By Jeanette Hurt
If the lettuce you eat is organic, the coffee you drink is fair trade, and the meat you eat is humanely raised, then the seafood you eat should be sustainable, too.

"Everyone's becoming more aware of their food choices, whether it's organic produce or having an idea of where your meat has come from," says Kate McLaughlin, se afood program director for the Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. "Sustainable seafood is the last piece of the puzzle, the last thing on our plate that we're getting to know.

"It's an urgent issue at this point because there are a number of fish populations whose numbers are critically low, and our choices can really contribute to the future of those populations, whether they come back to thrive or not."

But what, exactly, is sustainable seafood? McLaughlin and her colleagues talk about "ocean friendly" fish, meaning seafood that is harvested from healthy populations in the oceans or from eco-friendly fish farms.

But unlike organic vegetables, which come clearly labeled, sustainable seafood isn't always distinctly marked or separated from seafood that isn't sustainable, whether at a local fishmonger's counter or on the menu at your favorite restaurant.

Here are nine things you should know when looking for the most eco-friendly seafood:

1. There are degrees of sustainability. Some fish populations are quite endangered, while others are slightly endangered, and still others are thriving. The Blue Ocean Institute has a ratings system, ranging from dark green (very sustainable such as crawfish) to red (very threatened such as caviar). If you follow the guide, choose from fish that are marked dark green, light green or yellow, and avoid fish that are marked orange and red.

2. For wild-caught fish, look for a Marine Stewardship Council certification. While there aren't always clear labels for every sustainable fish at the fish counter, the council certifies many sustainable, wild-caught fish. If there is a blue circle with a fishy-looking check on the package or can, it has the council's seal of approval. "What makes that certification really robust is something they call 'chain of custody' certification," McLaughlin says. "Basically, fish often travels a long way to make it to your store, and to be certified, everybody who handles the fish along the way has to prove to the council that they guarantee that the fish is what they say it is."

3. All fish that is farmed is not always sustainable, while all fish that has been caught in the wild is not always endangered. "I sometimes hear people say 'I always eat farmed fish because I know wild fish aren't doing so well.' Actually, it depends on which farmed fish you're eating or which wild fish you're eating," McLaughlin says. For example, Atlantic salmon that is farmed is not sustainable, but wild-caught Alaskan salmon is sustainable. Most, but not all, fish farms in the United States provide sustainable seafood, and most, but not all, fish farms in South America and Asia do not offer sustainable seafood.

4. Here are four sustainable fish to try: sardines, calamari, mussels and tilapia. "With squid and mussels, you can pretty safely assume, not knowing where they came from, that they are sustainable," McLaughlin says. With sardines, the Pacific and Indian ocean-caught fish are green, while those found in the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean are yellow. Tilapia, as long as it's from the United States, is a good bet, too.

5. Here are four fish to avoid: Atlantic bluefin, orange roughy, Atlantic halibut and Atlantic cod. "What is interesting is that while Atlantic halibut and Atlantic cod aren't doing well, both Pacific halibut and Pacific cod are okay," McLaughlin says.

6. The latest on swordfish. This is actually a good choice now. "Way back, there was a campaign to give swordfish a break, but what happened is regulations were put in place to protect them," McLaughlin says. "Atlantic and Pacific swordfish numbers are up and get a light green rating in our system. Others from the Mediterranean are yellow."

7. Focus on your favorites. Since the nuances and differences between sustainable and unsustainable fish can be a bit of a puzzle, it's easiest to focus on the fish you prefer. Instead of memorizing a long list, just hone in on your favorites and research them to see if they're sustainable. Check the Blue Ocean Institute's guide online, download its free app, "fish phone" at iTunes, or get a hard copy sent to you, free, by emailing the institute at

The Monterey Bay Aquarium also has a sustainable seafood guide, which can be downloaded here.

8. When in doubt, text. If you're out and don't know, simply text the Blue Ocean Institute at 30644, write the word "fish" and then type in the fish you're asking about. You can expect a quick reply.

9. If you don't have a phone handy, ask your waiter or fish seller at the market for help. "Just the act of asking is a great contribution you can make to encourage more ocean-friendly fish [to] be served," McLaughlin says. "The person you ask might not have the answer, but the more they get questioned, the more they'll do the research. If they know their customers care, they'll find sustainable fish for you."

Sustainable Summer Seafood Recipe
Tilapia Fish "Burgers" with Minted Napa Cabbage Slaw, to be paired with Pinot Grigio

From: 100 Perfect Pairings: Main Dishes to Enjoy with Wines You Love by Jill Silverman Hough

3 TB white wine or champagne vinegar
½ shallot, finely diced
¼ tsp sugar
2 ½ tsp coarse kosher salt, divided, or more to taste
1 ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
5 TB canola, grapeseed or neutral-flavored oil, divided
½ lb Napa cabbage, cored and cut into ¼-inch shreds or about 3 cups (1/2 medium head of cabbage)
¼ cup bleu cheese, crumbled, or about 1 ounce
1 TB fresh mint, chopped
6 6-oz tilapia filets, about ¾ inch thick, skin removed
6 hamburger buns or Kaiser rolls, split horizontally

In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, shallot, sugar, ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper, whisking to dissolve the sugar and salt. Whisk in 3 TB oil. Set aside. (You can prepare the dressing up to 3 days in advance, storing it covered in the refrigerator.)

In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, cheese and mint. (You can prepare the undressed slaw up to 4 hours in advance, storing it covered in the refrigerator.)

Add the dressing to the slaw mixture, gently tossing to combine. Taste, ideally with your wine, and add more vinegar, salt and/or pepper if you like. Set aside.

Prepare the grill to medium-high heat. Brush both sides of the fish with the remaining 2 TB oil and sprinkle with remaining salt and pepper. Grill until cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. During the last minute, place the buns on the grill, cut side down to lightly toast.

Place fish fillets on the bottom halves of the buns. Top with the slaw and the top halves of the buns. Makes 6 servings.

Note: The dish is just on the edge of being rich enough to merit a Chardonnay. To tip the scales in that direction, spread some mayo on the buns or increase the amount of bleu cheese in the slaw. Or do both!

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