Sustainable Seafood: what should this mermaid eat?


I have retyped and reworked this opening sentence about fifty times in an effort to maintain my blogs happy, positive attitude however I also have always said that I will also write truthfully and authentically. SO, in light of that I am not going to sugarcoat it – our oceans are in big trouble. There, I said it how it is.

The way that we are fishing and consuming is not sustainable and if we don’t all make changes (remember demand drives supply) then we are heading towards a fish-less ocean. For reals. 

A story about cod!

Back in the 1400’s the cod ran so thick of Newfoundland that you could reportedly catch them just by hanging a wicker basket off the side of a boat. They were big and nutrient dense – some were over 6 feet long.

In the 1950’s when the secret of this goldmine  reached the rest of the world factory ships (floating catching and processing centers) came from every direction to share the loot. The nets that they fished with had mouths over a thousand feet wide and hauled in (in one hour) what traditional fishing boats would catch in an entire season. By the 1970’s it was clear the fishery was in trouble.

Iceland closed its fishery to international boats and almost caused a war with the UK in the process. Canada then joined the party but sadly decided to continue fishing it at their own rate. By 1992 the cod population was down to 1.1% of that in the early 1960’s. Canada stopped the fishing altogether to try and allow it to recover. Now – over 20 years later – it has still not recovered. 

But there is good news!

It doesn’t all have to go the way of cod however it will if don’t consider the tipping point that we are dancing around on.Sustainable seafood does exist. We can have your fish and eat it too but we’ve got to be smart about it. As I spoke about in my article about sustainable meat eating (here) – there are simple, sustainable switches you can make.

So lets get informed. Knowledge is power.

Only eat wild-caught seafood


The arguments for and against fish farming are confusing. In theory it is a fantastic idea but in practice it is an ecological disaster. Fish farms in their current state are literally underwater factory farms. Animals crammed into tiny spaces, contracting diseases, being fed processed foods and antibiotics and decimating the environment with the waste that floats to the ocean floor below.

Always looks for wild-caught varieties (frozen is totally okay nutritionally speaking). Most supermarkets that I see nowadays will label their seafood and if they don’t, just ask. But keep in mind my next point…

Eat Local

No surprises here; as always choosing food that is produced/caught locally gives you a gold star in terms of eco endeavors. But seriously – over 70% of seafood eaten in Australia is imported and considering the fact that we are the largest island in the world with the majority of us living near the coast; that’s just not good enough! Yet still we have over 200,000 tonnes of seafood imported from China, Thailand, Vietnam and New Zealand every year.

If you are in an area that permits it try to find yourself a fishmonger. These are fish stores that stand alone as their own entity i.e. not just a line of freezers within a supermarket. Preferably find a separate store where fish is their one and only business; they will know it inside out.

Ask what they recommend for local choices, ask about the health of the fisheries, see what they recommend for sustainable choices. It is also a fun excursion for the kids and really teaches them about where there food comes from.

Eat package-free fish

As soon as you add a can around something it becomes less environmentally friendly because you are mining up a resource that has to be refined, then manufactured into a can, transported to the fish factory et cetera et cetera.

Not to mention that tins are lined with a thin layer of BPA plastic (a known carcinogen) which leaches into our foods. A bit of a slap in the face for those thinking they are going for the healthy option with a tin of tuna!

As a rule of thumb I avoid canned fish. However if it is a staple of yours, the Fish 4 Eva brand is a very ethical company. You can check out their sustainability policy here. You can find their cans in most health food stores and they stock sardines, salmon and tuna (among others).


Avoid bottom dwellers

Sorry to say that prawns should be kept to a ‘special occasion’ protein rather than an everyday filler. Bottom-trawlers – used to catch prawns – are basically heavy nets dropped to the bottom of the seabed and dragged along, scooping up everything in its path (including any other species in its path) and trashing the ocean floor in the process. This makes by-catch a major issue in prawn-fishing.

When eating prawns avoid any from China or any other Asian countries and stick to Northern Prawn Fishery prawns which is the largest prawn fishery in Australia and includes banana, tiger and endeavour prawns.

Please be aware though that they still have a bycatch rate of around 15:1 (15 kilograms of other species are caught for every 1 kilogram of prawn) so are best left to a minimum if possible.

Eat lower down the food chain

Currently we are scooping up entire schools of short-lived fish (like anchovies and herring) to feed farmed carnivorous fish to feed to us. We are adding so many more steps into a natural process that doesnt need to be screwed with.

It takes roughly 5 kgs of small fish to feed 1kg of salmon. That is bad enough before even adding that the fish aren’t just fed whole: they are processed into a fish meal (using with cornmeal, GM-soy and antibiotics) so we are effectively feeding our fish the equivalent of a processed hamburger patty. Remember that old adage; we are what we eat eats.

But the craziest part of all is that those little fish we are turning into fish pellets are extremely delicious and nutritious in their own right. It would make much more sense to take out the middle man and just eat the little ones like sardines, anchovies and herring instead of farming carnivorous fish.

Not only is it more sustainable to eat these shorter life-spanned fish but they are lower in the food chain so have bio-accumulated less mercury than their larger predators (see the graph below) so it is healthier too.

mercury levels in fish

Choose Well

We can really educate ourselves on sustainable breeds of fish to eat by taking into account life cycles, breeding cycles, catch methods and the overall health of the fishery.

For example, Orange Roughy (or Deep Sea Perch) is still served in fish stores around Australia. Found in deep waters off Australia’s East Coast, they live until they are 150 years old and only start to breed when they are 30 years old. They are caught via bottom trawling which is extremely destructive to the environment and are on Greenpeace’s Red List due to over-fishing. We are eating them quicker than they can reproduce. Eating these fish makes no sense.

On the other hand, Sardines come from healthy fisheries (although we still need to be careful not to over-fish them) around Australia. They live for 2 to 3 years and breed after their first year. If you choose the right fisheries (WA and VIC – high five!) they use small scale purse seine nets which result in less bycatch.

Don’t worry – you don’t need to know the habits of every single fish breed you eat as there are loads of resources out there to help you make the right choice.

Oysters are gooood!

Thank god for all the Casanovas out there – oysters are a healthy, ecological jackpot. Oysters are the most nutrient dense shellfish you can get – full of zinc (the aphrodisiac mineral), B-vitamins (lots of B-12), Vitamin A and folate. For the best nutritional hit, serve raw.

They are also farmed in a way that is completely natural – except instead of growing on rocks they crow in specially designed cases. They have little negative effect on the environment and by nature improve the quality of the surrounding water.

I would also argue that they are a fantastic option for vegans/vegetarians as they are considered the missing link between plants and animals; countless studies prove that they feel no pain. Do with that what you will my plant-based pals!

So, in a nutshell

Yes to…

  • sardines
  • herring/mullet
  • whiting
  • calamari/squid
  • oysters
  • mahi mahi
  • Jellyfish (though I’m not quite game)
  • Wild barramundi (Cone Bay in particular)

No to…

  • tuna (especially yellowfin, albacore and bigeye)
  • salmon
  • gemfish
  • farmed barramundi
  • Swordfish
  • Flake (which is shark)

Or print and keep this nifty Switch The Fish Chart from The Sustainable Table

switch the fish


Ask Questions

And as a direct quote from my article about sustainable meat eating

Ask questions! It is okay. I was really embarrassed at first when I started asking where things come from and how they were raised but you know what? Most farmers or butchers are beyond happy to chat with you about it. It can (and should) be a massive point of pride. I also used to feel bad asking young kids on their weekend job but again, this is something they should know. And the more they get asked, the more that information feeds back to the bosses who will soon start to realise that people do care about this and thus may consider more local choices.

Want to know more?

If you were a little shocked by some of the information you just read, or you want to learn more about it then below are some fab links to movies, books and articles that I recommend reading;

  • As I have said a million times before Peter Singers book The Ethics of What We Eat changed my life.
  • This Sustainable Table Hungry for Info Fact sheet is a condensed easy to read page with a whole lotta knowledge in there.
  • The End of the Line is a fantastic documentary that gives you the whole picture of the GFC (global fish crisis). Please watch the documentary trailer here.

Knowledge is power but knowledge isn’t knowledge unless it is communicated. So share, what are you going to do OR what are you already doing to care for our oceans. Would love to hear in the comments…

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  • Hi Emily,

    I love your blog and I know I didn’t read the whole of this article but just the opening sentence that our oceans are in danger and they need our urgent assistance is enough to get me going. I feel so passionate about this topic because the under water world is sacred, like everything else and we really need to raise awareness and stop the unsafe way of killing.

    What I would like to encourage here is to watch The Cove movie if you haven’t already and to spread the word. I was in tears by the end of the movie because killing dolphins for apparent reason is just unbearable.

    Thank you,

    Love and light


  • Hey Emily!

    Why have I only just found your blog (via the comment you left me)? It’s beautiful and right up my alley. Keep on writing, you are clearly so passionate about these important topics and I will be back to read more! xx