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How to shop to support sustainable seafood

Cooking at home and experimenting with bold new types of protein like seafood is exciting, but there’s more you should know about what you’re buying. Beyond knowing how to grill tuna steaks or cook mussels, there’s also knowing where your seafood came from. Was the salmon on your plate given antibiotics? And in the grocery aisle, did that can of tuna contribute to bycatch, where unintended marine life like dolphins or sea turtles are caught in commercial fishing nets?

Carrie Brownstein, Principal Quality Standards Advisor at Whole Foods Market, is here to be your guide. Throughout her career, she’s made it her mission to create a model for a more sustainable seafood industry that supports healthier oceans and marine life, and the communities that rely upon them. Seafood runs deep in her family, starting with her great-grandfather’s seafood business founded in 1909. But it was studying Marine Ecology and Marine Policy while getting her master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke University that taught Brownstein about the intersection between marine ecosystems, fisheries, and the governing policies that either support or deplete our fisheries globally. Her subsequent work assessing the seafood industry, consumer choice, and the sourcing policies of seafood buyers demonstrated the potential for seafood buyers and consumers to put the seafood industry on a trajectory towards greater sustainability.

“I was excited to work on marine conservation from the seafood angle because catching and farming fish—and from the consumer side, purchasing it to make a delicious meal— is one major way that people are affecting the oceans on a regular basis, for good and for bad,” she tells Mic. Brownstein is part of Whole Foods Market’s Quality Standards team, a group of 16 women with 210 years of combined experience. The Quality Standards team has led the charge among retailers, earning the top-ranked retailer position for seafood sustainability by Greenpeace five times. Below, she gives the lowdown on how to shop for seafood in a way that helps protect the environment and offers an easy, delicious dinner.

Read the label.

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Walking through the seafood section at Whole Foods Market is a crash course in transparency when it comes to labeling. If it’s wild-caught seafood, the label will have a logo letting you know that your fish is either certified sustainable wild-caught by the Marine Stewardship Council or from a fishery rated green or yellow by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.

“If it’s green, that means it came from a well-managed fishery and it’s caught in ways that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife,” Brownstein explains. “A yellow rating indicates fisheries where there’s some concern with how the species are caught or managed.” Whole Foods Market doesn’t sell any of the red-rated seafood you might find at other grocery stores, which indicates a species that is overfished, poorly managed or caught in ways that cause harm to habitats or other wildlife.

Think beyond wild-caught versus farm-raised seafood.

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“I think one of the most common misconceptions is that farmed seafood is a poor choice,” Brownstein says. “Aquaculture, or farmed seafood, is environmentally friendly, when it’s done right.”

In 2007, Whole Foods Market developed their own industry-leading standards for aquaculture because there were no certification programs for farmed seafood that covered all the issues that Whole Foods Market believed should be addressed in order to farm responsibly. Their Seafood Quality Standards prohibit antibiotics, added growth hormones, and animals cannot be genetically modified. In addition, they minimize the environmental impacts of seafood farming by requiring monitoring of water quality and protecting sensitive aquatic habitats. Additional standards address feed and predator control, drugs and chemicals. The standards are extensive and available on the company’s website.

All of the retailer’s farmed seafood in their seafood department carries a Responsibly Farmed logo. “It’s critical that we have a model for responsible farming out there. With over three billion people in the world relying on seafood for their protein, it’s not possible to meet the needs of a global population with only wild-caught fish,” Brownstein stresses.

Pay attention to where your fish comes from.

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In 2017, Whole Foods Market debuted an industry-leading sourcing policy for canned tuna requiring that the fisheries the company sources from use pole-and-line, troll, and handlining methods, all of which catch tuna one-by-one. This means that the canned tuna sold on the shelves of Whole Foods Market come from fisheries that prevent bycatch – the catch of untargeted fish and other marine creatures. One-by-one methods not only avoid harming other sea-life, they also create more jobs in coastal communities.

Whole Foods Market also requires traceability of the supply chain from boats to can, and whether it’s a U.S. albacore fishery or fishermen in the Maldives who’ve had tuna as part of their culture and history for over 900 years, Brownstein wants to connect customers with where their seafood is coming from.

“As the one-by-one tuna fishermen go to regional fishery management meetings to urge managers for better regulations and policies to protect these species from overfishing, they can say that they have support from buyers who are looking for this kind of livelihood and low-impact fishing method to continue,” she explains.

Fresh isn’t necessarily best.

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Similar to the misconception that wild-caught is better than farmed fish, Brownstein wants to clear up the idea that fresh seafood always beats frozen. “When they catch the fish and freeze it right away, it’s at its freshest point, and that’s where you can get a lot of great value,” she says.

Whether it’s Alaska sockeye salmon or Florida pink shrimp, buying frozen seafood tends to be more affordable and offers a wider range of options than only shopping what’s in season. “When people say that seafood is expensive, I’m always reminding them, ‘Have you thought about getting frozen fish because that’s actually what I buy on a regular basis,’” Brownstein tells Mic.

Don’t hesitate to change it up.

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Expanding your palate not only diversifies your diet, but it also takes some pressure off of the species that tend to be overfished. You can start by asking your local fishmonger for recommendations on new species to try.

Brownstein says that while wild caught salmon at peak season is undoubtedly delicious, it’s not the only great seafood option. She also loves mussels, farmed branzino to grill on the BBQ and black sea bass, an east coast species. On the west coast, her favorite is black cod, also known as sablefish, which is amazing with a miso glaze.

Remember that your fishmonger is there to help.

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Whether it’s inquiring about where the Dover sole you’re buying came from or asking about the best way to prepare Gulf red snapper, the team behind the seafood counter at Whole Foods Market is there to help.

“Our team members can not only cut fish in the way that people want, but they’ll filet, debone, season or marinate to order,” she says. “There are a lot of services our seafood department offers because we have excellent team members working there who are really passionate about what they’re doing.”

When it comes to preparing seafood, keep it simple.

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If you’re staring down a recipe that has more than 15 ingredients and ten steps, stop what you’re doing. Brownstein stresses that simple is best, particularly if you’re new to preparing seafood.

“I think people get scared of cooking seafood, but it’s just so easy and it’s so quick,” she insists. “When you’re buying salmon, for example, and you get really good-quality salmon, all you really need to do is barbecue it with some coarse salt rubbed on it and some olive oil, and you can put lemon or lime on it. It’s delicious and it takes less than 10 minutes.”

Same goes for cooking shellfish like mussels and clams—preparing them takes less than 10 minutes, she says.

To learn more about Whole Foods Market’s Seafood Quality Standards, check out their website or even go to your local Whole Foods Market and talk to a fishmonger today. You won’t regret it.

This article is sponsored by Whole Foods Market.