How to Select REAL Seafood

I sure do love a good seafood dish. And one of my favorite things about making seafood at home is that it usually doesn’t take long to cook, which means it’s a totally doable dish for any busy weeknight.

A question I get a lot though is, “Where do I buy my seafood?” While I’d love to buy all our seafood directly from the fisherman (and I sometimes do at our local farmers’ market here in NC!), it’s not realistic for me to do that 100% of the time. Not to mention some of you don’t live anywhere near the coast, so for you that would be near impossible. So believe it or not, I often buy our seafood straight from the regular old grocery store – and I’m pretty happy with what I can get there most of the time!

How to Select REAL Seafood on 100 Days of #RealFood

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What I Look for in Seafood…

  1. Wild Caught.
    In general, I think wild-caught seafood is the way to go. Unless you’ve visited the fish farm yourself and approve of their practices, I think farm-raised can be questionable. Any animal that’s “wild caught” means they were raised in their natural environment eating their natural diet. And the healthier the animal is – the healthier it is for you.
  2. From My Continent.
    I also personally look for fish from the United States (or at least my home continent), which is fortunately not too hard to find around here. Oftentimes some seafood (such as shrimp) is mass produced in less than ideal environments overseas so I just prefer to keep it close to home. Not to mention shrimp caught closer to home tastes so much better, and it’s much better for our environment in general to purchase food that doesn’t have to travel very far to get to our plates.
  3. Fresh or Frozen.
    I don’t mind if seafood has been previously frozen as long as it hasn’t been sitting around for more than a day or two after being defrosted. I also of course like to buy fresh seafood when it’s available, but in a similar fashion I want to make sure it hasn’t been sitting in the display case very long. In either instance – don’t be afraid to ask questions (I always do) such as when did the fish arrive here at the store? And if you’re still feeling uncertain about how “fresh” the seafood might be, just ask to smell a piece. That usually does the trick.
  4. No Artificial Dyes.
    Believe it or not some colorful seafood, such as salmon and even fish eggs, are treated with artificial food dyes. Since I mainly shop at a health food store that doesn’t allow food dyes this is not something I encounter a lot, but if you’re buying your seafood from a mainstream supermarket this is something you want to ask questions about (and avoid, of course!).

Sustainable Seafood

For some, ensuring seafood is sustainable in addition to real is an important factor. And while there are stores (such as Whole Foods) that do the homework for you by labeling their products as either “green” or “yellow” (and not even offering anything that’s “red”), in most cases you have to do your own research. So for that I want to recommend the free Monterey Bay Seafood Watch App. It’s a super simple way to quickly check your options before making a purchase at the store.

Seafood Watch App on 100 Days of #RealFood

Now that I’ve got you in the mood for some seafood (hey, that rhymes LOL), here are a few recipe ideas for you! Again, these all come together fairly quickly so in my mind that makes them great weeknight meals.

Seafood Recipe Inspiration

What’s your favorite seafood dish?

Moroccan Fish on 100 Days of #RealFood

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56 thoughts on “How to Select REAL Seafood”

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  1. So, when I lived in the pacific northwest, I always thought that this was a no-brainer. Now that I’ve moved inland a bit, I’m discovering why some people might have trouble finding real seafood.

    One trick is that fish from Alaska is going to be wild-caught. My understanding is that Alaska does not allow farming fish.

    Also, if you are looking at salmon, you can actually tell if its wild or farm-raised by looking at it. Atlantic salmon is always farm-raised. Farm raised salmon is generally a very pale or grayish pink when raw. Wild salmon is a very dark bright red-orange color.

    Also, just as a side note, the seafood section of your grocery store shouldn’t have a strong odor. I am now super picky about where I get my seafood because finding wild salmon is nearly impossible where I live. Even in Seattle, some grocery stores had stinky seafood sections, and I never bought at those stores.

    1. The color of wild salmon can vary widely, especially by species. Coho is usually bright, bright red, while different varieties of King can vary from deep orange to nearly white — yes, white wild-caught fresh King salmon, though it is very rare we have caught and eaten them. We never, ever buy salmon, because we are lucky enough to live near the coast, have a boat and catch our own.

  2. Good comments and concerns in all comments so far.
    I’m a fish monger at an ethical fish store in Toronto, Ontario. We source from small boats, processors and co-ops. One of our owners spends most of his 20 awake hours following up, researching and triple checking. It’s more than a full-time job.
    We only carry ethically caught wild fish (from sustainable stocks, using environmentally sound methods and paying fisher people fair prices).
    This is extremely hard to do. We follow the Canadian guide called Oceanwise (from the Vancouver Aquarium) which is partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. The short comings of both these programs is that they focus primarily on west coast fisheries, the US fishery and that they’ve made a handshake agreement to have both their fish lists correspond to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC was founded by Unilever (yes, the soap company) who owns half the world’s massive destructive bottom trawlers. They’ve since signed the MSC over to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). If there is anything I have learned in my “fishing” career, it’s that this industry (like all of them) is influenced heavily by politics and money. Who decides what is is *actually* “sustainable? Can we trust them?
    Criteria and Best Practices:
    Farmed Fish
    Not all farmed fish is bad. In fact, there is good farmed fish. Here’s what to look for/ask for (If your fish monger can’t provide any/all of this info, skip the farmed and go to wild):
    – Close-Containment (can never escape or damage wild populations), recirculated system
    – NO DYES (most farmed Atlantic salmon would be grey, the industry spends more money on DYE then on FEED)
    – Low population density (no antibiotics)
    – Slow growth rate (no hormones)
    – No land animal bi-products in feed (ie. Chicken feather meal)
    – Non-GMO organic feed
    – A diet as close to the wild as possible (post-processor wild scrap, ie. Sardine parts that aren’t canned for human consumption can be made into feed that has Mercury and PCBs removed)

    Wild Fish
    Should be on *some* green list. Though who to trust is hard, I’d still most likely recommend Seafood Watch.
    – Sustainable stocks/no pressure on ecosystems or future stocks(removing this fish won’t cause other stocks to collapse as well)
    – proper catch method applied to prevent bycatch and environmental damage (ie. Mackerel-purse seine, tuna-hook&line or trolled, shrimp-mid-water trawl, hand netted or pot-caught, salmon-hook&line, troll caught, gill net)

    Low Mercury/PCBs eating
    Mercury and PCBs build up in the FATS of fish, especially at the top of the fishy food chain. You wouldn’t go to Africa and eat a lion every night for dinner – similarly you need to take a break from Ahi, King Salmon and Halibut frequently.
    My recommendation to my customers is to switch between fish each time you eat anything from the water and to include a shellfish every other or 1/3 of the time.
    Shellfish, regardless of where you buy it will likely be farmed. SHELLFISH (oysters clams mussels scallops) FARMING IS ALWAYS GOOD. Shellfish clean the ocean. They don’t accumulate anything because they have no fat. 12 clams can give a woman 100% of her daily B12. 4 oysters can give her 100% of her required minerals.

    Exceptions: “fresh” scallops/shrimp are usually injected with a chemical preservative that makes them weigh more. I would buy these frozen if I didn’t have a relationship with the perveyor.

    Stop buying farmed shrimp unless it is done close containment in North America. Farmed shrimp from Asia is bad for you and absolutely destructive to their coastal mangroves (See Also: Tsunami damage like never before) and their traditional ways of living and health.

    And lastly, don’t eat tilapia. It’s uber gross, has almost no nutritional value, is usually farmed in Asia and filleted in the U.S. so it can carry a “Product of US” label.

    Essential reading: Bottomfeeder by Tara’s Grescoe
    Good reading: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg, Feeding the Future by Andrew Heintzman/Evan Solomon

    1. I’m confused about your shellfish comment. Are shrimp and prawns always farmed? Is this a good thing? I don’t want chemicals or dye in my food.

    2. Such great information, Max! Being from Southern Ontario, I’ve been having difficulty finding quality shellfish. It all seems to be imported from Thailand, Vietnam & India & that is not an option for me after researching the polluted water used in the processing & transporting. When I’m in T.O. I will definitely check you out!
      Thank you!!

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Do you know anything about Orca Bay salmon/do you purchase it? I’ve seen it at Costco and Earthfare recently and wondered. It says “wild caught” on the package, but I’m a sceptic.

  4. Hi Lisa
    I’m sorry but you have been misinformed about WILD CAUGHT, wild caught is wild and has never been Raised/farmed. Raised means farmed.

    1. I think you misunderstood my statement “Unless you’ve visited the fish farm yourself and approve of their practices, then wild-caught seafood is the way to go” I’m saying I usually chose wild-caught over farmed unless I verify a fish farm is using good practices (by visiting it).

  5. I love this guide! I researched and wrote just about finding the healthiest salmon on my own blog and some of the farming practices are downright appalling! So many people just expect fish to automatically be healthy, so I’m sure you’re opening a lot of people’s eyes with this post. It’s just sad that you have to choose carefully when eating something that should be wild and natural :-/

  6. Hi Lisa…thank you for this article. I, too, would like to buy fish from close to home. Where should I go to find this? Whole Foods? Earth Fare? I live in SC, but where near the coast. Most Fish I see in the market is from Taiwan, Ecuador, etc. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello Raquel. Yes, check out the selection at Whole Foods and Earth Fare. Do you have a local fish market?

  7. One interesting tidbit about frozen breaded fish processed in Asia is that it’s usually two years old by the time it makes it onto American shelves. I’n not sure about the age of the other kinds that get sent back and forth around the world.

  8. I am so fortunate that I live close to the sea and get my seafood from a local seafood store that only deals with local (meaning regional) seafood. They are a good source of information and will bone the fish for me too at no extra cost. I happened to look at a piece of “local” salmon at Safeway yesterday and noticed right away that it was treated with dyes. Yuck!

  9. I wonder why there is no mention of mercury levels in this article? Many fish (both salt water and fresh water) are not recommended for eating especially by children or pregnant or nursing women because of the high mercury levels. I will not buy those fish if I see them at the store.

  10. I was at the store today and after reading this blog this morning I decided to make some cod this week. So I get some frozen wild caught cod and get home and was reading the recipe on the bag, that’s when my eyes drifted over to where the fish was caught and processed. It was caught in the USA, but processed in China, and labeled as product of China. So I’ll be taking that back. Be careful as to where stuff like frozen fish is processed.

  11. Farm-raised fish are in crowded conditions causing stress for the fish. Stressed fish have more Omega 6 compared to Omega 3. This ratio is bad for the health of humans. Fish is a great source of Omega3, used by doctors to prevent and treat heart disease. The amount/percentage of Omega 3 is the only criterion by which I judge what fish I will buy (all things being equal).

  12. Lisa! I love your website and wholeheartedly agree with many of your recommendations. However, I would like to respectfully ask you to please consider modifying your post regarding the nutrition/environmental impact regarding wild-caught/farm fishing of different seafood? There is compelling data that is opposite of your some of your advice . . . so many people read your blog/facebook posts who may not delve into the comments or pursue other sources. Thanks and with best wishes.

  13. i live in florida and love fresh seafood from our ocean. Found the best fishmarket just minutes away from home – a place you would never think of as a fish-market since it has absolutely NO smells – looks sterile clean and one could eat off the counters :) I buy nothing farm-raised or from Chile or other oceans except our Atlantic Ocean. Also buy no bottom fish or large fish… since they are rated too high in mercury!

  14. I wait for my son to catch it, clean it, filet it and either smoke it or wrap it for the freezer and bring it to me! Life in the Pacific Northwest!!

  15. I agree completely with Tiffany. It’s absolutely imperative you consult guidelines prior to purchasing any seafood. I am a involved member with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. They have wallet size sustainable cheat sheet guidelines. Please take a look. Harvesting shrimp takes a terrible toll on other wildlife. Not many people realize how much marine life is destroyed when shrimp are fresh caught. Lisa- you have millions of followers, please do research before advocating how to purchase seafood. It’s not black and white. This a very important topics in regards to sustainability and the environment. You have the power to influence many people. I attached the Shedd’s Right Bite guidelines.

  16. Tiffany, while I agree with you on the fact that Wild vs Farmed isn’t an indicator in one being more healthy for you, it is important to note that all farmed fish isn’t necessarily a better environmental choice. A quote from an interview with David Love, project director at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:”The environmental impact of eating particular kinds of fish is an important matter but not so straightforward, experts say. To produce one farmed salmon, you have to feed it more than its weight in smaller fish, which leads to a net loss of fish from the sea and potential ecosystem disruption, Love said.”

    1. Hi Angie, if you’ll read my comment, you’ll see I say that it’s important to go off of the Monterey recommendations. I did not say farmed is *always* better than wild, or vice versa. That’s my exact point, actually, that it is not as simple as going with one or the other. Lisa recommended going with wild because of it’s diet, but that is not always best practice. It completely depends upon the type of seafood as to which is better, and all the work into determining this has already been completed by the Monterey Aquarium.

      Farmed salmon is never recommended because of the issues, including one you mentioned, with this particular fish. Farmed catfish and shrimp, however, thrive in fisheries and are recommended over wild because of fishing concerns.

      Incidentally, we have been annual passholder for the aquarium for seven or eight years now, so I have been educated a lot by them. :)

      1. My apology for not making this more clear initially….I know you didn’t say all farmed fish were better…I just wanted to note the importance that it does require all of us to be more informed.

        That is a beautiful aquarium, as is the entire Monterrey Bay area. I had the pleasure of visiting once.

  17. Can anyone recommend good brands and/or stores for shrimp? I’m not looking for the largest, just some half decent medium count that isn’t farmed in Vietnam.

  18. I also disagree with your statement to always purchase fish caught from the natural environment.

    “Wild caught” is not always the best choice in terms of sustainability, which is what I go for first to be responsible for our environment. If you follow the Monterey Bay requirements that you shared here, you will see that some farm raised are recommended over wild caught. Shrimp is a good example of this- it’s better to purchase US farmed over US wild. This is because they recommend choices based on sustainability and best practices for the environment. Since that is my number one concern, with “natural environment” coming in as a lesser concern, I always go with the Monterey recommendations.

    Fish farms raise equally nutritious fish, it’s important to note. Just because one fish was raised for food and one grew in the ocean does not make the ocean fish necessarily more nutritious. The biggest point is is which is a sustainable and ecologically sound choice? Some fishing is very damaging to the environment, depending on the fishing method (and so depending on the type of fish), while some fisheries are very damaging to the environment (foreign fish farms are suspect because the US industry is highly regulated while many foreign are not).

    It’s important to understand that fish are not the same as cattle or chickens, and so the same rules (local, able to free range on natural diet) do not apply.

  19. i think open-ocean raised seafood is right up there with wild-caught. Open Blue raises cobia this way and it seems like it makes sense to raise fish this way and is sustainable.

  20. Any salmon from Alaska is truly Wild Caught! Alaska has banned farmed fish!
    Stick with Pacific Salmon vs. Atlantic Salmon. (sometimes wild caught Atlantic salmon is just salmon that has escaped from their cages :(

  21. I for one am very concerned with over harvest of wild caught fish. Though I agree it is more natural and healthy (if fishing waters are not contaminated) the monitoring on catch is less than ideal. Some species are being depleted at an exponential pace. Worth it? Not sure….

    1. I agree withe the over harvesting of wild fish. We definitely choose wild over farmed, just eat it sparingly. Also, since I live in the Midwest, I choose frozen fish. Most fresh fish in grocery store cases here is just defrosted frozen fish. Also the fish could have been injected with a chemical plump it up. Frozen fish, on the other hand, is often frozen with in hours of being caught.

    2. That’s why it’s best to go off the Monterey recommendations linked. Sometimes wild caught is best (ex, salmon), sometimes farmed is best (ex, shrimp). They make knowledgeable recommendations that are based off of best practices for the environment.

  22. After reading an article about wild caught seafood in a magazine. I wonder about the legal definition of “wild Caught”. It seems that it is an approved label for fish being raised/farmed in a cadge in the ocean. There are many fish in the cadge which makes it impossible for these fish to eat their natural food. As no smaller fish will swim into the a cadge full of something that will eat them. They are still fed the same pellet food as if they were farm raised. Because they live in a cadge in the ocean the USDA/FDA allow them to be labeled exactly the same as wild caught seafood is labeled.

  23. What about the quality of the water? Many wild caught salmon come from The North West coast which has been and is being bombarded with nuclear radiation from Fukushima. Also what about the the Gulf of Mexico which is still tainted by the BP oil spill. How do you account for those things?

  24. Interesting. I also use the seafood watch app, but I have noticed that wild caught is not always the top recommendation from the app. I think that is because sometimes the methods used for catching certain fish in the wild can be more damaging to the environment and also because some wild caught fish may have higher Mercury levels. I have also noticed that their best choices are not always North American sourced. It can be confusing, so I just try to stay within whatever guidelines the seafood watch app recommends.

  25. We used to enjoy buying fish directly from a fisherman at the farmer’s market when we lived in CA. Now we live in a landlocked state, and all fish comes from the grocery store, so I’ve found we don’t eat it as often because the quality just isn’t as good.

    For those who are interested in the Seafood Watch list but may not have a smartphone, the Monterey Bay Aquarium does offer a printable version on their website.

  26. I have to disagree with your first point, but only because my favorite fish to eat is catfish. (Although I would argue that because it is fresh water, it is not seafood). If you have eve eaten wild-caught catfish, you would likely agree that farm-raised is better (at least for that particular fish).

      1. I understand his point. Catfish are bottom feeders. So being farm raised results in a cleaner taste and may be healthier depending on the farm practices.

      2. Farm raised catfish taste better, although they are lower in the good fats than wild.

        Unlike farmed salmon, which is not endorsed by the Monterey Aquarium because of the many issues with farming salmon, catfish thrive in fisheries. It’s the recommended option for catfish because it avoids the commercial fishing that can impact the natural environment.

      3. Others have beat me to it, but I say it’s better because it tastes much “cleaner.” Most of the catfish farmers I know (I live in Mississippi, catfish capital of the world) use floating food to avoid the catfish feeding on the bottom where feces settles.

        I will agree with you that for 99.9% of fish and seafood, wild-caught is better in just about any criteria you want to measure. However, farm-raised catfish is probably the most sustainable type of seafood there is, and can raise much more fish with less impact on the environment (per fish) than there would be if the same number of fish were wild-caught.

  27. I’ve been realizing lately, especially after a slight increase in the grocery budget this year, that best way to add enjoyable, nutrient dense foods to our diet is more seafood! I still have a hard time with the price per pound for shrimp, though I really enjoy it. The other night we had some salmon fillets glazed with a mix of maple syrup and brown mustard, and they were REALLY good.

    Most of my seafood experience is with canned salmon from Aldi, so I really appreciate this simple list of what to look for as I branch out into new seafood experiences!

  28. This is such a helpful post! I just got home from Whole Foods in SouthPark and was trying to decipher all of the different labels. Thankfully the people who work there are very knowledgable and eager to answer questions!