The Complex Choices in Sustainable Seafood

By : | 24 Comments | On : August 22, 2013 | Category : Sustainable Living, Viewpoints

Australis Barramundi Farm in Vietnam

9780143119463_FourFish_CV.inddIn order to have a better understanding of the effect my food choices have on the environment, I recently read “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” by Paul Greenburg. The book focuses on the four major fish species we find in today’s market: Tuna, Cod, Bass and Salmon. Greenburg takes his readers through the issues surrounding these species, and explains the general state of the seafood industry from a sustainability perspective.

Complex Choices

I find that I am pretty confident when it comes to buying grass-fed beef, pastured poultry and other land meats, but I am confused when it comes to buying fish. Do I get wild salmon, canned pole caught tuna or farmed tilapia? Do I trust the signs at Whole Foods next to the sea bass claiming it’s sustainably raised and a good choice, even though it’s flown in fresh from South America? What about fish I catch myself? Which fish are still in good enough numbers that I can feel good about eating them and which ones are so full of mercury that I need to avoid them? After reading Greenberg’s book, I feel a little closer to understanding the complex world of sustainable seafood, though I still feel there is a lot to learn.

Visiting a Fish Farm

One fish Greenberg touted as sustainable is the barramundi, farmed by Australis in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Since this town is only a two-hour drive from my home, I thought it would be a fun road-trip and night away from the farm for my husband Andrew and me.


Whole Barramundi, an Asian Sea Bass, farmed by Australis

The owner, Josh Goldman, was very welcoming and spent over an hour showing Andrew and me around his large facility. I don’t know why I pictured a bunch of greenhouses and some underground cement pools, but Australis was incredibly clean and much larger than I had imagined. Josh first showed us the room where the tiny new fish live. He explained their diet and showed us the little pellets they are fed. The fish get a healthy mixture of pre and probiotics, algae, wild fish products, and a conventionally farmed grain mixture.

Large fish tanks at Australis holding Barramundi

Large fish tanks at Australis holding Barramundi

As a sustainable farmer and paleo nutritionist, that last ingredient they are fed really threw me off. If this fish is touted as such a sustainable fish, how come they are fed conventional grain? Josh stated that the costs for organic grain are financially prohibitive. Also, he is exploring other avenues of feed, like growing his own algae. One plus is that they don’t require much grain to convert the input into fish flesh. When compared to conventionally raised meats, barramundi convert grain to flesh at a pretty incredible rate of 1.3:1.


For clarification, this chart represents conventionally raised meats, not the animals we grow here on our farm which is a completely different model. It is ideal to eat pasture raised meats, but lets face it, I realize that it’s hard to consume 100% sustainable meat all of the time. So, when hitting up the grocery store for a protein source for dinner, the choice is usually factory farmed meats, raised on grains.  When you look at the chart and compare farmed fish to conventionally raised poultry, pork or beef, fish win. Also, it seems that barramundi are able to convert the omega-6 fats from the grains to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. The barramundi ends up having a ratio of 1:1 of omega 6 to omega 3. That’s a lot better than other conventional meats and fish out there.

Farmed Fish on the Rise

In 2013, farmed fish overtook wild fish in worldwide sales. This is only going to increase.  We’ve all heard that wild fish stocks are in serious danger. There are also lots of  issues with farmed fish. Tilapia can quickly breed and take overtake the wild species in many areas. Many farmed salmon can get loose and interbreed with wild salmon, weakening the species and spreading disease. Australis barramundi in Massachusetts are bread indoors so there’s no chance of getting loose. The company also farms them in Asia in outdoor conditions but they rotate the pens, so that the sea bed has a chance to lay fallow and regenerate. In 4 years, I’m told they’ve had zero escapes.

Australis Barramundi Farm in Vietnam

Australis Barramundi Farm in Vietnam

Barramundi breed on a lunar cycle, making them more profitable for the company than most cold water fish, which tend to breed once a year. It takes 10 months to harvest one of these fish, which retail for $7.99 per 12oz package in stores like Whole Foods Market and other major retailers. Eighty percent of their fish are sold live to Asian markets, who sell them live in markets or restaurants and process them “pre-rigor” in a “quick lot cook” lending to a very tender flake and produces a fresh taste.

So, what did I learn from reading Four Fish and visiting Australis? It seems that the future of our wild food supply from the ocean is in peril and that we can’t rely on buying wild salmon and think that’s the best choice we can make. Farmed fish aren’t necessarily evil, and there are ways some companies can be much more responsible than others. Restrictions on ocean fishing seem sometimes to only benefit the larger companies, and small-scale fishermen are losing out. Living near Gloucester, in Massachusetts, you easily can see the impact that fishing regulations can have on small fishing towns.

So, What to Choose?

Looking for farmed fish from companies like Australis and seeking out wild caught fish from sustainable stocks can be a better alternative to farmed fish and wild fish caught in unsustainable ways. Fish like barramundi are also a better choice to other factory farmed animal proteins, due to their low food conversion efficiency and high omega 3 content. Choosing frozen fish instead of fresh can help save on the amount of spoilage in retail stores. Another thing I learned from Goldberg at “The Future of Food: Seafood” lecture through WBUR was that bivalves are an excellent choice because they require “no input”. We must protect the larger species of fish like tuna while also protecting smaller fish which bigger ones eat.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a “Super Green List” as a basic shopping guide based on omega-3 content and sustainability:

The Best of the Best: July 2013*


  • Atlantic Mackerel (purse seine from Canada and the U.S.)
  • Freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
  • Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
  • Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
  • Salmon, Canned (wild-caught, from Alaska)

Other Healthy “Best Choices”**

  • Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
  • Sablefish/Black Cod (from Alaska and Canadian Pacific)

The Super Green list includes seafood that meets the following three criteria:

  • Has low levels of mercury (below 216 parts per billion [ppb])
  • Provides at least 250 milligrams per day (mg/d) of omega-3s
  • Is classified as a Seafood Watch “Best Choice” (green)

*The Super Green list is based on dietary requirements for an average woman of childbearing age (18-45, 144 pounds) eating eight ounces of fish per week. The list also applies to men and children; children should eat age-appropriate portions to maximize their health benefits while minimizing risk. The recommendation of 250 mg of omega-3s refers to the combined level of two omega-3s of primary importance to human health: eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).

**Other Healthy “Best Choices” are low in contaminants and provide a smaller amount of omega-3s (between 100 and 250 mg/d, assuming eight ounces of fish per week).

I’m also impressed by their handy mobile phone guide.

One thing aspect that the Monterey Bay Aquarium does not consider is the distance the fish travels to get to your table. Somehow, that doesn’t make it into their sustainability equation, and I think it should. During the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, I attended a sustainable seafood talk by Mark Gibson. He addressed many of the issues I covered in this post but also highlighted how seafood can travel vast distances to get to your table.

Slide from the AHS13 powerpoint by Mark Gibson

Slide from the AHS13 powerpoint by Mark Gibson on the complex global supply chain of seafood.                                          Click here to see his full presentation.


For more information, I highly recommend reading “Four Fish” and checking out this searchable sustainable seafood guide by National Geographic .  The Environmental Defense Fund’s “Seafood Selector“, according to Gibson, has the broadest selection of seafood species and also incorporates nutritional information, like the National Geographic one.  Vote with your dollars and try a “trash fish” – something local to your region and of little value in the modern fish market. Lobster, for example, used to be considered trash fish in New England. Carp is considered a trash fish in the US, but is highly desirable in Asia for eating. Broaden your horizons beyond salmon, tuna, cod and bass.

What is the Future of Food?

On the long ride back to the farm, Andrew and I reflected on our trip. We envisioned the planet 100 years fast forward, where perhaps farming is moved from land into the oceans in order to feed our growing population. I do hope that in the future, conventional grain doesn’t come into play when producing a farm raised fish. Mono-cropping, fossil fuels required to transport the grain, GMOs and heavy pesticide spraying in grain farming is certainly a step backwards in the sustainability realm. In a follow-up email to Goldman probing further about the need for grain as opposed to algae or other protein sources, he replied, “We do incorporate seaweed (macro-algae) and krill in our feeds as functional ingredients, but the possibility of replacing large amounts of grain does not exist today since there is no commercially available and/or affordable algae or bacterial based protein sources … thus the best alternative is to make much more efficient use of the ingredients we have today in parallel with supporting research on novel ingredients to make tomorrow real.  In a world of starvation and obesity, smart aquaculture is a great step forward.”

I still think grass-fed herbivores are the ideal protein for both the environment and for human health. Consider checking out organizations like The Savory Institute, helping to educate small farmers across the globe on environmental grazing techniques. In the meantime, I’m going to bring more shellfish and other locally sourced sea creatures to my table.

Want to give barramundi a try? I was given some fillets to cook and found the fish to have a light, flaky texture and clean taste. Check out this recipe:

Oven Roasted Barramundi with Herb Sauce and Cherry Tomatoes

barramundi 1

Serves 4

1lb of barramundi fillets, thawed overnight in the fridge

Herb Sauce:

1/2 cup fresh mint

1/2 cup fresh cilantro

1/2 cup fresh basil

1/2 cup olive oil

juice of one lemon

1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced

1 tsp fresh ginger

1/4 cup onion, diced

9 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the fillets on the paper. Combine the mint, cilantro, basil, olive oil, lemon, jalapeno, ginger and onion in a food processor and blend until smooth. Coat the fish with the sauce. Top with sliced cherry tomatoes, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast the fish for 10 minutes. Serve with a fresh salad.



Click here for more barramundi recipes

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  • ELElenoreElenor

    “We envisioned the planet 100 years fast forward, where perhaps farming is moved from land into the oceans in order to feed our growing population.”

    No one EVER seems to discuss the concept of not continuing to “grow” our population! We talk about gut overgrowth, and grain overgrowth, and kudzu overgrowth — but the idea of humanity as a destructive / parasitic infestation that is destroying the (flora and other fauna on the) planet never seems to be brought up. And, no, I DON’T believe that convincing upper-middle-class white folks to have only one or, at most two, children is the solution — not so long as people who cannot feed themselves and their offspring keep having 4-5-6 or more children!

    I don’t know how (or IF) it’s solvable, but the continued focus on: “let’s figure out which of the few remaining fish / fowl / fauna are the ‘best’ to eat this year” (or, should that be: “are all that’s left to eat”) — as we continue to destroy laststrong> year’s species — is neither sufficient nor worthwhile. Mother Nature, when a species over-reproduces its niche, KILLS THEM OFF with starvation and wars over resources and re-balances the planet… Why do we think we’re any different!?

    • Thanks for your comment. The purpose of this post was to look into seafood, not to solve the problem of over population. I agree that we are destroying our planet, but am trying to take a positive approach. I grow food which replenishes the earth’s nutrients instead of destroying it. I also agree that it is pretty dismal to look into the future and I too can see wars over resources. I don’t think we are any different, but I am trying to offer solutions, whether or not you think this is a worthwhile endeavor. Educating poor women is a very important step in the process, as the more educated they are, the less likely they are to over produce children.

  • Personally, I’m against farmed fish. Farmed fish is very high in omega-6 and overall rather unhealthy compared to its wild counterpart. When we feed these fish soy, a type of legume that they never encounter in the wild, then that fish will end up being sick. And I don’t want to eat sick fish. Read some research papers on how bad health-wise farmed fish is compared to wild one. Even worse than industrialized cows!

    The same thing has happened with farmed meat (e.g. feeding cows grains, while they’re supposed to eat grass), and with humans (also feeding them processed grains). At least, in the case of humans and cows, they’re *somewhat* adapted to these type of foods, because they grow next to the food they naturally are supposed to eat. But soy and corn doesn’t grow next to shrimp or to algae. These foods are aliens to fish and they should never go near them.

    So while sustaining wild sea-life is important, I also don’t want to be eating TRASH “fish”, because I have my OWN health to look after. I spent 10 years being very sick, and no doctor could help me. Then, I found the root cause of my sickness, and that was “western food”. I cut down all grains, vegetable seed oils, and most sugars, and I added back WILD fish (daily), pastured meat, bone broth, veggies, and other traditional foods. Guess what, I found back my health.

    Under these circumstances, since I’m not willing to cut down wild seafood, IF the solution is to make the human population smaller (as the other poster above said) in order to sustain our planet better, then so be it.

    • I’m not sure you read the post all the way. So, this fish that I’m talking about has an omega 3 to 6 ratio of 1:1. They can convert the omega 6 fats in grains to omega 3’s. This is even better than grass fed cows which are a 3:1 ratio (meaning 3 omega 6’s to 1 omega 6). I’m very familiar with the research out there. I ALSO state that I prefer folks eat grass fed herbivores like cows because of environmental issues. I’m pointing out that this specific farm raised fish variety is superior to industrially raised land animals. “Trash” fish is defined as fish that consumers don’t find appealing in the US. Not that it eats trash. “Trash fish” can be great for your health. Lobster is a fantastic example of a fish once considered a trash fish, and it’s fantastic, both for health reasons and their numbers are doing well. I’m all for cutting out industrial foods like seed oils, sugars, and grains from the human diet. We simply can not all eat only wild fish, as there just isn’t enough to go around. Additionally, just because it is wild, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy or good for the environment. There are many species of wild fish which are full of mercury and other toxins, and the transport of many types of wild fish to get to people’s plate can involve major resources.

      • Are you kidding me? Are you trying to tell me that 1:1 of omega3 to omega6 is “good”, when WILD salmon has 10:1 ???Fish is my main o3 source and you’re trying to give me 9 times less? Everything else I eat, is mostly o6 (even if it’s pastured meat/eggs). So I go for wild fish EXACTLY because I know I can bring that needed balance of my o6 to o3 via wild fish. If my fish’s o3 content goes down compared to its wild counterpart, then that’s simply not optimal for my needs.

        And let’s forget o3 for a moment.

        Feeding GRAINS you said? To fish?

        I’m sorry, but you haven’t spent enough time seeing the TERRIBLE health effects (“diseases of civilization”) that humans are subject to exactly because they started eating food they were not adapted to. No matter how you spin it, if you feed ANY animal a type of food that was not evolved to eat, then it will get SICK. And yes, this will end up being TRASH fish. This will end up being degenerated, sick fish.

        As I said, I’ve been sick and lost years of my life EXACTLY because of such compromises in the way we do things in our society. Now, you are trying to take away my wild fish too?!?

        No, what you propose is not a solution for me. Unless you can verify that the said farmed fish are eating what they’re SUPPOSED to eat, then I don’t want them near me.

        I will still buy wild fish, and if a ban law comes into play in the future, I’d still buy banned fish under the table. Not because I’d want to break the law, but because I NEED the RIGHT food to survive. At this point in my life, is eat or be eaten. I can’t play games with sick food.

        So again, IF the solution to sustainable sea life is a smaller human population, then so be it. It seems to me that you’re trying to fix the symptom, and not the source of the problem. We’re 7 billion people and according to many scientists, this planet can only sustain about 1 billion humans. Work on that, and clean up our waters too, instead of trying to serve me nutritionally-useless, and epigenetically dangerous fish.

        • I believe I agreed with you that wild fish were optimal for health reasons. I’m not sure you know how much time I’ve spent seeing “terrible” health effects of modern food. That is quite a bold statement. Also, I already defined trash fish to you. It is not fish that eats trash. The purpose of this post was to look into the sustainable seafood industry as a whole, and I’ve clearly stated my thoughts at the end, which actually agree with your statements on the health front. More omeaga 3’s are better. Thanks for contributing your thoughts and good luck on your health journey.

    • Mary Naylor

      I have read all the posts. I went through all these questions 15 years ago and came to the conclusion that the only way for me to live a healthy life style and do as little harm to the planet as possible was to become a vegan. 15 years later I am still here and campaigning to stop animal abuse worldwide. At least you guys are thinking about what you eat and how it is kept. And you know not to eat farmed prawns don’t you? They pull the females’ eyes out to speed up the reproduction.

  • This was a great post! I definitely want to look into his book. I remember talking about sustainable seafood in one of my undergrad classes a few years ago, especially how all wild seafood isn’t always the best choice. I try to rely on the best choice guides, but it definitely gets confusing sometimes. Thanks for the reminder to pay more attention to sustainable seafood!

  • Excellent article! just bought the book!

  • Excellent post!
    I’ve been buying barramundi for a while after doing some similar research (and reading Barton Seaver recommend it as a sustainable choice in his “Cod and Country” fish cookbook – which is awesome) but so jealous that you actually got to visit their headquarters! I’ve had “Four Fish” on my bedside reading stack for a while – have not gotten to it yet.
    So thank you for your informed post – it makes me feel better about my decision to buy it!! And loved your clarification on the grain feed and comparison to other animal foods.

  • Dan

    Great article. I will definitely check out this book.

    I know that you were primarily focusing on the delicate balance between sustainability and how we can balance that with our inflammatory diet, but I think it’s also important to note the breakdown as to which types of Omega 3 are present in the Baramundi. Would be interesting to note the breakdown of ALA vs EPA vs DHA, etc..

    And the leading question would be, what are the best pathways to convert energy to omega 3 in a manner that would be acceptable to consumers?

    It seems like the inevitable answer would be to begin incorporating insects and algae into our diet. UGH…

  • Evelyn


    How long will this herb sauce last in the fridge? I’ve never made one!


    • I’d give it a couple of days – herbs can turn brown pretty quickly.

  • This is such a thoughtful and well-written article. I’m doing research on this topic myself, for the same reasons you did. It’s blessedly easy for me to buy local and grassfed meat and produce, but seafood is one big mystery. The one question I’m having trouble answering regards shellfish. They’re a sustainable, healthy choice, because they’re easily farmed without need for added feed, and they aren’t prone to illness requiring antibiotics. BUT they’re filters. In fact, they’re so good at it, that they’re used to test for pollution in water, because they absorb that pollution into their meat. So, how do we know the shellfish we buy are from clean waters? Seafood is the most complex food choice I make, and the more I learn, the more complex it becomes.

    • I had the same questions. Some of those guides have toxicity levels included in the choices and it seems that shellfish in general are pretty safe. Buying local to you is also a good idea, to make sure they’re not from a dirty shellfish farm far away from you.

  • Aleandra

    It always makes me laugh that, when in discussions about population, the one doing the speaking assumes they would be one of the 1 billion that would be left. Why would they necessarily be one of the 1 billion left on the planet?

    Just a thought.
    Grok on!

  • Maura Boland

    This is a great discussion that has stemmed from your article. I do appreciate you putting it out there into the universe.

    As a owner of a susatinable seafoods company, there are a few things I would like to bring up and than I will leave well enough alone. I have learned that you can go around and around on these discussion boards.

    My concerns are as follows:

    -All Farmed fish must have Antibiotics given to to them due to the waste created and seeped into their systems. Filtering has no bearing on this, it is necessary. We have enough antibiotics in food sources already.

    -Fishing regulations are the most strenuous in the State of Alaska but that does not guarantee the populations will sustain themselves. Fish farms that have been established in bays are now reeking havoc on the enviornment and drawing up bacterias that are invading the Wild Population transferring it to the humans. Grains given to fish is absolutely not the way to go. Just look at the havoc that has been reeked on human systems when the wrong grain is eaten. Just imagine forcing it into fish that are use to eating plant algae other critters to survive.

    -Its hard to know what sustainable means. Its does not mean ‘wild’ it means the method in which the fish is caught. I recently ventrued to Whole foods and saw fish labeled Wild and Sustainable but than it said it was ‘Pot Caught’ which is not sustainble. Its best to go on the site to learn the best methods of fishing.

    What I am grateful for is that people are willing to discuss and are interested! It makes me hopefully that the shift in conciousness is growing stonger each minute of every beautiful day!

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  • Ginny

    Great blog and article. Just 2 questions about fish farming.
    1. ‘Wild fish products’ as feed? Just how sustainable is this? Much fish meal is trawled and the small wild fish are being depleted and this has an ongoing ripple effect, apart from the other species caught as by-catch. Have you read Farmagedeon? He touches on that aspect very well.
    2. In some fish farming, and I am not sure if Australis would follow this practice, but the fish are sprayed with pesticides? Because of the un-natural environment in which they are kept they are prone to lice etc, and I remember watching a program on farmed salmon, and it showed the spraying of these cages with pesticides, while the men were suited up in all over coverings. They stated that farmed salmon were one of the most poisonous foods to eat, because of the high oil content of the fish, and pesticides are concentrated in these normal healthy omega 3’s.
    I would be interested to know your thoughts on these. Keep up the good work. Regards Ginny

    • I agree with you. I’m not sure what Australis does with their open tanks in Vietnam. I’m more familiar with land-based agriculture than ocean/fish farms. I don’t think feeding fish GMO grains is a fantastic option. I have not read Farmagedon but I’ll check it out!

      • Ginny

        Thanks. Let me know if you read the book, your thoughts. Keep up the good work.

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