7 Expert Secrets For Choosing The Freshest, Most Sustainable Seafood

Canadian fishmongers let you in on their tactics for navigating the seafood counter, whether you shop at a specialty market or the nearest grocery store.

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How to buy sustainable seafood: fish counter
Photo, James Wei.

I’ve been buying seafood from my local Toronto shop, Hooked, long enough that I never doubt its freshness or that it’s been sourced to the highest ethical standards. But I realize I have to check my fishmonger privilege — I’m fortunate enough to live on the same street as Hooked and know the owners by their first names.

Whether you’re friends with your fish seller or buy from the supermarket, a display case of fish, squid, clams and crustaceans can be overwhelming — especially once you start caring about where your seafood comes from, how it’s caught or farmed, and our consumption’s impact on the ocean.

To provide some guidelines for shoppers, I asked a few experts across the country to share secrets for making sustainable choices.

how to buy sustainable seafood: clams
Clams are one of the most sustainable, traceable choices. Photo, Adrien Sala.

1. Ask to smell your fish

Kristen Donovan, co-owner of my go-to shop Hooked, says it’s not rude to ask for a whiff. “I’ll know someone’s a good customer when they ask if they can smell it,” she says. Fresh fish shouldn’t actually smell like much. Ocean fish, such as halibut, will have a somewhat sweet aroma and freshwater fish may smell slightly lakey. But, says, Donovan, “If you were blindfolded, I don’t know that you’d know it’s fish.

2. When buying fresh, ask when the fish was caught

“People always want to hear that a fish came in today,” says Donovan. But what you really want to know is when the fish was caught and shipped, since that’s more important than when it landed in the shop. “We might have a fish that’s five days old — but we got it direct from the source the day after it was caught so five days, direct, is still fresh.” Likewise, a fish that has arrived in a supermarket “today,” may have spent 10 days being shipped. If you’re picking lobster or crab from a tank, look for alert and frisky critters with all their legs and claws attached.

3. Frozen is sometimes the best choice 

Fish have seasons, just like corn. Don’t expect the same products to be available fresh year-round. Fortunately, blast freezers that quickly drop the temperature of freshly harvested foods have changed the game when it comes to the quality of frozen products.

“From a sustainability standpoint, frozen is much better,” says Mike McDermid, co-owner of The Fish Counter in Vancouver. “It means seafood can be shipped by more environmentally friendly methods like rail rather than the faster airplane.”

Scallops are a perfect example of when frozen is the better choice. “Don’t even think about the fresh ones; always go for the frozen,” says Donovan. “The flavour, texture is way better than the preserved, fresh scallops.” The same is true of frozen shrimp.

How to buy sustainable seafood: salmon
Fresh salmon is in season from June to October. Photo, Caroline Attwood.

4. It’s not possible to buy wild Atlantic salmon

“There is no wild Atlantic salmon left,” says Donovan. If your store labels salmon as such, buy elsewhere. Donovan says that the only product you should see being sold as “wild” is Pacific salmon, which you can buy fresh in season from June to October or frozen out of season.

5. Know your prices

Donovan says it’s critical to ask how salmon is farmed (closed-containment products are the best bet), especially if the price seems too good to be true. “Salmon shouldn’t be $6.99 a pound,” she says. According to Donovan, the most sustainable type of salmon is wild Canadian or Alaskan salmon. Cheap salmon is probably coming from farms using open-ocean pens, where there is less concern about what fish are fed and risks cross-contamination between the fish and the surrounding marine environment. When it comes to shrimp, stay away from anything less than $10 per pound, a good sign the supplier is not adhering to best practices.

6. Buy Canadian

Look for domestic seafood, which means less travel time and rigorous standards. Mussels, clams, ling cod, pickerel, white perch and silver bass (white bass) are all dependable choices.

For Hana Nelson, owner of Afishionado in Halifax, Canadian oysters and mussels are some of the best seafood you can eat because of the low trophic level (trophic level ranks where an animals sits in the food chain, the closer to the bottom, the more efficient the food source).

7. Look out for labels

“Sustainability when it comes to seafood can get very complex — let alone the fact that often scientists disagree on the information,” says McDermid, who suggests using the Oceanwise website and app for information. Mussels, clams and oysters are the most sustainable, traceable choices. You can also watch for labels from Oceanwise, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Friends of the Sea — all strong indicators that a product is sustainable.

Watch: A super-simple way to cook salmon