Welcome to my attempt at trying to make seafood eating and buying just a bit easier, a bit more positive, and a lot less jargon-y. If you live on the coast you are lucky and can likely find local, seasonal fish pretty close to home, but not everyone has that access and even people that live near the coast get bogged down with so much information they give up on buying fish altogether. Buying fish should be just like buying any other protein. But better.
Quick disclaimer: This is a general guide for the average consumer and are my own values and opinions. Admittedly, seafood can be complicated and consumers, chefs, restaurant-goers, fish-buyers, and everyone in between have different standards for how they pick and choose seafood. It’s up to you to figure out what you care about and dig in a bit more to figure out which foods best fit your lifestyle and values. I just ask that you make sure that seafood is a part of your diet and that you dig a little deeper than the fear-mongering headlines and generalized seafood guides. Cool? THX.
What questions should I ask when I want to buy seafood?
I try to find as much information as I can from any signs or packaging first. If fish is in a package, it should have a country of origin. If I need follow up it will usually be questions that can actually determine the quality of the product and whether or not it’s fresh. Like, what is the most popular fish you sell? (That way you know there is a lot of turnover and the fish is more likely to be fresh.)
I always, always choose American products first. Well, I choose Maine first and then the rest of the US. Places like Canada, Iceland, and Norway also have great products.
What if I can’t find the fish that is called for in a recipe?
Then get another fish? Honestly, it’s kinda weird how there are different kinds of chickens and cows but we don’t distinguish between them at the market and yet we get all detail-oriented when it comes to seafood. Sure, fish can be pretty different but for the most part you can supplement any fish in any recipe. The only thing that might matter will be the cooking time. Haddock from Maine or snapper from Florida - use the same recipe.
Shellfish and oily fish like mackerel are a little bit of a different story. If you’re looking for scallops and can only find shrimp, I would suggest just finding a different recipe. If you’re cooking with mackerel and bluefish I imagine you’re not a novice and can figure it out on your own.
When in doubt here’s a simple recipe: Put the fish fillets in a baking dish with some butter, lemon, garlic, salt, and pepper. Put it under the broiler for 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness. Serve and eat. To fancy it up add dill or capers. Or both. You do you. (Bonus: Most fish can be cooked from frozen. Just add 5-10 minutes to the cooking time.)
Hot tip: When you bring fish home and put it in the fridge you should put it in a tray of ice. The temperature of your fridge is actually warmer than any other part of the seafood supply chain. If you’re not going to eat it right away, throw it on some ice.
How much should seafood cost?
Seafood is not a place to look for big sales and cheap prices. That being said, you can easily feed a family of four for under $20 with a few pounds of fish from some place like Harbor Fish Market. That is if you’re on the coast. If you’re in the middle of America I would suggest ordering fish online rather than buying it at a market. It’s 2019, use the internet to get what you want.
Price will depend on the type of fish, market demand, and quantity. Sometimes if you buy a bit more volume the price will be a little less. (I do this often because most fish freezes really well.) It can also go up or down depending on how processed it is. If you buy a whole fillet with the skin on it will cost a little less than buying portioned skinless cuts.
As long as you’re open to trying new fish and how it’s processed, you’re likely to find something that’s in your price range.
What about fish sticks and canned tuna?
Super yummy and easy! I just love Gorton’s fish sticks. I grew up eating fish sticks with mac n’ cheese, and for some reason I remember ketchup? Things like Gorton’s, quality smoked fish, and canned seafood (sardines, tuna, mackerel) make eating fish year-round so easy. They also last a little bit longer so they are easy to stock up on.
How do I know if what I’m eating is sustainable?
I can tell you that it’s likely not. There’s probably not a lot that you’re eating right now that you’re going to be able to eat forever. The ocean, fish stocks, and how fishermen fish are constantly changing, and they should be. In my opinion, we need to shift away from thinking about seafood as sustainable (We can eat/fish this forever.) to something more adaptable (I can eat this for now but I should have a diet with a lot of variety that changes with the seasons. Or, I can fish this for now but I will need to change what/ how I’m fishing depending on stocks and seasons.) Honestly, if sustainability is our goal we are never going to reach it. I’m 37 and I used to think I should be done growing up by now but I’m a work in progress. How we eat and where we get our food is a work in progress and should always be trying to get better, too.
Is aquaculture OK?
Yeah, it’s getting there. Look man, we need food and I for one would appreciate a bunch of healthy fish with less environmental impact than the protein we farm on land. (Looking at you chickens, cows, and pigs.) All of that being said, you can dig into aquaculture a bit more by looking up the various companies that exist and decide for yourself if you want to eat their product or not. Like with all product, closest to home is best. Just don’t turn your back on all aquaculture because of something you read on Facebook, outdated information, or misinformation.
My one caveat is tilapia. It has no flavor so why would you want to eat it anyway?
What about mercury?
Once upon a time we were fishing down in Florida and the captain of the boat we were on was telling me he didn’t like swordfish because he was worried about the mercury - while ripping butts. The benefits of eating fish far out weigh the incremental risk of mercury exposure, even when you’re pregnant. If you smoke, drink alcohol, eat a lot of dairy, inhale Pringles, or have Dunkin’ Donuts on the reg for breakfast, it would do you some good to eat some seafood.
What’s the difference between all of the seafood certifications and guides?
The price and the mission behind the organization that does the certifying and guiding. If something is certified, great! But if it’s not, that’s OK, too. Many smaller fisheries in the US can’t afford to be certified. Seafood certifications help larger businesses and high volume fisheries sell more product to other big businesses. Pollock to McDonald’s, for example.
Guides can be helpful in specific locations but it’s important to remember that they too can have unintentional consequences. What’s under-utilized today can end up being exploited tomorrow. By the time a guide convinces people to try redfish or mackerel, the market and stock assessments may have shifted and now we need to convince people to try something else.
The best thing to do is eat a variety of fish and know what’s in season in your area. And again, if you don’t have fish in your area and live away from the coast, buy it online!
Where can I buy fish online?
This is a partial list but these are places I would buy seafood. Please contact me at email@example.com if you’re a business and think you should be added to this list, or if you’re a customer with a suggestion.