Fish, Fish Everywhere

Sensibly selecting seafood assures tomorrow’s waters still brim

The Sensible Seafood Program by the Virginia Aquarium helps people to make good seafood choices

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The abundance of seafood has been a culinary hallmark of Virginia since people began cooking here. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, folks have long noted the variety and quality of local marine life. Captain Christopher Newport wrote in 1607:

The main river [James] abounds with sturgeon, very large and excellent good, having also at the mouth of every brook and in every creek both store and exceedingly good fish of divers kinds. in the large sounds near the sea are multitudes of fish, banks of oysters, and many great crabs rather better, in fact, than ours and able to suffice four men.

And in 1612, Captain John Smith recorded in his diary:

Of fish we were best acquainted with sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays whose tails are very dangerous, brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], eels, lampreys, catfish, shad, perch of three sorts, crabs, shrimps, crevises, oysters, cockles, and mussels.

The harvesting and processing of seafood in Virginia is one of the oldest industries in the United States and one of the state’s largest; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science reports the annual economic impact to be more than a half billion dollars.

Virginia commercial watermen annually harvest enough seafood to produce more than 1.2 million meals, according to the Virginia Marine Products Board. Some 620,000 acres of water are harvested for more than 50 commercially valuable species including traditional offerings of blue crabs, clams, croaker, sea scallops, spot, striped bass (rockfish) and summer flounder.

Nontraditional products, largely caught for sale to international markets, include Chesapeake ray, conch, eel and monkfish.

To help keep Virginia seafood sustainable, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach coordinates the Sensible Seafood program. Affiliated with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the program offers guidelines for best choices of seafood based on a number of factors such as whether the catch is fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways, if it contains contaminants, and so on.

An advisory panel produces the annual “best choices” list, which is available on the aquarium’s website. Species that are abundant, well managed, and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways are put on a green list.

A yellow list features good alternatives when items from the green list are not available, although with some cautions.

A red list features species that are either over-fished or caught or farmed in ways that may harm other sea life or the environment. Restaurants, retailers, and groups that are partner members of the Sensible Seafood program pledge to use items from the best-choice list whenever possible.

The aquarium also hosts the Sensible Seafood Fest each spring, which celebrates foods prepared with regionally sourced, sustainable ingredients from around two dozen of the facility’s Sensible Seafood partner restaurants paired with local beer and wine.

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