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Are You Buying Toxic Fish? How to Decipher Fish Labels

If you do the grocery shopping for your household, it can feel like there are new fish labels to keep track of almost every week! Whether you like to bake some salmon for a quiet dinner at home or enjoy a deliciously juicy sea bass at a table for two next to the ocean, eating fish is great for your health. Fish is a good source of protein, as well as vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B2, vitamin D, calcium, iron, phosphorous, and potassium.1 Many types of fish also contain omega-3 fatty acids for heart health. In fact, experts recommend eating eight or more ounces of fish per week; and the American Heart Association suggests eating fish twice a week.2,3

But the labels on fish can be confusing. Consumers want to know that the fish they’re buying is the healthiest available, and that it was procured using environmentally friendly methods.

According to a survey by National Public Radio (NPR), 80 percent of people who regularly eat seafood say it’s important or very important that the seafood they buy is caught using sustainable methods.4 Sustainable fishing is the opposite of overfishing, as the fisheries catch just enough fish to allow fish populations to stay at healthy levels. 5 The fish left are able to reproduce new generations. Overfishing depletes fish populations, and it can lead to endangerment or extinction.

The labels on a package of fish can tell you many things about its origin and the way it was raised or fished. Here are some of the most common labels you’ll see when you buy fish – and what they mean.

fish labels | Nucific


Fish that have been caught by fishermen from rivers, lakes, or oceans are labelled as wild-caught. However, the wild-caught label alone doesn’t tell consumers if the fish were caught using sustainable methods.

Some wild-caught fish have been found to have high levels of mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, which means it is poisonous to nerve tissue. It gets into the water through pollution. Large fish have higher levels of mercury than smaller fish. If you’re concerned about mercury exposure, avoid large fish such as bluefish, orange roughy, tuna, marlin, shark, and swordfish. 6


Fish that are labelled “farm-raised” were raised in enclosures. Half of the seafood we eat is farm-raised.7 The World Bank estimates that a majority of the world’s fish will be farm-raised by 2030. 8 Since fish farms don’t need to keep a consistent wild population, they would seem to be a model of sustainability.

Unfortunately, fish farms bring up many concerns about antibiotic use and contaminates. Fish raised in pens are much more crowded than they would be in the wild. Just like other animals raised for food, some farmers give their fish large amounts of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. These antibiotics are present in the farmed fish you eat. 9 Taking antibiotics too often – or eating them in food – may lead to antibiotic resistance. 10

Farmed fish may also contain more toxins than wild-caught fish. A Norwegian study found that farmed salmon contains high amounts of pollutants.11 Study authors recommend pregnant women and children do not consume farmed salmon.

Wild-Caught vs Farm Raised: Pros and Cons

Fish raised in farms have been found to have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids than those caught in the wild. 12 However, farm-raised fish also have more calories and more saturated fat than wild-caught fish. 13 Farmed fish may have high levels of antibiotics and pollutants, but wild-caught fish may have higher mercury levels. The nutritional content for most fish is the same, whether they are wild-caught or farm-raised.

Country of Origin

Since 2005, country-of-origin labeling (C.O.O.L) has been required for large retailers of fresh or frozen fish. The idea, of course is to make it crystal clear to consumers whether the fish was farm-raised or wild-caught, and where it was caught in the first place. 14 An estimated 90 percent of the fish sold in the U.S.comes from other countries. The U.S. has strict regulations for fishing and fish farming. Buying fish caught or farmed in the U.S. is one way to make sure the fish you buy is environmentally friendly.

Marine Stewardship Council Label

The non-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) offers a distinctive blue label for wild-caught fish. This label is for fish that have been caught by certified sustainable fisheries. The MSC estimates that there are 20,000 of these blue-labeled products available in hundreds of stores throughout the world. 17

fish labels | Nucific

Labels from the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program rates both wild-caught and farm-raised fish. They use green, yellow, and red labels to identify fish as “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives,” or “Avoid.” These recommendations are made based on sustainability and environmental impact only, and are not related to health benefits or toxins. 18

Best Aquaculture Practices Certification

Some farm-raised fish has a blue label for Best Aquaculture Practice certification. This certification is from the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an independent organization that maintains standards for environmental responsibility and safety for farm-raised fish. 19


Currently, the United States doesn’t have a system in place to certify seafood as organic. 20 Fish that are labeled organic are from other countries, usually Northern Europe. These fish are farm-raised, since it is difficult to certify that wild-caught fish are organic.

What Types of Fish Are Sustainable?

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, some of the best choices for sustainable, healthy fish include albacore tuna, sablefish/black cod, wild Alaskan salmon, Pacific sardines and canned salmon. 21 The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers state-specific recommendations through their website or downloadable app. 22

Eating fish is a healthy option for protein and nutrients, but knowing how to make sense of the labels on fish can help you make informed choices about the fish you feed your families. As long as you’re aware of the different labels and certifications, you can make the best decision for yourself. Go ahead and get your fish fix!


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2.”A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns – 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines – Health.Gov”. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
3.”Eating Fish For Heart Health”. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
4.”Most Americans Eager To Buy Seafood That’s ‘Sustainable'”. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
5.”Greenpeace Criteria For Sustainable Fisheries”. Greenpeace International. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
6.”The Smart Seafood Buying Guide”. NRDC. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
7.”Buying Fish? What You Need To Know”. Seafood Selector. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
8.”Raising More Fish To Meet Rising Demand”. World Bank. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
9.”New Study Of Antibiotics Finds Something Fishy”. ASU Now: Access, Excellence, Impact. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
10.Use Antibiotics Wisely”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
11.”Norwegian Scientists Warn Against Eating Farmed Salmon – The Nordic Page”. The Nordic Page. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
12. Corliss, Julie. “Finding Omega-3 Fats In Fish: Farmed Versus Wild – Harvard Health Blog”. Harvard Health Blog. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
13.Mark Hyman, MD et al. “Fish Faceoff: Wild Salmon Vs. Farmed Salmon”. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
14.”Buying Fish? What You Need To Know”. Seafood Selector. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
17.”The Blue MSC Label: Sustainable, Traceable, Wild Seafood — Marine Stewardship Council”. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
18. “Seafood Watch Faqs At The Monterey Bay Aquarium”. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
19.”The Global Aquaculture Alliance: Promoting Responsible Aquaculture”. Global Aquaculture Alliance. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
20. “Seafood Guide”. Food & Water Watch. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
21. “Eco-Friendly & Healthy Best Choices”. Seafood Selector. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
22. “Printable Consumer Guides With Seafood And Sushi Recommendations From The Seafood Watch Program At The Monterey Bay Aquarium”. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.