Taking Stock: How Sustainable is Canada’s Seafood?

by Colleen Turlo.

After 10 years of working with Canadian consumers, retailers, suppliers, producers, and nearly everyone else involved in the seafood supply chain, SeaChoice (Canada’s sustainable seafood program) decided it was time to take an in-depth look at the current Canadian landscape of sustainable seafood.

You may be interested to learn some interesting facts about some of our key findings.


It probably comes as no surprise that the US is our largest trade partner, with more than half of Canadian seafood exported to the US market. This highlights the importance of working with our neighbours to the south, to ensure that our seafood quality, sustainability, labelling and prices are all to their standards. As a member of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, SeaChoice collaborates with a variety of other NGOs working on sustainable seafood in Canada, the US, and Europe to learn about their market and its trends.


Eleven percent is a small number; unfortunately, we found that a very slim portion of Canadian seafood qualified as “Best Choice” – meaning it is among the best performers in terms of sustainability, and that there are minimal or no environmental concerns around choosing this seafood. After considering production, imports and exports, we aren’t left with much top notch, green-ranked seafood. Which leads us to our next key finding…


Generally speaking, our report exposed a trade deficit. That is, we export more sustainable seafood than we import. By creating increased demand here for our sustainable, Canadian-produced seafood, we can enjoy more local seafood (which may have even travelled less and therefore has a smaller transportation footprint).  We would also be supporting our domestic market, so it doesn’t have to depend as heavily on fluctuating foreign currencies and market trends.


When looking at imports, there was a huge amount of seafood that we could not place into any sustainability ranking category, because there was not enough information accompanying it.  Simply put, the labelling was disappointingly vague.  In order for us to confidently associate seafood with a sustainability ranking, we need to have three main pieces of information: the species Latin name, where it was caught or farmed, and how it was caught or farmed. Without this information, nearly a third of seafood imports ended up in an “unrankable” category. This lack of detail of seafood we are importing into Canada is a little shocking because more and more consumers are conscious of what they are eating, and where it came from. It also raises questions about the lack of traceability of these foods, and labelling requirements for food imports into Canada.


Our largest, red-ranked seafood produced here in Canada is, by far, farmed, open-net pen salmon. Salmon that is farmed in pens in the ocean still poses many threats to the local ecosystem, including excessive use of antibiotics and pesticides, disease outbreaks, and escapes into the wild. With such huge production numbers, improving this one type of fish farming could have a huge impact on the health of our coastal ecosystems in the Pacific and Atlantic.


When looking at imported seafood, skipjack tuna, farmed tropical shrimp, and farmed open-net pen Atlantic salmon are our top three on the “Avoid” list. All are hugely popular and common seafood in the North American market. The problem is that the methods in which these seafoods are farmed or caught cause serious negative impacts to other species, or their surrounding environment. Skipjack tuna caught using Fish Aggregating Devices or FADs have huge amounts of bycatch (or unwanted catch) including sharks, turtles, skates, rays and juvenile tuna. Sadly, the unwanted catch is often discarded.  Shrimp farmed in tropical ponds often require significantly altering the natural coastal landscape though mangrove deforestation and by using excessive amounts of toxic chemicals. And farmed, open-net pen salmon makes another appearance here, as we don’t only produce this type of salmon, but also import it from around the world. We encourage you to avoid buying these top three red-ranked species, and encourage you to try something new and local the next time you buy seafood. How about expanding your pallet and trying something lower on the trophic scale and more local – such as Pacific sardines, Atlantic mussels, or Lake Erie yellow perch? Take a look at our handy pocket guide to see other options.


What really inspired us to undertake this study was to see how the sustainability movement has advanced over the last 10 years, and to see whether partnerships with sustainable seafood ENGO’s have helped Canadian companies improve their seafood procurement, causing positive change on the water. When comparing SeaChoice partners’ seafood to the trade balance available in Canada, our partners have much higher percentages of sustainable seafood, and much lower levels of red-ranked and unranked seafood. Though our retailers represent a small portion of the entire Canadian market, we believe that they are emblematic of what is possible when a company commits to sourcing more sustainable seafood.

So, the next time you buy seafood, ask where it comes from and see if you can trace it back to its source. Or better yet, use the SeaChoice website or iPhone app to inform your next seafood purchase and learn more about how it got to your plate.

Click here for the full report: Taking Stock: Sustainable Seafood in Canadian Markets

Learn more about labelling and traceability issues in the Canadian seafood market

Colleen Turlo is the Sustainable Seafood Coordinator and Seachoice Representative at the Ecology Action Centre. A few of her favourite sustainable seafood options include rainbow trout, sockeye salmon and seaweed.


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