Which seafood causes the least damage to the planet? It’s complicated.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, Dr. Jessica Gephart and her colleagues looked at five environmental pressures for aquatic foods including: greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen runoff, phosphorus runoff, freshwater use, and agricultural land use. The scientists examined data from 1,690 farms and 1,000 fishery records worldwide. Here is a summary of their findings, provided by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Wild-caught seafood

“For wild-caught seafood, greenhouse gas emissions are the key concern.

“The biggest factor is fuel use for fishing vessels,” says Gephart. “And that depends on how the species are caught and how easy they are to catch.”

Among the winners: “Small fish like sardines, anchovies, and herrings are low on greenhouse gas emissions. So are cods, haddocks, and hakes.”

Among the losers: Lobsters and the flounder-halibut-sole group. Why?

“Both lobsters and flounders are bottom-dwelling species, which are often fished with bottom trawls that require a lot of energy,” says Gephart.

In contrast, she adds, “a lot of the cod, hake, and haddock group is represented by Alaskan pollock from U.S. fisheries that often use less energy-intensive gear and are well managed, so they’re getting good catches for each unit of effort.”

Farmed seafood

“For aquaculture, greenhouse gas emissions depend on what it takes to grow the feed and how much feed is required,” explains Gephart.

Among the questions Gephart and her colleagues asked: “Was land deforested to grow the feed? How much fish gets to market for each pound of feed? How much energy is used for pumps or aerators on the fish farm?”

Again, there were some clear winners.

“Farmed bivalves like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops are produced in coastal areas, so their feed comes from filtering wild phytoplankton in the water, rather than requiring feed inputs,” says Gephart.

“Salmon and trout are also pretty low on greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because they’ve been bred to be efficient at turning feed into meat.”

Tilapia, shrimp, and catfish have higher emissions. “Tilapia falls close to chicken,” says Gephart.

How does wild compare with farmed?

It depends.

“Greenhouse gas emissions for salmon and trout are similar, whether you’re talking about wild or farmed,” says Gephart, “whereas shrimp and bivalves have lower emissions if they’re farmed than if they’re wild-caught.” See Figure 1 below, “Fishing for greener seafood.”

It should be noted that this study didn’t address other concerns such as “lost biodiversity, shrinking fish populations, antibiotic resistance, and bycatch—when other fish, dolphins, or other animals get caught in fishing gear.”

So what can consumers do?

“If you don’t have a retailer who’s working with farmers or fishers, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a great place to look,” says Gephart. Its website divides seafood into “Best Choice,” “Certified,” “Good Alternative,” and “Avoid” categories.”

For additional information, see the Seafood Food Label Guide from FoodPrint:

Other FoodPrint seafood resources include:

Sustainable Seafood

Learn more about the impacts of the types of seafood you eat – and the guides that can help you make better seafood choices


Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide (easy to navigate and has a great app)

Seafood Slavery Risk Tool

Find a Community Supported Fishery

Learn more about sustainable fish farming and the recirculating farms coalition

At the fish counter? Here are some questions to ask…


Tips for Buying and Cooking Sustainable Fish

Citation: Gephart JA., Henriksson PJG, Parker RWR. et al. Environmental performance of blue foods. Nature 597, 360–365 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03889-2.

Source: Liebman B. Which seafood causes the least damage to the planet? It’s complicated. Center For Science in The Public Interest. March 28, 2022. Available at: https://www.cspinet.org/article/which-seafood-causes-least-damage-planet-its-complicated

Figure 1. Fishing for greener seafood

Aim for seafood with low greenhouse gas emissions. Farmed fish have other costs such as nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, but they’re typically lower than that of chicken.

Photo: Source: Nature 597: 360, 2021.

Published by greengrass50

My name is Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist with expertise in environmental nutrition, food and nutrition policy, food and nutrition security, food justice, chronic disease prevention, regenerative & organic agriculture, and sustainable healthy dietary patterns. Currently, I serve on the Editorial Review Board and as a Column Editor for the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. I live in Bogota, Colombia with my husband, two teenagers (boy-girl twins), and our dog Honey. My website is: www.sustainablerdn.com. You can follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/cmccullumgomez/

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