Like many shoppers, Minneapolis resident Grant Wilson chooses seafood based on price, freshness and his planned menu for the evening. But he also keeps another factor in mind: sustainability.
"I want to keep eating seafood throughout my lifetime, and without making that choice, I contribute to pollution, environmental injustice and potential species collapse," he says. "For me, it's very important to have sustainable choices."
Sustainable seafood is defined as ocean-based fish that are either wild or farm-raised, and that are able to sustain current populations without damaging the environment. This can be tricky; the continuing demand for seafood places a strain on the system, and Greenpeace estimates that more than 70 percent of the world's fisheries are significantly depleted.
In other words, when it comes to sustainability, there may not be plenty of fish in the sea after all.
That's making shoppers like Wilson more aware of how much seafood selection can affect larger environmental factors. As attention is paid to the issue, more grocery shoppers and diners are likely to find themselves peering at labels more closely. But it's not always easy.
"I use a cheat sheet for sustainability guidance, and I try to ask where and how the fish was caught," says Wilson. "Tracking seafood options is really challenging on your own, so the work of programs like [Monterey Bay Aquarium's] Seafood Watch and the tools they produce are really helpful in making better choices."
Unlike the shift toward buying local produce and meats, seafood shopping doesn't allow consumers to meet their farmers -- or in this case, their fishermen (we can't amble down to our local ocean harbor, for example).
Instead, shoppers have to rely on the promise of supermarkets and restaurants, and on the strength of certifying organizations. There are many local advocates ready to steer shoppers and diners in the right direction.
For example, the Minnesota Zoo launched its "Fish Smart" program in October. Partnering with advocacy organization Seafood Watch, the zoo's program is designed to boost public awareness of the issue and create more demand for sustainable seafood.
Target just made a commitment to stock only sustainable seafood by 2015, and early last year, Supervalu noted it was expanding a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to change the chain's seafood buying practices. Whole Foods and Coastal Seafoods already boast an array of sustainable options, and have noted a commitment to keep it that way.
It remains to be seen whether fish prices will rise. Like organic produce, though, advocates claim that slightly higher prices are worth the effort.
"Our goal is to keep costs down, so there's minimal impact to the consumer," says Shawn Gensch, vice president of marketing at Target. He anticipates that as Target moves closer to its sustainability deadline, shoppers will see a larger amount of certified fish.
Grocers are crossing their fingers that this will lead to consumer demand. Chris Hooks, vice president of meat, seafood, dairy and frozen food at Supervalu, says, "This is a global issue and many retailers are trying to address it. We're all still learning about the dramatic environmental impacts of overfishing, and we're just trying to do our part."
But making the choices can be difficult for the consumer. "There are so many guidelines and I don't eat seafood as often as other meats, so I forget what to avoid," said Holly Dolezalek of Minneapolis.
"With salmon, for example, there are so many market names and locations where it's caught that I have a hard time keeping track of what's good and bad, other than 'farm-raised equals bad.' That's easy enough, but when you get into scallops and tilapia and other things, I'm never sure that what I'm getting is really sustainable."
Tim Lauer, general manager at Coastal Seafoods, agrees that choosing responsibly is difficult. "It is a huge and complicated issue," he said. Part of the confusion is that guidelines differ from agency to agency. "What I tell people to do is to get a couple different sites that they are comfortable with -- and buy fish from people who know where the fish comes from and how it's caught." Lauer's go-to agency is the FishWatch program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which offers an indepth look at sustainable seafood.
"A lot of people, including chefs, like a green light/red light approach. It's easy to use. But it's not accurate," Lauer said. Take the farmed fish issue. How well it's done depends on who is doing the farming, Lauer said. "I don't think you can say 'salmon farming is bad' any more than you can say "chicken farming is bad."
The sustainability movement isn't seen only in the glass cases of grocers; it's a growing trend among restaurants, too. Tim McKee's Sea Change was developed specifically to provide eco-friendly dishes, and Richard D'Amico noted recently that his company is going to enlist its own fishermen to catch much of the inventory used at his restaurants in Florida and the Twin Cities.
Other Twin Cities restaurants that have committed to serving only sustainable seafood include Heidi's, Meritage, Oceanaire and Luci Ancora.
McKee is hoping that diners and shoppers act just like Wilson does -- demanding sustainable seafood and going elsewhere if they don't find it.
"People have the idea that the ocean is a never-ending supply of fish, but the reality is that unless we start paying attention, we will have tremendous challenges with harvesting fish in the future. Hopefully, people will figure out how serious this is before it's too late," said McKee.
Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis freelance writer.