Seafood Watch, W-E Digest
Written by Virginia Willis

There’s nothing as primal and pulling as the ocean.

It speaks to humans as powerfully as its antithesis fire.

When I was a little girl and we’d go to the beach, I wasn’t happy until I had my feet in the water. I’m still that way to this day. If I am near the ocean, I am in the ocean. I grew up fishing in the ocean and other bodies of water. There was a pond at my grandparents’ house surrounded by tall, swaying pines and flanked by wild dogwoods. Although we no longer own the property, it will forever remain one of my most favorite places on earth. I was practically born with a fishing rod in my hand. One of my first memories was falling into that murky brown water, the adults scampering to fish me out of the pond. Mama said the first time I caught a fish on my own I jumped up and down so much that my diaper fell down around my ankles. Like I said, I was born to fish.


As a chef, I love cooking fish and shellfish.

Photo Credit: Judith Klinger, Issue 01, Seafood, Mussels
Photo Credit: Judith Klinger

The variety of tastes and textures is extremely broad; from subtle and buttery to iodine-packed and full of minerality, the flavors of seafood are intensely satisfying. Fish and shellfish are also part of a nutritionally sound diet. Seafood is high in protein, low in saturated fat, and contains heart-healthy omega-3s, which help boost immunity and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other ailments. Omega-3s are especially important for pregnant and nursing women and young children. Seafood is good and good for you.


There’s another consideration with regard to seafood consumption – world hunger.

Global population projections continue to point toward escalating growth. We are at a point in which we have to consider if current resources are sufficient, literally, to feed the planet. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, fish and shellfish now account for almost 17 percent of the global population’s intake of protein -- in some coastal and island countries it can top 70 percent. Rick Moonen, Chef/Owner of RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room in Las Vegas, put it this way: “Three quarters of our world is covered in ocean and our relationship with this very productive, yet fragile, environment is critical to feeding this growing planet.” Sustainable fishing, in combination with aquaculture or fish farming, holds tremendous promise to help feed the planet.

Photo Credit: David E. Ove, Monterey Bay Aquarium Tuna
Monterey Bay Aquarium Tuna, Photo Credit: David E. Ove

The primary issue with this dependency on fish and shellfish is that according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, 90% of the world's fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited, or have collapsed. This resonates with chefs..

When asked why sustainable seafood is important to him, Chef Kerry Heffernan responds, “It's actually quite simple - it's for my kids. If I'm not doing everything I can to ensure a diverse and healthy marine environment, I'm literally taking something away from the brightness of their future. I actually stay up at night wondering if they will be able to enjoy the oceans, bays, and rivers, as I know them, and hope to be able to instill that passion and instinct in others.”


So what does “sustainable seafood” mean?

Sustainable seafood is defined as fish or shellfish that is fished or farmed in ways that have minimal impact on ocean health and ensures the availability of seafood for future generations. As a result of technology, we are now consuming fish at a higher rate than ever before. The global fishing community's advances and lack of any serious regulation are enabling humans to fish deeper, farther, and for longer periods of time. The global fishing fleet is operating at two and a half times the sustainable level—there are simply too many boats chasing an increasingly dwindling number of fish. The bottom line is that we are simply catching and eating fish faster than most species can reproduce. This is not sustainable. We’ll literally catch and eat fish into extinction due to overfishing.


Fish that are large in size, live a long time, and are slow to reproduce are among the most at risk to overfishing. Unfortunately, this includes some of our favorite seafood. Americans eat about 16 pounds of seafood per person per year and about 95% of that comes from only 10 species. Three of these, salmon, shrimp, and tuna, account for more than 60% of our total seafood consumption. As a result, tuna populations are at record lows and indeed, Pacific Bluefin tuna is almost on the brink of extinction.

Virginia Willis, Salmon
Virginia Willis, Salmon

How can we know this? Science.

Seafood Watch evaluates whether a fishery is sustainable according to the vulnerability of the species to fishing pressure, species population, the nature and extent of bycatch, the effect of fishing practices on habitats and ecosystems, and the effectiveness of the fishery management. (A fishery is defined as a group of boats targeting a specific fish.)

Seafood Watch scientists work closely with fishery and fish farm experts and study government reports and journal articles. After a complete and comprehensive review of all the available data and information, they apply sustainability criteria to develop an in-depth Seafood Watch Report. The reports are carefully reviewed by a panel of experts from academia, government agencies, and the seafood industry; recommendations are updated every six months. Seafood Watch partners with over 200 organizations and businesses across North America (including two of the largest food service companies in the United States) to encourage restaurants, distributors, and seafood purveyors to purchase from sustainable sources.


Programs such as Seafood Watch offer information to help chefs educate consumers to choose seafood that’s good for you and good for the oceans.

Using a simple red-means-no, yellow-means-caution, and green-means-go color system, Seafood Watch recommends which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers and businesses become advocates for ocean-friendly seafood. These recommendations are available online, in printed pocket guides, or even through a mobile app for smart phones and tablets.


In 2012 Seafood Watch created the Blue Ribbon Task Force, inviting leading chefs and culinary professionals from across the United States to Monterey, California, to share their challenges and ideas about seafood sustainability and how to work for a better tomorrow for healthy oceans.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force represents a nationwide community of more than 50 culinary influencers dedicated to creating a seafood system where fish are caught or farmed in ways that reduce the negative impact on the environment. These chefs and culinary professionals, and the communities they represent, play an important role in the sustainable seafood movement, effectively urging producers for quality, environmentally-friendly products while working to spread awareness to consumers, colleagues, and policy makers. I’m proud to be one of these voices for innovation, advocating for sustainable seafood in our food system.

Elliot Ferdinand, The Faithful
Elliot Ferdinand, The Faithful, Courtesy Arch Enemy Arts

Sheila Bowman, Manager of Culinary and Strategic Initiatives at Seafood Watch, states: “We work with these chefs throughout the year, supporting their efforts, sharing the latest information about ocean-friendly seafood and inspiring them to create change through their stories and passions.”

It’s a powerful relationship that’s hugely important. It’s not just business; it’s personal. Blue Ribbon Task Force member Nico Romo is a French Master Chef and the Executive Culinary Director for FISH Restaurant and the Patrick Properties Hospitality Group in Charleston, SC. He feels compelled to work with sustainable seafood as a result of his past – and a nod towards his future: “Sustainable seafood means protecting our waters so that they are wild and healthy for the long-run. My grandfather was a fisherman in Algeria, where people went to the docks for the day’s catch. The availability of fresh and local seafood has always been important – but even more so now that I have a daughter. I want her to be able to grow up eating the same fish that we enjoy today, and for many more years to come.”

We cannot simply assume that the oceans will always be there.

Championing for sustainable seafood is not a trend; it’s a way of life. When it comes to ocean health – our seafood choices matter.


Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis is one of the most respected voices on Southern food and cooking. Learn more about Virginia and connect with her at