Frequently Asked Questions

Seafood Watch Program

General

We currently have a U.S. National pocket guide as well as Hawaiian, West Coast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest and Northeast regional guides. The West Coast and National pocket guides are also available in Spanish. Our pocket guides are not applicable in other countries, however our Seafood Resources page has links to international information.

Download a Seafood Watch pocket guide or our app.
Seafood Watch has developed an educational program for restaurants and retailers. Visit our Restaurants and Retailers section for more information.
Get involved by spreading the word about sustainable seafood choices. Use our online order form to sign up for an electronic Seafood Watch newsletter to stay up-to-date on our seafood recommendations and to request Seafood Watch pocket guides to distribute to friends, family and local businesses. You can also refer businesses to our Restaurants and Retailers section for information on how they can get involved.
As a consumer, it's often difficult to know where seafood is coming from when you are faced with all the options at your local supermarket or local restaurant. That’s why it’s important to use the seafood guides as you make your purchasing decision. As of April 4, 2004, supermarkets are required to label unprocessed seafood as to where it is from and whether it is farm-raised or wild-caught. If such information is not available in a store or on a restaurant menu, we recommend that you ask the following questions:

  • Do you know where this seafood comes from?
  • Do you know if it’s farmed or wild caught?
  • If it’s wild, how was it caught?

If they’re not sure, we recommend you choose something else. You might also consider explaining that this information is important to you as a consumer. Your opinion matters to these businesses because you’re their bottom line.
Pocket guides are updated twice per year, once in the winter and again in the summer. Seafood recommendations online and on our app are updated as new information becomes available.
After looking at the different issues, Seafood Watch researchers assess the fishery or fish farming operation by running the information we have collected through our criteria for sustainability. Each seafood item then receives a recommendation, either green, yellow or red.

Green means Best Choice
These are your best seafood choices. These fish are abundant, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.

Yellow means Good Alternative
These are good alternatives to the best choices column. However, there are some concerns with how they're fished or farmed—or with the health of their habitats due to other human impacts.

Red means Avoid
Avoid these products, at least for now. These fish come from sources that are overfished and/or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.
Sustainable seafood is from sources, either fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production into the long-term without jeopardizing the affected ecosystems.

Some of the key issues that help us to evaluate whether a fishery is sustainable include:
1. Inherent vulnerability of the species to fishing pressure
2. Status of the species population
3. Nature and extent of bycatch
4. Effect of fishing practices on habitats and ecosystems
5. Effectiveness of the fishery management

Some of the key issues used to evaluate fish farming include:
1. Use of marine resources in fish feed
2. Risk and impacts of escaped farmed fish to wild fish
3. Risk and impacts of disease and parasite transfer to wild fish
4. Risk and impacts of pollution and other impacts on habitats and ecosystems
5. Effectiveness of the fishery management

Visit our About Us section to download the process by which we evaluate seafood and our full criteria for fisheries and aquaculture (fish farming).
Our Seafood Watch web site has more information on how to make sustainable seafood choices that are good for you and the oceans.
Some of the most popular types of seafood can be farm-raised in addition to being caught in the wild, including salmon and shrimp. Other seafood items are almost exclusively farmed, such as tilapia and catfish. Some types of fish farming, also referred to as aquaculture, have more impact on the environment than others. This depends in part on what type of fish is being farmed, what type of farming method is being used and where the farm is located.

Visit our About Us section to download the criteria by which we evaluate farmed seafood. To learn more about fish farming, visit our Issues section. For a more descriptive explanation of each farming method, please visit our How Fish are Caught or Farmed page.
The choices we make as consumers drive the seafood marketplace. Your purchasing power can make a difference by supporting those fisheries and fish farms that are better for the environment, while at the same time relieving pressure on others that are not doing as well. With more than 75% of the world's fisheries either fully fished or overfished, these issues are more important than ever. By using the seafood guide for your region you’re making choices based on the best available information and supporting environmentally friendly fisheries and aquaculture operations.

Health

The human health impact of consuming seafood is a very important issue; however, we do not feel qualified to make medical recommendations beyond what is advised by the federal government. Currently we provide health information on our website and app about species with mercury warnings from the Environmental Defense Fund.

There are several agencies and organizations at the tribal, state and federal level that also provide consumption advisories, health risk assessments and information about environmental sources for these contaminants. For a list of further resources, visit our Seafood Resources page and click on the Seafood & Human Health category.
The Seafood Watch program relies on outside organizations and government agencies for the analysis required to determine any potential human health impacts from environmental causes, including radiation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the federal agency in charge of monitoring food for radioactivity and it tests for radiation as part of its rigorous monitoring programs that ensure the safety of seafood in the market today. The FDA also works closely with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration to monitor and sample the radiation levels of seafood in the ocean. For the most up to date guidance on seafood and other food safety, visit the FDA Response to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Facility Incident.

Salmon

The Alaskan salmon fishery is faring better than any other state salmon fisheries—they have fewer salmon runs listed as at risk for extinction. There’s less human impact in Alaska from dams and pollution, and fishery managers also make rapid in-season adjustments to fishing quotas by capping the number of boats allowed to participate in the fishery and regulating fishing gear and methods. All of these factors contribute to the Marine Stewardship Council's sustainable certification of the Alaskan wild salmon fishery and the Seafood Watch Program's listing it as a best choice.

Salmon fisheries in Oregon, Washington and California are also well managed and rely on a number of different rivers. Some of these salmon populations are considered healthy, but due to human impacts such as damming, pollution and development of their native river habitats, many are not. Though current management for salmon is flexible and effective, these factors impact their ability to thrive in the wild.

Since there is no way to know if the salmon you’re about to purchase was caught from a healthy run or an endangered run, Seafood Watch ranks wild-caught salmon from Oregon, Washington, and California as yellow, a good alternative. If you’re purchasing canned salmon, be sure to check the label carefully. All Alaskan salmon is wild, so it's a best choice. Salmon from British Columbia (Canada) and Washington state may be farmed. Wild Alaskan salmon is available all year long, while Oregon, Washington and California salmon is available fresh predominately May through September.

For information about where to find wild-caught salmon in the marketplace, please visit our Sustainable Seafood Sources section.
Currently, most farmed salmon are raised in coastal net pens, where they’re in direct contact with the surrounding marine environment. This open access results in at least five distinct problems when farming salmon that often aren’t native to the area:

  • When farmed salmon escape from ocean pens, they threaten wild salmon and other fish by competing with them for food and spawning grounds.
  • Waste from most salmon farms is released directly into the ocean.
  • Parasites and diseases from farmed salmon can spread to wild fish swimming near the farms.
  • Salmon farmers may use pesticides and antibiotics to control outbreaks of disease among the fish. When consumers eat this fish, the residues from the chemicals may affect their health or interfere with medicines they’re taking.
  • It takes over two pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. As a result, farming salmon actually uses more fish than it produces, which puts more pressure on wild populations.

Shrimp

Like most seafood, shrimp are fished using several different kinds of gear. Trap-caught shrimp are your best choice since this fishing gear has low bycatch of other marine life. This fishery is seasonal, making it difficult to rely on this source year-round. Nearly half of the shrimp we consume are caught using bottom trawl nets, a fishing method that on average catches four to five pounds of other marine life for every pound of shrimp caught. A bycatch reduction device called the Nordmore grate is used by fishermen in the U.S. and Europe to allow larger fish to rise up out of the net through an open panel. In warmer waters of the U.S., where fishermen frequently interact with endangered sea turtles, Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are required. The use of TEDs is also required for shrimp that’s imported into the U.S. However, it’s difficult to monitor and enforce the use of TEDs by other nations.

A lot of the shrimp available in the market is also farmed and imported from developing nations. Farms that occur along the coast in many tropical nations have adverse impacts on the environment, including the destruction of mangrove forests, salt marshes and flatlands. Many farms also release their untreated wastewater into the coastal environment, leading to pollution and disease. Included in these effluent waters are high concentrations of antibiotics and other chemicals used to raise the shrimp. The impact of these chemicals is largely unknown, although pollution of the fresh water supply has resulted in many farms being abandoned and moved to new sites to start the process anew. Shrimp ponds are most common in developing countries where enforcement of water quality or mangrove protection regulations (if present) is loose. In the U.S., water quality is better monitored and shrimp farmers are developing methods to reduce the need for chemicals.

Seafood Watch recommends consumers avoid imported farmed and trawl-caught shrimp. Trap-caught shrimp is a best choice while farmed or trawl-caught shrimp from the United States are good alternatives.

For information about where to find sustainable shrimp in the marketplace, please visit our Sustainable Seafood Sources section.

Tuna

Large, mature yellowfin in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean school together with dolphin pods. In the 1950s, fishermen discovered they could catch these yellowfin by setting their nets around the pods of dolphins. In the 1980s, when this became more widely publicized, fishermen changed their practices due to consumer pressure and began using large pieces of wood or other devices shaped like dolphins to lure tunas into their nets. Because there is still so much bycatch using these devices, many conservationists and fishermen feel this method of fishing for tuna is not the solution.

In 1990, the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act (DPCIA) prohibited labeling tuna cans "dolphin safe" if the tuna is harvested using methods harmful to dolphins. In a separate agreement called the Panama Declaration several Latin American nations agreed to hold the total annual dolphin mortality below 5,000 in exchange for the amendment of this U.S. dolphin-safe standard. The amendment allows fishermen to set nets on dolphins to catch larger, mature tuna that school under dolphins, and then back down the net to let the dolphins jump over and escape.

While this back-down technique appeared to be a viable solution, more recent research has shown this activity causes undue stress to dolphins that may affect their long-term survival. On average, a northeastern spinner dolphin is chased 11 times per year and caught three of those times. The research revealed some dolphins found dead in the nets died of heart lesions consistent with overexertion—other animals showed evidence of healed heart and muscle lesions, suggesting that heart and muscle damage is routine. Stress may suppress their immune function and reproductive fertility and cause some pregnant dolphins to abort their fetuses. In addition, any chase lasting more than 30 minutes results in dolphin calves becoming separated from their mothers, an experience most calves can't survive. Researchers concluded that the impact to dolphins is greater than first thought, a situation that requires more research. However, authorities amended the dolphin-safe standard to allow the use of the back-down technique if no dolphins were killed.

It’s important to note that while the dolphin-safe label has improved the impact of the fishery on dolphins, they’re not completely out of harm’s way. This is why even tuna labeled "dolphin-safe" is a good alternative but not a best choice. Canned tuna that’s troll or hook-and-line caught is a best choice.

For a list of sustainable tuna sources, please visit our Sustainable Seafood Sources section.
Yellowfin and skipjack make up the bulk of canned tuna products and the vast majority of the world's total tuna catch. Bigeye and tongol tuna may also be canned. In the U.S., canned albacore, also known as "white" tuna, is also very popular. Yellowfin and skipjack are labeled "chunk light" tuna on cans. Smaller amounts of fresh albacore and yellowfin are also available fresh, frozen or as sashimi. Tuna is caught and canned by many different countries, so labeling on the can or brand names is not always useful when trying to differentiate how or where it was caught. You can find out how tuna was caught by writing, calling or e-mailing companies and directing them to learn more about sustainable tuna.

Skipjack and yellowfin destined for the can are predominately caught using purse seine nets. Purse seine nets work by encircling a school of fish and pulling up on the bottom of the net to cinch it closed like a purse-string. The bag is then raised up onto or near the boat, where the catch is sorted. This method is very successful at catching large schools of fish but often times other animals that were not the target of the fishing trip are caught and wasted. The unintentional catch of animals often includes small tunas, mahi mahi, triggerfish, wahoo, sharks, billfish and other small fish. Occasionally, these sets attract sea turtles though they’re usually released in fair condition. For both canned and fresh tuna, we recommend troll or hook-and-line caught as a best choice.

For a list of sustainable tuna sources, visit our Seafood Resources page and click on the Sustainable Seafood Sources category.