From albacore tuna to porgy, finding sustainable fish : Short Wave Roughly 196 million tons of fish were harvested in 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The organization also notes that the number of overfished stocks worldwide has tripled in the last century. All of this overfishing has led to the decline of entire species, like Atlantic cod.

Enter the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. It and other free guides give consumers an overview of the world of fish and seafood, helping people to figure out the most sustainable fish available to them. With the help of Life Kit's Clare Marie Schneider, we figure out how to make informed decisions about what we eating – whether that's at a restaurant or the local supermarket.

Check out more from Life Kit on sustainable seafood.

Have questions or comments for us to consider for a future episode? Email us at — we'd love to hear from you!

A previous version of this episode incorrectly stated that there are native wild salmon in Chile. Salmon are not native to Chile.

This Earth Day, how to know if the seafood you're eating is sustainable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

: [POST-PUBLICATION CORRECTION: A previous version of this episode incorrectly said there are native wild salmon in Chile. Salmon are not native to Chile.]


You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.

Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here. And happy Earth Day. I am joined by a fantastic guest, Life Kit producer Clare Marie Schneider. What's up, Clare Marie?



SCHNEIDER: OK, so I am here because I worked on an episode with Reporter Stacey Vanek Smith all about sustainable seafood. Do you like fish?

KWONG: I love fish. You know, I lived in Alaska for many years, so I got to eat a lot of locally caught salmon. But I know that's not the case for most people around the world to eat local.

SCHNEIDER: It's not. But it is in high demand around the world, and roughly 196 million tons of fish were harvested in 2020.


SCHNEIDER: That's according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

KWONG: That is so much fish. People love fish.

SCHNEIDER: I know. They also note that the number of overfish stocks worldwide has tripled in half a century. And today, fully one-third of the world's assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits.


SCHNEIDER: Yeah, and destructive fishing practices can have ripple effects throughout the ocean. Like, for example, the Maui dolphin - it's now near extinction because of bycatch and commercial fishing.

KWONG: Wow. Yeah, bycatch is a big problem. That's when a species that's not a part of a fishery gets injured or is caught by commercial gear. I hear what you're saying. You know, how we fish is changing our oceans. So what can we do as consumers?

SCHNEIDER: Well, first, I think it's just worth acknowledging that it can definitely feel discouraging. Like, what can I, just one person ordering fish off a menu or buying fish at my supermarket, really do about all this? So I did talk to Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly about this. She is the vice president of global ocean initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. And she says that when people buy sustainable fish, when they buy fish that minimizes harm to our wildlife and oceans, it sends a clear signal.

JENNIFER DIANTO KEMMERLY: This is what people really want. Healthy, responsible, good for people, good for the planet.

KWONG: So if you want those healthy, responsible fish, where can you go?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it's more about what you buy rather than where you buy it. But for the reporting of this episode, Stacey and I actually went to a sustainable sushi restaurant where we live in New York. It's called Rosella.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: And we are from NPR. We're doing a story on this restaurant. Would you guys mind if...

SCHNEIDER: We tried sort of common American sushi made out of mostly local, sustainably sourced fish.

KWONG: Nice.

SCHNEIDER: So we tried a dry-aged porgy sashimi. We also tried a smoked trout Philadelphia roll.

KWONG: OK. Were these good? How were they?

SCHNEIDER: They were good. They were good. We had a lovely meal. And as Stacey and I chatted with fellow diners, we found that they were pretty intentional in their decision to eat at Rosella. Here's Stacey talking to one diner, Sasha Litvinov (ph).

VANEK SMITH: Do you know that it's a sustainable sushi restaurant?

SASHA LITVINOV: Yes, very much a draw. Part of what drew me is that it's a sustainable sushi restaurant. It's, you know, a complete travesty getting - what's going on in the oceans these days. And the fact that somebody is paying attention and trying to make it, you know - to do their part in this town is really exciting. So...


KWONG: Today on the show, Stacey and Clare Marie dive deep into how to eat seafood sustainably. They'll talk about how to make informed decisions about what you're eating, whether that's at a restaurant or at a local supermarket. I'm Emily Kwong, and you are listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.


SCHNEIDER: OK, Stacey, so if there's one thing that I learned from working on this episode with you, it's that sustainable seafood can mean a lot of different things. So I think we should just start with a working definition of what we're talking about.

VANEK SMITH: For our purposes today, we're talking about fishing practices that don't have a really negative environmental impact. And this is everything from, like, overfishing to local ecosystems, all of it.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. So you're at the grocery store, and you're looking at all the fish for sale. You're seeing tuna, shrimp, crabs, trout, whatever. You're seeing it all. But how do you know what you should buy? Well, lucky for us, Jennifer's organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she works, has created this great, free resource for people who are trying to eat more sustainably. And it's called the Seafood Watch guide.

DIANTO KEMMERLY: It's actually quite unique. It wasn't planned at all.

VANEK SMITH: The aquarium put this flyer out in their cafe to just let guests know how they were sourcing the seafood that they were serving there at the cafeteria.

DIANTO KEMMERLY: So we created these little tent cards, and lo and behold, people started taking them, (laughter) which was a real surprise to us. But we're like, wow, I think we're onto something here. People are really interested in this information.

VANEK SMITH: So then Seafood Watch evolved into these little wallet-size cards and then to a website. And it is now used by millions of people all over the world. It covers every kind of fish you can think of, from northwestern brook trout to Alaskan king crabs, to Caribbean lobster. It is all covered by the Seafood Watch's, like, traffic light system.

SCHNEIDER: That's our first takeway. Do your homework.

VANEK SMITH: Use a guide and look up the seafood that you tend to like to buy or order at a restaurant. Take yourself to fish school.

SCHNEIDER: There are a bunch of sites, and they're all really thorough and free. So obviously, Seafood Watch, of course, but also, NOAA has a great guide, and so does the Safina Center at Stony Brook University. And the Environmental Defense Fund has a seafood selector.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. I mean, and truly, like, we've looked at all of these, Clare Marie. The sites are kind of overwhelming. There is just, like, so much information, and it gets really, really granular. It's so hard to know. I mean, there are really great farmed fish. There are really terrible farmed fish, totally sustainable wild-caught fish, totally unsustainable wild-caught fish. And the idea of trying to look through it while you are, like, in line or while a server is staring at you, waiting for you to order something - that could be hard.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. So Jennifer recommends actually just picking the fish that you tend to eat, You know, the stuff that you're buying or ordering at restaurants. And educate yourself. Stacey, what's your favorite kind of fish?

VANEK SMITH: I mean, I - this is going to sound so basic, but it is the truth. My favorite fish is salmon.I love salmon.

SCHNEIDER: So yeah, if you look up salmon in the Seafood Watch Guide, you'll see different kinds of salmon are totally sustainable - green light fish. And then others get a red light. So as of this taping, king salmon farmed in Alaska and New Zealand gets a green light. Also, salmon caught with gillnets or trolling lines in the Northeastern U.S. - green light.

VANEK SMITH: And red light, which means, like, take a pass for now - that would be king salmon caught with gillnets in Canada. those salmon are apparently overfished. Also, coho salmon farmed in Chile - Apparently, there's been a problem with the fish getting out of the pens and harming the wild salmon population. So red light.

SCHNEIDER: Yellow light - this means there are some concerns about how it's been raised. Like, farmed Atlantic salmon raised in Norway can be good, but they use some chemicals to get rid of sea lice on the fish, which may be a little iffy. But there are all kinds of factors Seafood Watch takes into account.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And Jennifer says for salmon, a lot of the farms - they just, like, really pack the fish in there, and that's a lot of what can create a red light situation.

DIANTO KEMMERLY: I would love the listeners to envision these big net pens off the coast floating, and in those net pens are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, depending on how big the net pen is, of salmon. And any time you have a large number of one species in a space, disease can spread very quickly. So what we do when we're assessing farmed salmon is we're really looking at the chemical and the pesticide use. And depending on the patterns of the water temperature, how many fish are packed into a net pen, this really does impact disease outbreaks and chemical use.

SCHNEIDER: But then there are issues that have nothing to do with the animal itself. Take, for example, the mAINE lobster. The real problem here isn't actually the lobster population itself. It's that the lobster pots they use end up entangling a lot of North Atlantic right whales, and they're really endangered. There are only around 300 left in the world. So it's a red light.

VANEK SMITH: But there are still options if you want to eat green light lobster. Let's say you're at a Red Lobster. You can opt for the rock lobster from Florida right now or the langostino lobsters from Chile - get a green light. And when you're at Red Lobster, be that annoying customer that just will not stop asking questions.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, so Jennifer said this is actually one of the most powerful things you can do, and it's our second takeaway. It's to ask questions. And if the answer is I don't know, keep asking.

DIANTO KEMMERLY: Just asking, is this sustainable? - or even asking, is this wild caught or farm raised? It's really surprising how many retailers and restaurants can't tell you. And I think as a consumer, just making it known that that's important to you really helps programs like Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch do the work that we need to do. So help us help you. Ask questions at point of sale. And if you ever see just white fish on the menu, please ask, what does that mean? Because it can be anything from, like, a farm-raised striped bass to Arctic char.

VANEK SMITH: And Jennifer says those questions have a big impact. Servers and fish sellers will feel pressure to know that information, and that can actually push them to make changes.

SCHNEIDER: Take the rockfish. It's a white California coastal fish, and it used to solidly be in the red category.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. Apparently, it is very tasty, and it was on a lot of fancy California menus. And the chefs did not want to take it off because people loved it.

DIANTO KEMMERLY: It had been red rated because it was overfished for all the reasons that we've been talking about. And we were seeing the populations dwindle.

VANEK SMITH: But people started asking restaurants about it. And, Jennifer says, restaurants and fish sellers - they felt the heat.

DIANTO KEMMERLY: Chefs and local businesses who relied on rockfish as part of their menu staples were starting to get engaged and say, what are we doing? So it was really raising the alarm. The government, the fishing community, the conservation organizations, academia came together and started co-designing solutions.

VANEK SMITH: Special protected areas were created to encourage breeding. Fishing was regulated to certain times of year. And now the rockfish is a green-light fish. So, you know, using these guides, educating yourself, asking questions - this is just a great way to make sure that you're eating fish that you feel good about eating.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. And if you don't have your phone with you or it's dead or you just need to make a fast call, there are some general rules you can follow.

VANEK SMITH: Rule No. 1, ask how the fish was caught. If it is pole and line caught, Jennifer says that is usually a very good sign. That is a green flag.

SCHNEIDER: Also, if the fish is farmed or caught in the U.S., that's usually a good sign because U.S. regulations are quite strict around fishing and raising fish.

VANEK SMITH: And one thing to ignore is price because unlike with most food, sustainable fish are not necessarily more expensive. In fact, we heard this from Rosella's head chef and owner, Jeff Miller. He said, This is something he discovered when he decided to open his sustainable sushi restaurant.

SCHNEIDER: He knew that he was going to have to find some nontraditional sushi fish. And for about two years, he tried every single fish that met his sustainability criteria.

JEFF MILLER: I kept track, and there - we used - I used 91 unique species of fish in here, and not all of them worked. A lot of it was just, like, any time I would see a fish that I hadn't worked with before, I would bring it in.

SCHNEIDER: Jeff said that in a lot of the cases, the most sustainable fish were actually way cheaper than the sushi-grade fish he used to import from Japan.

MILLER: If you then switch to looking at what's from Long Island, it's hard to find fish that are as expensive as the fish that you're getting from Tokyo. Porgy is an abundant fish. There's so much porgi up and down the East Coast, and it's - in general, it's, like, $4 a pound.

SCHNEIDER: And this brings us to our third takeaway. Seek out more sustainable fish and give it a try, which might be even easier to do this year.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. For the 25th anniversary of the Seafood Watch List, the aquarium is unveiling its super green list, aka fish that are super green, exceptionally environmentally friendly and exceptionally sustainable.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. So every month, they're going to name one seafood, and they're going to provide recipes and nutritional facts. And for this month, the pic is albacore tuna.


SCHNEIDER: And with that, Stacey, we've covered a lot of ground. So why don't we end with a little recap?

VANEK SMITH: Serve it up.

SCHNEIDER: Takeaway number one, use an online guide. There are a bunch of great ones. They're free, and the information is amazing, and it goes super in-depth on all kinds of aspects about where your fish came from. And maybe look up some of your favorites in advance. Those guides are kind of complicated and very thorough.

VANEK SMITH: Takeaway number two, ask questions. Ask all the questions. Be that annoying guest because just the act of asking questions can make a real difference, can have a real impact.

SCHNEIDER: Takeaway number three, look up sustainable fish and maybe try some out. You might find something that you really like.

VANEK SMITH: That is so true. And you know why, Clare Marie?


VANEK SMITH: There are just a lot of fish in the sea.

SCHNEIDER: Like porgy.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Like porgy.

KWONG: Clare Marie Schneider, thank you. And thank you to Stacey Vanek Smith for all of your reporting on sustainable seafood and how to be a mindful consumer.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks for having us on SHORT WAVE, Emily.


KWONG: This episode collab was produced by Clare Marie and edited by our show-runner, Rebecca Ramirez. They both checked the facts. Becky Brown and Maggie Luthar were the audio engineers for this episode. I am Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.