Does Organic Seafood Exist?

We explain what this and other common seafood labels really mean.

selection of sustainable fish, wild salmon, barramundi, halibut, mussels, and sardines over ice
Photo: John Kernick

Faced with a staggering array of options at the seafood counter or market, it can be challenging to figure which options out your best choices. While retailers have gotten better about labeling seafood by including place of origin and sometimes how the seafood is caught, there are so many different labels, designations, and certifications it can make you feel like you're lost at sea.

First, let's clear up a few misconceptions about seafood: It's not hard to cook, it's not unhealthy to eat due to contamination, and fresh is not always better than frozen. Case in point? There are lots of easy seafood recipes, and fish and shellfish are healthy, protein-rich choices that are a great addition to a balanced diet. The nuclear accident in Fukushima did not contaminate all fish in the Pacific Ocean, and you'd have to eat a lot of fish—more than two servings a week of a very short list of fish such as tuna, grouper, or shark—to even begin worrying about mercury contamination. Last but not least, frozen seafood is often very high quality and sometimes better quality than what is sold as "fresh."

But because there are so many different labels associated with seafood available in the markets, how do you know which is optimal to buy? Knowing your source is the best way to choose seafood. Tyler Fick an Alaskan fisher who has worked in the seafood industry says, "The following terms are only useful if you trust the source of the seafood you are getting. There is certainly mislabeling out there but when you purchase direct from the fisherman or from a trusted fishmonger the terms mean something."


This is something we all want but identifying it can be tricky. As Paul Johnson puts it in Fish Forever ($37,, "Choosing sustainable seafood is complicated by more factors than can be listed. Thousands of species that are caught in hundreds of ways pass through many different hands to come to market from all over the world." In practice, the easiest way to buy sustainable is to buy American, says Fick. "Buy direct from the fisherman when possible. There is nothing sustainable about shipping fish from the U.S. off to China for processing and then back to the U.S. in the form of fish sticks," he says. "Don't be afraid to buy frozen fish. Try off cuts like burgers, bellies, collars, steaks, and the like to use the whole fish."

Wild or Wild-Caught

There's a common perception that wild is better than farmed, but this is not always the case. For many species, wild fish stocks are rapidly depleting thanks to overfishing. Bycatch, or when an unintended species in caught during fishing, can be an issue with wild caught fish, making it sometimes a less sustainable choice than responsibly farmed fish.


Overcrowding, environmental destruction, and use of antibiotics are some of the dangers associated with farmed seafood. When it comes to farmed, what you really want is "sustainable aquaculture." You should also check that the fish was farmed in the U.S.


While you may see organic on seafood labels, the USDA does not currently certify organic aquaculture production, but they are in the process of developing organic practice standards for aquaculture. Fick says, "Organic is a weird label, wild fish have been excluded from the organic label because we can't say for sure what they eat out in the ocean."

Important Details to Look For

First and foremost, check your fish or shellfish for their country of origin. While we can't list all countries, we do know that some countries have better practices when it comes to seafood than others do. According to FishWatch, the United States mainly imports seafood from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador where safety regulations differ from our own. This is a case where buying American does make a difference. Look for U.S.A. on the label, and within the U.S.A., Alaska.

Also look for these certifications: Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch. The world's leading certification and eco-labelling program for sustainable seafood is run by MSC. Fish and shellfish with this label are worth buying, but it comes at a cost. Small independent fishers are unlikely to be able to pay the fees associated with this designation. You'll find the MSC certification in larger markets, such as Whole Foods.

The latter certification is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium; it's a handy guide to sustainable seafood and one our test kitchen uses. It relies on assessments on certified fisheries so it can favor large farmed operations over smaller wild fisheries.

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