Articles / How to Buy Fish

How to Buy Fish

Published March 11, 2021

From basics to best practices

Above, you’ll hear Mark and me talk a bit about how to buy fish: It’s quite helpful and a good listen. Below, I’ve outlined some best practices when you’re not quite ready to commit to fish-by-mail. Read on.

This week’s “Know Your Fishmonger” offers options for buying fish harvested in ways that are best for our health, the fishers, local businesses, and the environment. While it would be ideal to always buy fish so responsibly, many of us don’t have the foresight, the relationship with trusted purveyors, or the funds to shop like this all the time. 

We’re here to help navigate the good, better, and best options when you’re buying fish. 

The basics

First, a disclaimer: This level offers the least transparency in terms of where fish comes from and how it’s procured. But these tips do empower you as a shopper to buy better fish that’s harvested more responsibly. 

Here’s the bad news. When we’re buying inexpensive fish, it’s fraught with problems. “We’re low-grading our seafood supply. In effect, what we’re doing is we’re sending the really great, wild stuff that we harvest here on our shores abroad,” fish expert and author of Four Fish and American Catch, Paul Greenberg tells us on NPR’s Fresh Air. “And in exchange, we’re importing farm stuff that, frankly, is of an increasingly dubious nature.” 

Because American consumers don’t want to see or smell fish, seafood has “really … been banished from the center of our cities and sequestered to a corner of our supermarkets,” Greenberg said. “Seafood has been taken out of the hands of the experts and put into the hands of the traders, so people really cannot identify the specificity of fish anymore.”

So we’re starting with the least ideal scenario and the most likely one: You’re shopping at the grocery store, wondering how to buy some decent quality seafood. 

“The four things I will always buy at a supermarket without worry on both sustainability and health [are] frozen wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, farmed domestic mussels and clams, canned sardines and anchovies, and canned wild pink or sockeye salmon,” Greenberg wrote in a recent email. “Everything else is a judgment call.”

Here’s where it gets tricky. Frozen fish isn’t necessarily bad. “‘Frozen’ likely isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think gourmet seafood,” Bridget Shirvell reported for us on Heated. In the case of one Connecticut shore town, “The only way you’d get a fresher, better-tasting scallop is if you ate it right off the shell on the boat,” said Joe Bomster, whose family developed a freezing technique for seafood in the 1970s. 

Giants in the seafood industry maintain that with freezing seafood, flavor and nutrients can be preserved. “Our fish is caught, processed into fillets, and flash-frozen all within hours; the natural flavor and moisture are locked in,” Trident CEO Joe Bundrant said of his company’s Alaskan pollock. Trident Seafoods is one of the biggest seafood companies in the country (And pollock is the stuff in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish).

As far as the nutritional value of frozen seafood, since it’s often frozen so quickly after being caught, “ … all the nutrients that you would find in a freshly caught fish are there,” Mónica Ruiz-Noriega told Shirvell. Ruiz-Noriega is a functional nutrition expert with a Ph.D. in biological sciences and founder of Vigeo Nutrition.

When you head over to the fish counter, you should be aware of labels like “previously frozen,” since once it’s thawed, seafood starts to lose its integrity — nutrients and flavor. 

It also never hurts to ask the folks behind the counter what they know about the fish: whether it has been previously frozen, when the fish came to market, and where it’s from. 

That last bit of data is important: Ideally, you want to see that fish is harvested domestically, which may be a challenge at this tier. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that well over 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and over half of the fish consumed worldwide comes from aquaculture.

When you do decide to stick with fish harvested from U.S. waters, you’re trusting fishing practices that are among the most highly regulated in the world. “Among fishing nations, Iceland, Norway, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand have all in the last 20 years implemented fishing policies that have caused a stabilization and rebuilding of many stocks of fish,” Greenberg reported in 2014 in his “Covering the Seas” issue guide. 

Committing to buying fish that’s wild-caught in U.S. waters is something we shouldn’t take lightly. In his review of Four Fish, in which Greenberg reports on our relationship with tuna, cod, sea bass, and salmon, Sam Sifton pointed out that Greenberg “posits the sense of privilege we should feel in consuming wild fish, along with the necessity of aquaculture.” 

(An aside: If you haven’t read Ian Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean or The Associated Press series that won a Pulitzer for reporting on slavery in the international fishing industry, you should. You’d likely never buy fish from an unknown provenance again. )

I’m not even going to go into fish fraud, which is a huge problem, but I’m trying to keep this a service-y piece and a readable length. I will state the obvious here: When in doubt, perhaps the best solution is to choose something other than fish for dinner.

Another suggestion: Trust your senses. Look for a spotless case stocked and restocked with ice. Look for whole fish, clear-eyed fish, those with gills that look clean, and skin that looks shiny if it’s a skin-on fish. But when it comes to how fish looks, it’s still a challenge since we know that fish is manipulated to look fresher.

Better options

In talking fresh seafood, consider the season — and ask the fishmonger if you don’t know. Another aside: When my father was alive, he was super into fishing, and in his retirement, worked at a fish counter in the Carolinas. A woman came to his counter and asked which shrimp she should buy. “None,” he said. “It’s out of season.”

Carolina’s shrimp season usually runs from late May to December and sometimes January. Like many Americans, she didn’t want to hear it: She wanted what she wanted when she wanted it — and at a good price. Of course she did: Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S., according to the National Fisheries Institute, and since 2016, its consumption continues to rise.

It’s why Greenberg goes back to frozen fish, telling NPR Fresh Air listeners to buy seafood such as “wild salmon frozen, not fresh, if it’s out of season” (The salmon season is also, roughly, May to September). 

Another resource: Monterey Bay provides the green-yellow-red stoplight approach in their national and regional guides. They include the most sustainable seafood options for residents of the West Coast, Southwest, Central, Northeast, Southeast, and a sushi-specific list. U.S.-farmed bass is among the best choices for the Northeast, for example, along with Maryland blue crab, farmed mussels, swordfish caught through hand lines or harpoons in U.S. or Canadian waters, as well as farmed oysters and scallops. 

But here’s where it gets complicated: Striped bass falls among the do-not-buy fish when it comes to U.S. gillnet- and pound-net fishing. And while New Zealand salmon gets the greenlight, salmon gets the redlight when it comes to fish from the Canadian Atlantic, Scotland, Norway, and Chile. These details make it super confusing to the average consumer in that it requires a literacy most of us don’t have. 

Shop at places that go beyond listing whether seafood is caught, in say, North America. Look for the state it’s from or even that of the farm, fishery, or fishing outfit, like Rappahannock Oyster Co. or Taku River Reds. The more you know, the more you can trust that you’re shopping responsibly. 

Best practices

This tier offers the most transparency, which brings us back to our fishmongers. They can make recommendations about what to buy — and you should listen to them. Once you’ve decided you can trust them, you should build that relationship. They can tell you when fish came into the shop, where it’s from, and in an ideal world, the fishers. They understand the supply chain. They know the fishing seasons. In short, they know fish. And we’re going to pay more for it, as we should.

Back in 2015, when Oceana asked Greenberg for tips on how to eat local, sustainable seafood, he pointed to the Greenpeace supermarket seafood ratings (which incidentally haven’t been updated since 2018, perhaps pointing to more pervasive industrialization of fish and decreasing transparency in the supply chain).

Greenberg also said this: “If you can, join a community-supported fishery (CSF). There are not that many yet, but the movement is growing.” As this week’s reporting on The Bittman Project displays, the movement has arrived.