Great Choices and Smart Guides

We all love supporting local businesses on the Coast and eating succulent, freshly caught seafood from Oregon-based fishers and crabbers. But sometimes it’s hard to tell if a fish is caught locally and sustainably. We’ve developed some tips to help you select the catch of the day. 

Buying Locally and Seasonally

The first stop for any seafood adventure on the Coast is Oregon Sea Grant’s handy seafood buying guide, full of tips about what to buy in a market or off the docks. Looking for a particular part of the Coast? Reputable seafood markets on the South Coast, Central Coast and North Coast abound, and fishmongers love to show off what’s in season and freshly caught.

Some types of Oregon seafood are best at certain times of the year. Dungeness crab, for example, is commercially harvested from roughly December to August. Salmon has different seasons depending on the species; for example, fresh Chinook can generally be found April to October, and coho is July to September. Oregon’s plentiful, tiny Pacific pink or coldwater shrimp are caught from April to October but available frozen year-round. And note that freshly frozen seafood can be just as good — and sometimes even better — as found in a recent Ecotrust study on salmon and black cod, also known as sablefish

Defining Local

One challenge of making smart consumer choices stems from the words “local” and “sustainable” when they’re used at a market or restaurant. These common terms are not standardized by regulations, so they can mean many things. Some fish, like Pacific albacore tuna, can be considered local when they’re caught relatively near Oregon’s shores by Oregon-based boats. Because albacore is always wild-caught, it is never farmed in remote places. Moreover, the albacore caught off the Pacific Northwest coast are smaller and younger than those caught elsewhere in the world and have been found to have no issues with mercury, according to research done by Oregon State University. All of this means Oregon albacore is delicious and safe to eat either fresh or canned.

But take the case of Pacific cod, a plump white filet that is often used for fish and chips at many popular Oregon Coast restaurants. Because it’s served so frequently, even at eateries that specialize in local fish, it’s easy to assume it is caught off Oregon’s shore. The vast majority of U.S.-harvested Pacific cod, however, is caught in Alaska. Since Alaska is part of the Pacific Northwest, it can be considered local for those not intent on buying Oregon-caught species. For those who want an Oregon product, consider instead a mild, white groundfish species like rockfish, lingcod, black cod, dover and petrale sole, all of which make terrific fish and chips. 

The Challenges of Sustainability

Sustainable is another term with many possible definitions. In general usage when we discuss food, it suggests a product or harvest method that protects habitats and/or restricts how much of a wild stock can be taken so populations can grow or be maintained at healthy levels. Sustainable seafood is difficult to define, due to a number of complex factors at play. 

Chinook or king salmon, an important commercial fishery and revered by Indigenous peoples, is also a sober example of the effects of past overfishing and habitat destruction due to urbanization and human-built impediments in fish breeding grounds. After suffering generations of depletion, this species is regulated by seasons, catch limits depending on the area and type of fishing gear, and many other factors. Fish hatcheries propagate and release young salmon into the wild, and extensive habitat-restoration efforts are underway in watersheds across the state. Some populations in some years have rebounded, but there is much work left to do.

Does this mean we shouldn’t eat salmon? Not necessarily. When you do see wild Columbia River salmon on the menu, it is likely harvested under commercial guidelines and will have a price tag that matches its special nature. Concerned diners might seek out substitutes that are just as delicious. You’ll often find different types of wild-caught salmon — like coho or sockeye — that have larger runs. Wild salmon from Alaska is more plentiful than off the Oregon Coast and can be a great alternative. If you don’t know what kind of salmon is being served or where it comes from, ask for more details. 

Down on the Farm

If the salmon is labeled as farmed or Atlantic salmon — which is almost always farmed — be sure to ask more questions. Since the regulations for wild fish don’t apply to a product that is “grown” in pens submerged in the water, there is a wider range of environmental conditions and impacts possible. 

Aquaculture is not to be seen as a universal evil, however, because some species, like Pacific oysters grown in Oregon, are exclusively farm-raised in aquaculture operations. And some farm operations are more ecologically minded than others. Some seafood activists argue that farming is more sustainable than catching fish in the wild because the stocks are replenishable, but this is a matter of wide debate.

2022MarchApril fish cans

How We Can Help

Do It Yourself 

There’s no better way to learn than by doing. Grab a pole and license and learn to fish, crab or dig clams. Another pleasant option is to book one of Oregon’s knowledgeable fishing guides. You’ll enjoy a day on the water and appreciate more deeply how that fish made it onto your dinner plate.

Buy Direct and Speak Out

Buying directly from a docked Oregon fishing vessel allows you to get to know commercial fishers and their catch. For the uninitiated, Oregon Sea Grant educates consumers on purchasing fish from the docks in Garibaldi and Newport. And seafood markets are proud of their Oregon-sourced products, so ask vendors about sourcing. Buying local fish in restaurants is a bit trickier, since servers may not know the sourcing for the fish on the menu, but often they are glad to check with the chef. 

Commercial fishing is a tough job, and Oregon-caught seafood is worth every penny. Spend a little more to support this important Oregon industry. Request fish dishes at restaurants that showcase their local connection, ask your local market to carry Oregon-caught seafood, or subscribe to a delivery service like Newport-based Local Ocean’s dock boxes or Port Orford Sustainable Seafood’s CSF program to show your support. 

Seafood Buying Guides

Several agencies and organizations have created accountability guides to help consumers make better seafood choices based on sustainability criteria. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. At the grocery store, you might also look for the blue MSC-certified label on seafood packages. In this program, fisheries can choose to pay independent assessors to certify their methods as sustainable within the global standards set by the international Marine Stewardship Council, currently being reviewed.

– Jennifer Burns Bright