This post has been corrected.
Finding the right fish to eat is hard when you’re looking for something sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as deciding between farmed or wild, imported or domestic, or fresh or frozen. When it comes to seafood, sustainability means considering the long-term viability of the species’ populations, the environmental impacts of farming or catching, and the livelihoods of the people doing the work—not something that can be summed up in one sentence or less.
But while there is no single, catch-all principle, eating a variety of fish is key to maintaining healthy fisheries, and also a good way to limit your intake of toxins like mercury.
Variety can be a major hurdle in countries like the US, where consumers rely heavily on just three kinds of fish, much of which is imported: shrimp, canned tuna, and salmon.
But there are so many other fish in the sea worth trying. Here are a few:
Porgy: Caught on the east coast of the United States, this mild white fish, also known as scup, is inexpensive and easy to cook. “The porgy fishery is a robustly healthy fishery,” says Sean Dixon, co-founder of the Village Fishmonger in New York City. While scup levels reached low points in the 1990s, federal and state fishery managers restricted fishing to give the population a chance to bounce back. The plan worked: the number of scup improved 30 times over between 1997 and 2008. These fish can be eaten whole, filleted, baked, fried, or grilled.
Monkfish: Once called the ”poor man’s lobster,” monkfish—recommended by David McInerney, FreshDirect’s co-founder and “chief food adventurer”—is known for its ugly face and lobster-like texture. He says the cheeks are especially good. The fish is now available nearly year-round from the US Mid-Atlantic and southern New England regions, with a population that actually exceeds the target levels. If you’re reluctant to eat something so hideous, try giving it a chorizo crust. But be careful not to eat too much, as this fish has some mercury contamination.
Cobia: Sometimes called black kingfish, lemonfish, or black salmon, cobia is the only member of its fish genus (rachycentron) and family (rachycentridae), making it truly unique, just like its rich taste. Most commercially sold cobia is farmed because the fish are hardly ever seen in large groups, making it harder to harvest. (Wild cobia is usually caught recreationally or as by-catch by fishermen looking for other species.) Farming is generally done through environmentally sound methods, except in Panama, where the feed requirements are unsustainably high, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. It calls cobia a “best choice” to eat. Try searing or grilling next time you see it sold at the market.
Rockfish: There are more than 100 kinds of rockfish, sometimes called “Pacific bass” or even mislabeled as snapper. Caught wild on the west coast, in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and California, many of the varieties are listed as “best choices” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Stocks were low in the 1990s, but populations have amply recovered. The chilipepper, splitnose, widow, and yellowtail varieties were all added to the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainable list in 2014 after three years of joint efforts to rebuild the fisheries. A white fish, rockfish can be grilled, baked, or seared. They also make delicious fish tacos.
Leaf barnacle: Also known as Gooseneck, this crustacean is found along the North American west coast and has only one fishery in North America—in British Columbia, Canada. The barnacles are collected by hand, pried from their beds with a small tool, which means very few other fish are affected. They come highly recommended by Stony Brook University’s Safina Center and Monterey Bay Aquarium. In 1987, the New York Times said the barnacle “looks like a carpenter’s thumb, feels like a rubber hose and is sweeter and more tender than spiny lobster.” It recommended boiling them quickly and serving with aioli.
For more help finding sustainable seafood options, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fish list, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the Safina Center’s Online Seafood Guide, or the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector. Look for grocers like FreshDirect and Whole Foods that have their own ratings system, as well.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified FreshDirect’s Chief Food Adventurer.
The featured photo was shared under a Creative Commons license by the NOAA Photo Library on Flickr. It has been cropped.