OUR OCEANS are in deep, deep trouble. Only ten percent of the large fish are left, food webs are in tatters and pollution and invasive species threaten marine ecosystems. Coastal communities are also in trouble. From Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, to Musgamagw Tsawataineuk, British Columbia, people struggle to make a living from the ocean, even as fisheries are dosed and the right to fish is concentrated in the hands of the few.

What, then, is a seafood lover to do at the local grocery's fish counter? Side- by-side with Atlantic salmon raised in Chile are Patagonian toothfish captured in the southern ocean and tiger shrimp farmed in Thailand. The ice-packed fillets and glossily packaged delicacies seem far from the wharves of fishing communities and the watery darkness that enshrouds decimated fish stocks and damaged habitat. In fact, consumers have the power to help ensure that the fisheries that are profitable are also fisheries that are sustainable and equitable. This guide presents a selection of seafood that the consumer can buy with good conscience - from stocks that are relatively healthy or rebounding and that are fished in a way that does not damage fish habitat or create high levels of by- catch.

Please keep in mind that these are just suggestions, and that the gear used to catch a fish is as important as the species you select. Giving a stamp of approval to an entire fishery is difficult because of conservation and social concerns that may be specific to your area. And this list is by no means complete. I am sure there are other, wonderful fisheries out there that you will discover if you look for them. Always ask your fishmonger where a fish came from, how it was· caught and by whom. If you are not satisfied with the answers, ask for alternatives.

Atlantic Lobster

Atlantic lobster probably requires little introduction. The bulky crustacean, with its large front claws and extremely tasty white flesh, is the most valuable commercial fishery on the East Coast. While alive, lob- sters are usually mottled brownish-green to black in colour, only acquiring their signature red shell after succumbing to the boiling pot. lobsters in Atlantic Canada become mature at six to nine years of age. Female lobsters mate shortly after moulting or shedding their outer shell, which they do every one to two years, increasing in size with each moult. Fertilized females may not produce fertilized eggs until the following year. These eggs will be held under the tail of the female for yet another year before being released as larvae.

Gear Lobster traps, also know as parlour traps

By-catch Very little, some crab and fish

Abundance All of the stocks in eastern Canada, except in those in the Bay of Fundy, off southwest Nova Scotia and off the north coast of Prince Edward Island, have experienced declines since peak catches of the early 1990s, although catches are still above those seen historically in most places. lobster stocks are dependent on environmental conditions and tend to cycle in abundance.

Management The fishery is divided into designated lobster fishing areas. Each area has a limited number of licences, trap allocations, size limits and season closures. There are also rules requiring the release of "berried" or egg-bearing females. Some areas also mark berried females with a "v-notch" on their tail and notched females are always thrown back.

Concerns As with other pot and trap fisheries, as long as the number of traps is limited and size restrictions are in place, it is unlikely the lobster populations will be overexploited. However, there are concerns that too many young lobsters are being harvested before they have a chance to reproduce, with many stock assessments calling for an increase in the minimum size limit. Saving larger individuals, which are known to produce eggs with greater survival rates, would likely benefit some populations. The little known about how local populations are distributed is also of concern but this information could be obtained tbrough co-operative information gathering with fishers. There are also animal welfare concerns regarding how lobsters are kept and the boiling of these animals live.

Dungeness Crab

Dungeness crabs, named after the small town of Dungeness in Washington State, are reddish brown in colour with legs that are shorter than snow or king crabs. Crabs mature at four or five years, with male crabs mating with newly moulted female crabs in early spring and summer. Female crabs can produce huge numbers of eggs - on the order of 2.5 million - which they hold on their abdomens in a mass called asponge.

Gear Crab pots, also ring nets, dip nets and scuba dive gear

By-catch Low levels

Abundance It is believed that Dungeness crabs are being exploited at the highest levels the popula- tions can sustain.

Management Only male crabs over 16.5 centimetres are retained. There are a limited number of licences issued, trap limits and season closures. Escape mechanisms are required on traps to prevent them from catching sea life in the event that they are lost.

Concerns like lobster stocks, Dungeness crab stocks seem to fluctuate cyclically, but the gear used tends to result in a sustainable fishery. Monitoring and enforcement of management practices may be questionable. Recreational and First Nations catches are nQt included in management plans or stock assessments, and there are disputes about how and when different user groups can fish for crab. For instance, the commercial fishery may be catching too many crabs, resulting in fewer crabs being available for First Nations fisheries.

Prawns and Shrimp

Shrimp pots can be used to catch spot prawns and some types of shrimp. This method is preferable to trawling because it causes less by-catch and damage to the ocean floor. As their name suggests, spot prawns have distinctive spots on their first and fifth tail segment. Common types of shrimp caught by the pot fishery are humpback or king shrimp and coonstripe shrimp. There is also a small but growing pot fishery for Northern shrimp. All of these shrimp undergo sex changes as they mature. They start out as males and then become females for the final year or two of their lives.

Gear Shrimp pots

By-catch low levels

Abundance West Coast prawn, humpback and coonstripe shrimp populations are highly variable. Northern shrimp, which are found on the East Coast from Baffin Island to Nova Scotia, are thought to be in good shape.

Management On the West Coast, areas are closed when the number of spawning females caught reaches levels estimated to be required to sustain the population in the upcoming year. There are a limited number of licences issued, with trap limits and gear and vessel specifications. The Northern shrimp pot fishery on the East Coast is still at an introductory phase.

Concerns On the West Coast, the season for pot fishing shrunk from 230 days in 1994 to 66 days in 2002, possibly indicating that the fishery is experiencing a downturn. The use of trawls to catch Northern shrimp may have impacts similar to that of groundfish draggers in the past - they are simply too good at scooping up huge portions of populations, too non-selective and too destructive to fish habitat.

Snow Crab

The snow crab has a disc-shaped with .five pairs of long, spider-like legs. The crab's body is light brown on the back and creamy on its belly - it turns a bright red-orange when cooked. Unlike lobsters, snow crabs mature at a particular size and then stop growing. Females have a widened abdomen for carrying eggs, which they carry for two years before releasing larvae into the water column. Eggs hatch in late spring, and the larvae released float in the water column for 12 to 15 weeks before settling. 

Gear Baited traps

By-catch low amounts

Abundance In most cases, snow crab populations are in good shape.

Management The fishery is divided into designated crab fishing areas with a limited number of licences, seasonal closures, quotas and trap allocations for each area. Some regions also have dockside monitoring, required submission of log books and trip limits. Snow crabs smaller than 9.5 centimetres are excluded from the fishery, resulting in only male crabs being landed. Soft shell and "white" (just moulted) crabs are released.

Concerns There is uncertainty about how stocks are assessed, especially in Newfoundland and labrador, and little known about biological links between crabs found in different management areas. There are concerns that catches of immature crabs could decrease population growth, even if most of these crabs are released. Consistent rules on when to avoid aggregations of immature crabs and how to handle crabs before release need to be created.

Wild Pacific Salmon

Wild Pacific salmon are preferable to farmed Atlan salmon, which are believed to threaten native wild stocks through competition, interbreeding and disease transmission. Salmon farms can also be a source of pollution in the form of fish waste, pesticides and antibiotics. Animal welfare and husbandry concerns have been raised about the high densities of fish kept in confined conditions. Five species of Pacific salmon are caught on the West Coast: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink and chum. Each has different life history characteristics, appearance and flavour.

Gear Troll, gill nets and seines

By-catch Other species are sometimes caught, and by-catch of rockfish is of special concern.

Abundance Different salmon runs and species have different population levels. Salmon runs in southern and central British Columbia are believed to be under threat because of historical exploitation and habitat destruction due to pollution, forestry activities and development around salmon rivers. Two runs of sockeye salmon (the Cultus lake and Sakinaw sockeye) were recently listed as endangered. Species that are believed to be in relatively good shape are pink and chum salmon, but all Canadian salmon runs have low numbers relative to historic numbers. Unless you are certain your salmon comes from a healthy population, some recommend eating Alaskan wild salmon because these fish popula- tions are known to be in better shape.

Management Salmon catches are limited by quotas and by season and area closures. Salmon populations are estimated before, during and after the fishing season.

Concerns Most wild salmon depend on intact, unpolluted watersheds. Human alteration of their river ecosystems will prevent stocks from rebounding, even if stocks aren't overfished. The ceremonial and social significance of salmon to First Nations people needs to be fully recognized and incorporated explicitly in management.

Pacific: Halibut

Halibut are flat fish that swim on their sides. As young fish and larvae, halibut look like most other fish, but as they mature, their eye migrates from the side to the top of the head. Halibut (an reach huge sizes, up to three metres in length and 270 kilograms in weight. The topside of a halibut is dark in colour, varying from black to green depending on the fish's habitat, while the underside is white.

Gear Hook and line, also referred to as groundfish or bottom iongline

By-catch Some by-catch of rockfish, lingcod and seabirds

Abundance Stocks are in relatively good shape.

Management The halibut fishery is managed under an individual vessel quota system, meaning that fishing vessel owners are given a set portion of the halibut quota to fish. There are also size restrictions, by-catch restrictions for rockfish and area closures.

Concerns The by-catch of rockfish (especially the threatened Bocaccio) and seabirds is of special concern with the halibut fishery, although by-catch from hook-and-line fishing is quite small relative to trawl or dragger fisheries. Halibut longliners also catch lingcod, a species that is overexploited, and they are allowed to land limited amounts of this fish. The individual quota system has conservation and safety benefits, but it also creates incentive for fish to be dumped at times when fish prices are low or when less valuable fish are caught (a practice known as "high-grading"). Transfers of quota can result in the fishery becoming concentrated in the hands of a few big players. The recreational and First Nations catch levels are not assessed very thoroughly. Hook-and-line caught Atlantic halibut are also a good choice, although these stocks are not as healthy as those found on the West Coast. Halibut tend to be smaller today than they were in the past due to the overselectioll of larger individuals by the fishery.


Haddock, a fish with a head and back and a black lateral line, are members of the cod family and, in Eastern Canada, were a victim to the groundfish collapses of the last few decades. You can easily distinguish haddock from cod by the black mark (known as the devil's thumbprint) that is behind its lateral fin. Haddock has white flesh that is flakier than cod and the meat has a slightly sweet taste.

Gear Hook and line, also referred to as groundfish or bottom longline, or hand lines

By-catch There is by-catch of other groundfish; of special concern is by-catch of cod.

Abundance Some haddock stocks are showing signs of recovery. The haddock fisheries off Newfoundland and eastern Nova Scotia are closed, but haddock in these regions are caught as by-catch in other groundfish fisheries.

Management The fishery is managed by quota, with by-catch restrictions, size restrictions, trip limits, area closures to protect spawning haddock and seasonal closures. There is a mixture of quota allocation methods, including individual quotas, community quotas and enterprise allocations, where companies rather than individuals are given a portion of the quota. Most hook-and-line fishers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick fish under community quotas.

Concerns Haddock are also caught by draggers, which damage fish habitat and result in high levels of by-catch of fish and non-commercial species. The individual quota system and enterprise allocations can result in a concentration of the quota into the hands of big players. There are reports of "high-grading" - the dumping of less valuable or smaller fish - and dumping at sea to prevent fish from being landed at times when they won't obtain the highest price. These destructive practices could reduce the rate of recovery of haddock and other groundfish populations. The average size of haddock at a given age, their size at maturity and the condition of individual fish have declined dramatically because of the selection of large individuals by the fishery.

Herring, Mackerel, Sardines and Smelt

Eating small pelagic, or open-water, fish such as mackerel and herring has a couple of benefits. These small fish consume zooplankton, so you are eating lower on the food chain. This means that less of the ocean's productivity is used to provide food for humans. Also, these fish gather in large schools that can be captured with little by-catch of other species. Unfortunately, many of these fish end up as bait, are ground up for meal or are reduced to fish oil rather than ending up on the dinner plate! Too often, we only resort to them as food when the populations of larger fish are depleted.

Gear Weirs, traps, jiggers, hand lines, gill nets, trawls

By-catch low amounts

Abundance West Coast herring stocks appear to be at low levels, as are some stocks on the East Coast, such as those off the west coast of Newfoundland. Mackerel populations are generally in good shape. Sardines in the Pacific appear to have recovered from their collapse in the 1930s, although this population is susceptible to collapses every 20 to 50 years. Smelt populations differ from place to place, and there are marine and freshwater species.

Management Pacific herring is managed under an individual vessel quota sy~tem, with all vessels required to carry a fisheries observer to monitor catches. In the East Coast herring fishery, some of the areas are managed under an individual quota system; there is some observer coverage and dockside monitoring is required. In the Maritimes, the mackerel fishery is fished competitively by licensed fishers; there are by-catch and size restrictions and season closures. Mackerel fishers are required to submit log books; there is also dockside monitoring and some observer coverage. The Pacific sardine fishery is fished competitively by licensed operators and management methods are still being formulated.

Concerns Small fish may be important food for other fish, whales and birds, so these fisheries can have consequences for aquatic food webs. Herring are caught for roe, which means that spawning females are targeted and fish caught are converted to fish meal and fish oil. On the East Coast, there have been conflicts between inshore and offshore herring fishers because of disputes 9ver where offshore fishers are allowed to fish; and how the offshore fishery affects local stocks and habitat. The recreational food fishery and catch of mackerel for bait may be substantial, but are not recorded or included in stock status estimates. For oily fish like herring, mackerel and sardines, there are concerns about the build-up of chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and furans.

Oysters, Mussels and Clams

In general, wild and cultured bivalves like mussels, ,oysters and clams are good choices for the conscientious seafood buyer. These animals are filter feeders and, like herring and mackerel, are low on the food chain. Shellfish that is cultured should not be farmed at high densities, so as not to damage coastal ecosystems by outcompeting naturally occurring species for food, drawing too many predators or causing disease outbreaks. It is also important that aquaculture sites are chosen to ensure that wastes are adequately flushed. Because of concerns about the introduction of invasive species and diseases, it is wise to choose native species over non-native ones. Fish farms that raise a variety of animals and plants, rather than creating monocultures, are also a great option - but you may have difficulty finding such places in Canada.

Gear Rakes, hoes, mussel lines, oyster and clam cages

By-catch Very low

Abundance Varies by species

Management For wild fisheries, management, where it exists, takes the form of limiting the number of licensed diggers and instituting area and seasonal closures. Aquaculture operations are regulated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Concerns DFO has a dual role as an enabler and a regulator of aquaculture. Environmen!al assessments of fish farms lack rigour and there is little monitoring of required mitigation measures. The aquaculture industry has been implicated in the spread of invasive species, which happens through the ' transfer of organisms from one site to another and in packaging and transport of shellfish to market. In coastal areas, oysters, clams and mussels are affected by pesticide runoff, siltation, eutrophication and increased occurrence of harmful algal blooms. Wild shellfish harvesters may also damage beaches and coastal habitats and compete with seabirds.

Freshwater Fish

If you live inland, like to buy local want to eat fish, your choices should be tailored to the fish stocks and aquaculture operations near you. Canada has freshwater fisheries for whitefish, northern pike, mullet, sauger, walleye-pickerel, rainbow smelt, yellow perch and arctic char - to name but a few. Unfortunately, many of our lake and river systems are affected by overfishing, development, pollution and invasive species.

The ecological impacts of each fishery will be particular to your region and your local fish farmer. For farmed fish, it is important to prevent the'introduction and spread of invasive species and diseases. In most cases, it is best to choose native species over introduced species. Water from aquaculture operations should always be treated before being discharged in order to reduce the risk of spreading invasives and disease as well as to remove pollutants and high nutrient loads.


Additional Resources




Gretchen Fitzgerald works on fisheries, oil and gas, and invasive species issues at the Ecology Action Centre, Halifax. Her favourite seafoods include crab cakes, pan-fried haddock and wild mussels, boiled on the beach, preferably at Garden Point L'Anse aux Meadows.

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