Sardine cakes, jellyfish stir fry, and seaweed brownies are just a few of the unexpected items that seafood lovers are starting to see on menus across the country. Shifting away from traditional seafood picks like salmon and shrimp is no longer just about trying new tastes—it can also be a good strategy to eat healthier, save some money, and help protect the oceans! Experimenting with lesser-known, responsibly procured seafood is on the rise in restaurants, and taking a chance on a new type of seafood when dining out or at home can positively impact the economies of both local producer communities and eaters worldwide.

Our seafood habits

Photo: Postelsia / Data: National Fisheries Institute

Fish and shellfish provide the lean protein and healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA) that are recommended as important parts of a balanced diet. In the United States, ten seafood species represent 90 percent of national seafood consumption. Unfortunately, this data reflects consumers’ general unwillingness to try other lesser-known species. We can’t expect salmon, shrimp, and tuna to feed the world for a variety of reasons, especially since high demand for them has led to overfishing and endangered the futures of entire species. That is why turning to lesser-known species could be a big part of the sustainable seafood solution we need.

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Moving away from highly demanded species is part of making responsible seafood choices for our ocean. Eating species lower on the food chain (like oysters and sardines) takes advantage of their naturally high abundance, since it takes less energy to produce and harvest them. For example, harvesting wild tuna can have a much larger carbon footprint when compared to harvesting small pelagic fish like menhaden and sardines. Many lesser-known types of seafood are currently underfished in the United States due to lack of consumer demand. For example, fishermen only landed 26 to 45 percent of what they were allowed to catch from a number of New England fisheries (e.g. redfish, mackerel, whiting) due to a lack of demand from the market. This leaves thousands of pounds of untapped sustainable yield in the ocean and not helping to grow local economies or feed Americans a healthier diet.

The West Coast Groundfish Fishery

“Conservation groups, academics, fishermen, and buyers up and down the supply chain have been working to make U.S/ fisheries some of the most sustainable in the world. The story behind the West Coast groundfish fishery is likely one of the least known environmental success stories.”—Tim Fitzgerald, Director of Impact, Environmental Defense Fund

So how do we right the ship? It takes changes on both the production and consumption sides. There are inspirational fisheries management stories happening in U.S. waters right now. The U.S. West Coast Groundfish Fishery was once so overfished that it was declared a federal disaster in 2000. This designation brought fishery and conservation groups together to work with the groundfish fisheries managers and get it back on track. Since then, the fishery has made a dramatic recovery and is now rated a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. Unfortunately, economic revitalization hasn’t kept up with the conservation success, largely due to consumer preferences. That’s where chefs come in—they have an incredible opportunity to guide diners towards the abundance of sustainable seafood we have in the United States and abroad.

The opportunity

“Customers look to chefs for guidance on what they are willing to eat. If they only see cod, shrimp, and salmon, consumers won’t be more adventurous. Chefs have an opportunity to help people look at seafood differently.”—Vinny Milburn, Supplier and Smart Catch Leader, Greenpoint Fish & Lobster

Chefs can help spur food trends by demonstrating leadership in sustainability, innovation, and creativity. Choosing underutilized seafood ingredients and creating mouthwatering dishes not only leaves seafood lovers satisfied, but it helps to shift culinary practices away from predictable and traditional menu items, broaden their guests’ experience, and provide a platform to share the unique story behind lesser-known seafood.

This diversification concept is not limited to wild harvest fisheries. Aquaculture operations have the ability to work with underutilized species as well. For example, Australis Barramundi, a James Beard Foundation sustainable seafood partner, is producing the lesser-known species barramundi in Southeast Asia.

Our oceans face many threats, and a menu that showcases new species that are responsibly farmed and harvested is an important part of adapting to our changing environment. Adding a little diversity to your menu should be a culinary adventure that can, in turn, positively impact health, communities near and far, and our oceans. We hope that you will be inspired to try the unlikely and support responsible seafood choices and healthier oceans.

If you want to learn more about the diversity of seafood options, check out Environmental Defense Fund’s campaign “Eat These Fish” where you can find more information about East Coast and West Coast local seafood options. Consumers and chefs can also find a list of responsibly harvested species from the Gulf of Maine region on the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s website. Also refer to Seafood Watch for specific ratings for different fisheries. If you have questions or would like support in finding new species for your menu, don’t hesitate to reach out! 


Do you eat farmed shrimp?

This can be a harder question to answer than most people realize. Many folks in the food community have heard that farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is a bad thing. This perception largely stems from headlines about the salmon and shrimp industries that tout their negative impacts including environmental, social, and food safety concerns. As a result, many consumers aim to avoid farmed seafood. However, if you’ve had shrimp in the United States in the past couple of decades, chances are you have eaten farmed shrimp—since only about 20 percent of shrimp consumed domestically is wild-caught.

Farmed shrimp is one of the most consumed, most valuable, and most controversial seafood items available today. In the early 1990s, the “Pink Gold Rush” spurred the rapid global expansion of farmed shrimp due to record-high shrimp prices in markets like the United States. During this period, the industry grew rapidly and recklessly, resulting in the destruction of mangrove forests, pollution, and the heavy use of chemicals and antibiotics. In addition, there were also social impacts, such as upheaval and restructuring of communities in farming regions, significant labor abuses, and even the murders of those that protested shrimp moving into their lands.

Over the last few decades, some of these issues have been mitigated or partially addressed due to international pressure and condemnation, but recently a new travesty has been revealed: slavery. In Southeast Asia, bonded and forced labor have been taking place on the vessels that provide fishmeal for the region’s shrimp aquaculture feed.

Producing countries in Southeast Asia have shouldered most of the blame, but, as with most issues, things are not that simple. More realistically, the entire supply chain is at fault. This includes consumers in countries like the U.S.

The deeper issues that allowed for slavery in seafood supply chains arise from shrimp aquaculture’s transformation into a commodity industry. Commodities compete on price, and are generally characterized by a “get all you can while you can” mentality from supply chain participants, including buyers, processors, and farmers.

Shrimp is viewed as a commodity, like wheat or corn, and so everything moves towards one value proposition. The reality is that the shrimp industry is much more diverse, featuring producers from small-scale, family-run farms all the way up to operations that resemble agricultural feedlots. [MB1] Recognizing the diversity within the industry and celebrating producers with better practices is a critical piece of creating a sustainable future. Coffee was once also viewed as a commodity, before branding and coffee shops in North America dramatically changed its industry and supply chains. We can now differentiate between organic and FairTrade coffee, for example, and consumers can make more informed choices based on their preferences. A similar story of change may be possible for the farmed shrimp industry.

For example, the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative has created a dialogue with industry stakeholders to build improvement standards that encourage innovation and better production, while realigning incentives and ensuring that farmers are getting fair value for their shrimp. This process has the added benefit of being a bottom-up rather than top-down approach, bringing stakeholders from the region together to help them build their own standards. One of the most compelling things about shrimp aquaculture is that in spite of its popularity across global markets, small-scale producers do most of the farming. This means that there is a real opportunity to create positive change in small communities around the world if the significant mistakes of the industry’s development can be reconciled.

The shrimp industry could improve if it was significantly restructured and if the incentives were shifted—and many people are working to do just that. With these improvements and changes, we can start to move from the idea of simply “shrimp” to the types of complex distinctions we make with other protein sources. Just as we look for “grassfed beef,” we can look for “mangrove shrimp,” “shrimp from small Asian community X,” or even “fish-free shrimp.” Even such small steps as these can help us to more fully realize the potential food security and livelihood benefits of the farmed shrimp industry, for the people growing the shrimp, and those of us who enjoy their harvests.

For more information on farming shrimp, visit Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, and read the Associated Press's Pulitzer Prize–Winning series, Seafood from Slaves.