Photo credit: McPig,
Photo credit: McPig,

Unagi, uni, abalone, sea cucumber, chilled jellyfish, the list goes on. Asian cuisine features some of the most diverse (some may say strange) seafood on its menus. Yes, serve me the whole fish, and fry those spot prawn heads for later! Yet, how many times have you bitten into that piece of tuna sashimi, with a twinge of guilt?

“Where did this fish come from? Are all those headlines about the oceans in crisis really true?”

Convenience and just plain hunger urge us to finish our meal despite the internal guilt trip, but making seafood sustainable remains a complex and urgent issue that looms like a cloud over our future—and our dinner plates. Between 1950 and 1994, ocean fishermen increased their catch 400 percent by doubling the number of boats and using more effective fishing gear. Worldwide, fisheries throw away about 25 percent of what they catch as bycatch, including dolphins, sea turtles and seals. Will our oceans be able to stand up to the enormous pressures we have put on them? Will our insatiable appetite for seafood ever wane?

To play our part means learning more about where our seafood comes from, how it was caught or raised, and learning the difference between “good seafood” and “bad seafood.” The Monterey Bay Aquarium puts out a Seafood Watch Pocket Guide (including a sushi version) which lists various kinds of seafood, and tells you which to avoid, which are good alternatives, and which are best choices.

“We’re now working with large food service organizations, who want to work within our guidelines—consumer demand is behind that,” says Alison Barratt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Ideally we wouldn’t need a pocket guide because everything would be certified with a label, but until that happens, we’re going to keep asking these questions.”

The Marine Stewardship Council’s rigorous third party certification program evaluates fisheries on their sustainability and environmental impacts. “There is market incentive for fisheries to enter the voluntary certification program and carry the MSC ecolabel, especially given the surge in major retail, food service and other global seafood businesses making a commitment to source MSC-certified seafood,” says Kerry Coughlin in the MSC’s Seattle regional office.

Here are some tips on how to make a difference in our oceans:

1. Ask restaurants where seafood comes from, and keep asking if you don’t get an answer. The more people ask where the seafood comes from, the more likely they’ll want to come back with a good answer.

2. The smaller the fish, the better. Smaller fish are lower on the food chain, have fewer contaminants and are quicker to reproduce. Instead of making a tuna sandwich, try mackerel, sardines or herring.

3. Make your seafood at home—you’ll have a better idea of where it came from, whether it be at local seafood markets, or straight from the docks.

4. Pick up the check. You can do the ordering, and make the most sustainable choices.

5. If you really can’t resist the bad stuff, make a donation to an ocean conservation group. Consider it like buying “ocean credits.” Some local groups are: Seadoc Society, People for Puget Sound, Northwest Straits Commission.

6. Support the long-term solution: Marine Protected Areas are underwater parks that give the ocean’s fisheries a chance to recover, and repopulate the seas. Efforts are underway right now to implement them in California and Oregon.

Some to Avoid (and there are others):

• Bluefin tuna—it’s severely overfished, and has high mercury levels. Sea turtles, sharks and seabirds all get entangled due to catching bluefin.

• Yellowtail (or hamachi)—Their facilities spread disease and pollution, and rely heavily on using wild fish for feed.

• Freshwater eel (or unagi)—Juveniles are taken from the wild and then farm-raised, putting pressure on wild populations. About 90 percent of eel sold in the U.S. is farmed.

• Shark fin soup—A third of open ocean sharks are now threatened with extinction. As top predators, they serve an important function in balancing out complex marine ecosystems.

•Farmed salmon—Farming salmon spreads diseases and parasites to wild salmon, which are threatened.

Learn more about Seafood Watch at Research which fisheries are certified at

To contact Sian Wu, e-mail [email protected].

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