How to pick sustainable seafood

If you want to help maintain supplies of fish for years to come, many marine experts say you should do your part to help with conservation efforts. It doesn't have to be hard. Here's how:

Find a reliable fishmonger

Try to cultivate a relationship with a reputable seafood store in your neighborhood. If you don't have one, select your grocery store carefully.

Look for evidence that the store cares: Is the fish properly labeled with country of origin and whether it's fresh or farmed? Does the store offer products with the Marine Stewardship Council's logo? Is there an actual human behind the fish counter? Is that person knowledgeable? Visit the company's Web site and call corporate headquarters to find out whether it is trying to source sustainably.

Ask that fishmonger questions

Three major factors affecting sustainability are biology (short-lived, quick-maturing fish with vigorous reproductive cycles are highly sustainable), catch methods (hook-and-line and traps are often favored because they have low environmental impact and don't snag many unwanted species), and fishery management (whether good policies are in place for preserving the habitat and the species).

For each purchase, ask your purveyor "Where does this fish come from?", "How was it caught?", and, if you really want to push it, "Who caught this fish?"

Their answers or willingness to find them will tell you whether to keep shopping there. "These should be as basic as cooking and freshness questions," says Paul Johnson, author of "Fish Forever." "It should just become part of the dialogue."

Know the right answers

Investigate your favorite seafood. If you like shrimp, should you be buying wild or farmed, imported or American? (Answer: wild American shrimp are a good choice because U.S. shrimping boats have gear that helps them avoid turtles). Instead of learning the entire seafood universe, Joey Brookhart, senior project manager for the trade group Seafood Choices Alliance, recommends thoroughly researching your three favorites and figuring out where they should come from and how they should be caught or farmed. On the flip side, identify one fish on the "best" list that you've never tried and see whether you like it.

Use the available shortcuts

Carry the Seafood Watch pocket guide and actually pull it out at the fish counter. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council's blue oval.

Give yourself a break

"Read the cards, go on Web sites, familiarize yourself with what sustainable means, and with every purchase ask the questions where, when, how, why, who," says chef Barton Seaver, who runs Hook in Washington, D.C. "You may not always make the right choice. But you've started the information trail. And that's the only thing that's going to get us where we need to be. When people start asking why, change begins to happen."

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