Want Sustainable Seafood? You Need This Cheat Sheet

Last Update: March 9, 2020

When it comes to seafood, it’s difficult to look a waiter in the eye and ask the hard-hitting questions: Where does this fish come from? Was it farmed or wild?

Best case scenario—they’re well-informed enough to know that the salmon on the menu was farmed in recirculating aqua systems in the Atlantic, and thus, sustainable. But more often than not, until recently, anyone asking those questions was just asking to be a joke on Portlandia. It can be an awkward feeling. But (to get earnest for a minute) these questions are becoming more and more important if you care about the planet—and your health.

Overfishing can leave locals living in rural coastal areas—where vital sources of protein are being depleted for mass consumption—without a fish to fry. Fish farmed in open net pens can pollute the water and spread disease and parasites, while chemical treatments used can breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria that gets passed through the food chain.

So, which is healthier and more sustainable: wild-caught or farm-raised? For the average person, it seems impossible to know without getting into the nitty-gritty of it all.

But there are quite a few common types of seafood that conscious consumers can feel safe choosing. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you decide which fish and shellfish are sustainable, and which are better off left in the ocean.


Wild-Caught Salmon

Some farmed salmon are safe, and some are not, but you can bet on the wild-caught variety. A majority of it comes from Alaska, where the species is abundant due to intense management.

Blue Crab

Predominantly from the Chesapeake Bay, this type of crab is caught with attention to avoiding unintentional bycatch.


These mild, smooth-tasting shellfish are a generally safe option.


These fish are a well-managed, resilient species.

Arctic Char

A close cousin of salmon, this fancy pink fish is 100% sustainable.


These bivalves are rich in omega-3s, and a safe choice.

Farm-Raised Cod

A staple of the ancient Viking diet, these days, farm-raised are the safest variety, while wild-caught is more questionable.

Farm-Raised Halibut and Wild-Caught Pacific Halibut

When ordering halibut, farm-raised is a good option, as well as wild-caught fish from the Pacific. Wild Atlantic halibut are to be avoided due to overfishing.


Most mussels sold in the US are farmed domestically or internationally in countries that adhere to strict environmental regulations. Wild mussels are safe, too.


No need to worry about this fine food. Most oysters are farmed as well, carefully cultivated to embody the taste of local waters.



Sourcing of shrimp is one of the more complicated fishing situations, proving difficult to regulate around the world. Those who are concerned would do better to avoid it.


These are poorly managed, and a mysterious disappearance of anchovies off coastal waters may leave a lack of food for marine mammals.


Step away from the unagi. This species is 100% unsustainable due to a decline in their population as well as overfishing of other species required to feed them.

Orange Roughy

These deep sea fish can live to be 100 years old. They reproduce late in life, which makes them vulnerable to extinction. Also, the method used to catch them damages fragile, deep-sea coral ecosystems. Avoid them at all costs.

Bluefin Tuna

This may be the poster child of unsustainable fish. Beloved as a sushi delicacy, all populations throughout the world are completely overfished, with only 4% of the average population remaining in the ocean. These epic fish must be avoided and given a fair chance to recover.

For every other type of fish, consult the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium app, Seafood Watch.

Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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