon result in the potential collapse of the seafood economy there.

Shoreline development places pressure on fragile coastal ecosystems. Unregulated, it can result in coastal erosion and the destruction of wetlands like marshes and estuaries where some fish spawn. Land-based pollution is a major threat to marine ecology. Nutrients and by products from agriculture, industry, and development wash into the ocean, altering aquatic ecosystems. For example, mercury from coal-burning power plants winds up in the water, accumulating in species that may then find their way onto our dinner plates.

Dams and water diversions built to generate electricity have reduced large areas of spawning habitat for salmon and other migratory species. By altering the activity of rivers and estuaries, dams also increase coastal erosion and decrease fishery productivity.

Carbon emissions from activities on land like automobiles, industrial agriculture, and coal-fired power plants contribute to rising ocean temperatures and threatened ecosystems like coral reefs. Connecting Land and Sea Clearing forests to develop the coast.

A look at America’s most popular seafood illustrates how actions on the land affect the ocean. In the United States, nutrient pollution threatens the Southern U.S. shrimp industry. Overseas, shrimp-intensive farms are threatening important ecosystems by replacing mangrove forests in coastal areas.

Connecting Land and Sea: It’s not just activity in the water that affects the health of marine environments. In the past few decades, fish farming has been increasing in intensity and scale around the globe, and shrimp farming is among the fastest growing sectors of aquaculture overall.

90% of the U.S. shrimp supply is imported from Asia and South America, according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance, who point out that in 2006, the U.S. imported 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp more than any other seafood. Most of it is industrially produced and therefore potentially tainted with antibiotics, pesticides, and other disinfectants used to prevent disease in dense shrimp pens.

The Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 1% of seafood imports entering the country, so much of the product winding up on our tables is of questionable quality and origin. Because of the high volume of cheaper imports on the market, prices paid to domestic shrimpers have dropped by 45% since 2000, even as costs to consumers have not dropped accordingly.

To counter low prices and high operating costs, the domestic industry is positioning wild-caught American shrimp as a premium product and trying new market strategies, including selling directly to restaurants. Restaurants can be key markets for fresh, sustainably caught wild or farm-raised shrimp, especially when chefs can pass some of the cost on to their customers, marketing the story behind the product.

Although the Southeast Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico lay claim to the largest and most productive wild domestic shrimp fisheries in the country, chefs have a range of choices when it comes to these popular crustaceans. Fishermen in the Gulf of Maine catch their cold-water Maine pink shrimp from December to February and sell these sweet, tiny shrimp fresh to restaurants. In the summer and fall along the West Coast, trap-caught spot prawns (with little to no bycatch) are harvested and considered among the most ecologically sound wild-caught shrimp on the market.

In addition, U.S. farmed shrimp is raised under much stricter protocols than inexpensive imports, and is an accepted eco-friendly choice.

Seasonal Seafood

Was it raised in an open water system?

Open aquaculture systems hold fish in structures like net pens or sea cages. Placed in coastal areas and inland waterways, these systems rely on the natural exchange of water between the enclosure and the surrounding environment to flush out fish waste, excess feed, and the chemicals (such as antibiotics and parasiticides ) sometimes used to combat poor fish health in crowded pens.

Ecologists think untreated waste may disrupt ocean ecosystems; that parasitic organisms and diseases may be transmitted from farms into the wild; and that farmed fish have the potential to escape and reproduce genetically altering wild populations or competing with them for food and habitat. By contrast, farm-raised mollusks like oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels are filter-feeders that actually clean the water they’re raised in.

Was it raised in a land-based tank?

Used, for example, to rear trout, and sometimes Arctic char, and Chilean turbot, land-based tanks are also known as closed (or semi-closed) systems, which generally aren’t connected to outside waters. There is virtually no risk of farmed fish escaping from these systems, but there can be a higher energy cost associated with maintaining truly closed system operations.

Additionally, the processing and disposal of waste water must be considered. Farm-raised product accounts for nearly half of worldwide seafood consumption. And with 2000% growth in the sector since 1970 and more natural fish populations bordering on extinction, aquaculture can provide a delicious and responsible alternative while simultaneously allowing wild stocks time to rebound. But regulations in the industry vary by country, with associated ecological consequences for the oceans and waterways.

Is it carnivorous or mostly vegetarian?

In many aquaculture systems, the amount of wild-caught fish used to create fishmeal (to feed the farmed species) outweighs the amount of farmed fish produced, resulting in a net loss of protein from the sea. Removing wild fish from the ocean leaves less food for species higher up the food chain. And shipping large quantities of wild fish across the world to satisfy aquaculture operations is a practice that just doesn’t seem responsible when considering the environmental costs.

Is the fish raised with antibiotics?

Increasing the density of fish raised in any given system can mean greater profits for producers, but increased density can also affect fish health. As on overcrowded cattle or hog farms, antibiotics may be needed to treat fish disease caused by stress and close quarters.

Recent studies have linked antibiotic use in aquaculture to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in people.

Are the populations healthy?

Although the populations of many popular species are declining due to over fishing and habitat destruction, you can still source popular seafood ( like Alaskan salmon and Pacific black cod ) from some fisheries.

Robust populations indicate that the resources are being well-managed.

Where was the fish caught?

Ask if the fishery where your seafood came from is known for responsible practices, and if the stocks are well-managed or depleted. Fishery management differs from location to location many species, like cod, sole, and halibut, are considered healthy in the Pacific fisheries but over fished in the Atlantic.

Ask about the water quality where the fish was caught, considering high levels of pollution or bacterial growth.

How was it caught?

Non-selective fishing methods like trawl nets and long-lines capture and kill non-targeted species. Bycatch can include sea turtles, whales, seabirds, dolphins, and other creatures that are too small, young or otherwise not commercially viable. Hydraulic dredges sometimes used for molluscs can seriously degrade ocean floor habitats (like corals and sponges), as can bottom-scraping trawl gear used to catch shrimp, flounder, monkfish, and other bottom-dwelling species.

However, as U.S. fisheries management has evolved, many types of fishing gear are being altered to reduce bycatch and minimize damage to the ocean floor. Hook and line, harpoons, traps and pots have low bycatch and do less damage to the ocean floor than other catch methods.

Low bycatch fisheries include rod-and reel caught yellow fin tuna, pole-caught albacore tuna, pot-caught spot prawns, reef-net caught salmon, and non-dredged molluscs.

Does the species of fish reproduce quickly, or is it slow to reach maturity?

Species that grow quickly and spawn frequently, such as mahi-mahi, wahoo, anchovies, and oysters are usually better choices for frequent consumption than those that take years to reach reproductive age. Protective management is crucial to the survival of species that reproduce late in life, like sharks, Patagonian toothfish (Chilean seabass), and orange roughy.

Does the fish have any health risks associated with mercury or PCB’s?

The contaminants found in seafood (metals, industrial chemicals, pesticides, and dangerous microbes) are odourless, tasteless and virtually undetectable to the naked eye. Contaminant levels vary among different types of fish depending on the species’ location, size, age and diet.

The FDA recommends that pregnant or nursing women, as well as young children, avoid fish with high levels of mercury, such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tile fish.

How far did the fish travel to reach its final destination?

Typically, more energy is used to catch or farm most fish than to transport it. Industrial longlining, bottom trawling, and salmon farming are all energy intensive. So if you’re concerned about energy use, knowing how far your seafood has travelled only addresses part of the issue but it’s a start.

This question addresses fuel consumption and carbon impact, as well.

Fishery openings and closings: Wild fisheries open and close at different times of year depending on many factors. These include the varied seasons certain species run, conditions in the water and atmosphere, and when catch quotas for diff erent fish have been met. Working with a supplier who stays abreast of these developments makes short-term and long-term menu planning easier, and makes menus more flexible and responsive to the constantly changing conditions of the seas.

Localized markets: With the help of a good supplier, chefs can buy from localized markets. Often a local market cannot absorb the influx when a fishing boat lands. The extra product is sold to suppliers and distributors in other parts of the country, sometimes for less of a price than the local market pays.
Whether labelled organic, salmon-safe, or fair trade, certifying foods that adhere to a set of production standards has become increasingly common. Seafood is no exception. But since different certifications can mean different things, work with your supplier to make sense of the different labels on the market.

A look at eco-labels The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent non-profit organization that has established the most globally-recognized sustainability standard for wild fish.

The MSC certification program meets the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s eco-labelling guidelines, defining a ‘sustainable’ fishery as one that: Maintains and/or re-establishes healthy populations of targeted species.
Maintains the integrity of ecosystems. Develops and maintains effective fisheries management systems which take into account biological, technological, economic, social, environmental and commercial factors.

Complies with relevant local, national, and international laws: Other certification programs include eco-labels for aquaculture. The Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) is one trade association with an eco-label for farm-raised seafood, while the Oregon-based Food Alliance will soon begin issuing eco-labels for shellfish sustainably raised on the West Coast.
In Europe, U.K.-based Friends of the Sea certifies both aquaculture farms and wild fisheries. While several private European certifiers offer an organic seal for farmed seafood like salmon, cod, shrimp, and tilapia, organic aquaculture standards here in the United States are still in development.

Though the European standards offer some advantages over conventional aquaculture production, organic certification for aquaculture shouldn’t act as a proxy for true sustainability. Work with your supplier to get the answers to your questions.
A responsible seafood vendor educates chefs about lesser-known sustainable choices and supports the sustainability standards a chef sets forth.

When chefs develop strong standards and strong relationships, they can continue to build the market for sustainable seafood. Know Your Supplier Whether you need help finding a replacement for a certain species, or if you suspect you’re not getting what you ordered, a trusted seafood vendor is an excellent resource.

To build a flexible, adaptable, and sustainable menu, work with your vendors to get the stories behind the seafood. Work with your servers to keep them up to speed on the species you’re serving. And work with your customers to build the demand for underutilized species.

Get people excited, not disappointed.

Fish fraud Is this wild salmon really wild?

In April 2005, perhaps the most well-known case of fish mislabeling, the New York Times showed that fish sold as wild salmon by high-end New York City markets was mostly farm-raised, selling for as much as $29 a pound.
High value species are the most common candidates for substitution: low prices can be one giveaway. Don’t be afraid to press your suppliers to demonstrate that the fish you’re ordering is genuine.

A good supplier will be familiar with this issue and should be comfortable addressing your concerns.

Some examples:

  • Black sea bass is a good substitute for red snapper.
  • Try U.S. farm-raised catfish in place of orange roughy.
  • Use croaker in place of monkfish.
  • Hook-caught haddock can replace over fished Atlantic cod.
  • Mahi-mahi can stand in for meaty warm-water fish like grouper.