Wild-Caught FAQs

1. What is sustainable seafood?

Sustainable seafood is fish and shellfish caught for human consumption by fishermen operating under sustainable fishery management systems that conserve fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them. 

2. Is seafood harvested in the United States sustainable?

The United States is a recognized global leader in sustainable seafood. Marine fisheries in the United States are conducted under science-based fishery management plans developed by regional fishery management councils through an open, public process, and using the best scientific information available. By law, U.S. seafood must be caught according to fishery management plans that consider social and economic outcomes for fishing communities; prevent overfishing; rebuild depleted stocks; minimize bycatch and interactions with protected species; and identify and conserve essential fish habitat. 

Learn more.

3. What is a fishery?

In the United States, there are commercial, subsistence, and recreational fisheries. Commercial fisheries refer to the whole process of catching, landing, and selling fish and shellfish. The scale of a commercial fishery can vary from a single boat harvesting a few species of fish to a fleet of boats harvesting and processing tons of fish at a time. In a subsistence fishery, the catch is shared and consumed directly by a fisherman’s family, rather than being sold. In recreational fisheries, fishermen catch fish for personal use, pleasure, or competition.

4. What kind of gear do U.S. commercial fishermen use? Is their fishing gear harmful to the environment?

Commercial fishermen catch fish and shellfish with a variety of devices including traps, nets, dredges, or fishing line. Fishing methods vary in scale and operation depending on the species and area being fished. For example, fishermen can lower traps onto the seafloor to catch crabs and lobsters, tow large trawl nets through the water column to harvest schools of Alaska pollock, tow dredges to harvest scallops, or deploy longlines of baited hooks into the water to catch swordfish.

Some fishing methods can incidentally capture other marine animals as bycatch or damage sensitive habitats such as coral reefs, but this all depends on how the fishing gear is configured and where in the ocean it’s used. In the United States, minimizing bycatch and protecting habitat are two of the fundamental standards that drive our fisheries management process. Fishermen, scientists, and fisheries managers work together to improve fishing methods and implement management measures that reduce the potential fishing impacts on habitat, non-target species, and protected resources such as sea turtles and marine mammals. 

5. What is a stock assessment and why is it important to fisheries management?

Stock assessments are a scientific analysis of the abundance and composition of a fish stock, which is a reproductively-related group of fish from the same species. Stock assessments help fishery managers understand the effect of past fishing on the stock and set annual catch limits that prevent overfishing while supporting sustainable fisheries. Stock assessments use the best available scientific information, which may include data from fishery landings, scientific surveys, and models. NOAA Fisheries uses the results of the stocks assessments to determine if a fish stock is overfished and/or subject to overfishing. 

Learn more:

6. According to its FishWatch profile, the seafood product I’m considering buying is from an overfished fish stock. Does that mean I should avoid buying it?

The “overfished” designation means that the stock is managed to increase, or rebuild, the stock size while still supporting sustainable annual harvests. Therefore, you are still making a sustainable seafood choice if you purchase seafood from a U.S. fish stock that is listed as overfished. This approach, which is mandated by U.S. law, allows overfished stocks to rebuild while also sustaining fishermen, working waterfronts, and the many U.S. jobs involved with seafood consumption. Learn the facts behind U.S. seafood on FishWatch—you’ll be surprised by some of the popular fish stocks that have been rebuilt or are actively rebuilding while fishermen continue to catch them. 

7. How do I know if the fish I buy was caught in the United States?

When shopping for seafood in the United States, you will see both U.S. and internationally caught seafood. To determine the source of your seafood, check out the packaging. All seafood sold in the United States is required to have country of origin labeling right on the package. This is important, because although we eat a lot of sustainably caught U.S. seafood, up to 90 percent of the seafood we consume in the United States is imported. And a significant portion of this imported seafood is actually caught by American fishermen, exported overseas for processing, and then reimported to the United States.

If buying at the seafood counter, make sure you buy from knowledgeable, reputable dealers. They can provide you with additional information on the seafood they sell and its origin. 

8. Is fresh fish higher quality than frozen fish?

Most frozen seafood today compares in quality to seafood that has never been frozen. Fresh catches are often available in your local seafood market. When buying fresh seafood, follow these guidelines:

  • Whole fish or fish fillets should generally have firm, shiny flesh. Fish fillets that have been previously frozen might not look as shiny, due to the freezing process, but they are still great to eat.
  • Whole fish should have bright, clear, full eyes that are often protruding and gills that are bright red or pink. As the fish loses freshness, the eyes become cloudy and sunken.
  • Check to make certain that there is no darkening or brown or yellowish discoloration around the edges of fish fillets and steaks, especially if the edges appear dry or soggy.
  • If you're still uncertain about how fresh the fish is, ask to have it rinsed under cold water and then smell it. Fresh fish should not smell fishy or like ammonia.

When buying frozen seafood, keep in mind that many times fresh catches are immediately processed and frozen at very low temperatures, frequently right on board the vessel. When shopping for frozen seafood, keep in mind the following tips:

  • Whole fish should be free of ice crystals, with no discoloration.
  • Fillets or steaks should be solidly frozen in the package.
  • There should be no evidence of the fish drying out (white spots, dark spots, discoloration, or fading of red or pink flesh).
  • There should be no signs of frost or ice particles inside the package. If ice crystals are present, the fish has either been stored for a long period or thawed and refrozen. There should be no liquid (frozen or thawed) in the package.
  • Make sure there are no open, torn, or crushed edges on the packages.
  • Avoid packages that are above the frost line in a store's display freezer.

Learn more.

9. What does the seafood industry contribute to the U.S. economy?

The seafood industry—harvesters as well as seafood processors, dealers, wholesalers, and retailers—generated $141 billion in sales impacts and $39 billion in income impacts, and supported 1.3 million jobs in commercial fishing and across the broader economy in 2012. 

Learn more.

10. How does the United States contribute to sustainable fisheries internationally?

The United States has interests as both a seafood-consuming nation and a fishing nation, so it is critical that NOAA take an active role in shaping the conservation and management of international fisheries. As part of these efforts NOAA:

  • Participates with other U.S. agencies in a broad range of international regulatory groups and helps execute a variety of international agreements aimed at sustaining global fish populations as well as the global fishing industry.
  • Addresses illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing so that legal and sustainable fisheries are not disadvantaged by IUU activities. A U.S. Presidential Task Force on IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud is working to strengthen U.S. efforts to combat IUU fishing.
  • Works individually with other countries that have an interest in the U.S. science-based management model, which uses the best available science to actively monitor and manage fisheries. Through these partnerships, the United States provides technical assistance in areas such as scientific data collection, legal frameworks, and enforcement programs.

Learn more about the United States’ involvement in international fisheries issues


11. Should I be concerned about seafood fraud?

Studies and investigations have found that various types of seafood fraud are committed along the seafood supply chain. Types of fraud can include:

  • Seafood substitution – Once a fish is filleted and skinned, it can be difficult to determine the species. Some sellers take advantage of this and substitute a low-valued species for a more expensive one (for example, passing off catfish as grouper).
  • Seafood short-weighting – Less known, but far more common, this is when processors misrepresent the weight of a seafood product through practices such as overglazing with excess ice, soaking (i.e., using additives), and breading.
  • Seafood mislabeling – This can include mislabeling the country of origin to avoid regulations and fees or sneaking illegally caught fish into the supply chain.

Learn more about seafood fraud and how the United States is combating it

12. Where can I find recipes for preparing my favorite seafood?

Check out our Recipe page for a list of tasty recipes by region. If you’re interested in submitting a recipe for possible inclusion on FishWatch, please send it to

Aquaculture FAQs

1. Is aquaculture only used to farm seafood?

No. Aquaculture has other uses, including:

  • Stock enhancement:
    • Restoring habitats such as oyster reefs.
    • Enhancing wild fisheries such as some Pacific salmon stocks.
  • Rebuilding populations of threatened and endangered species.
  • Providing an alternative to wild fish for zoos and aquariums, as well as baitfish.
  • Producing marine algae for use in a range of food, pharmaceutical, nutritional, and biofuel and other biotechnology products.

2. What is stock enhancement?

Stock restoration or enhancement is a form of aquaculture in which hatchery fish, shellfish, and plants are released into the wild to rebuild wild populations or restore coastal habitats. Stock enhancement can be used as a management tool to help rebuild populations depleted due to overfishing, habitat loss, or other factors. Read more about aquaculture for stock enhancement.

3. What techniques are used for aquaculture?

A variety of techniques and technologies are used to farm fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables, including:

  • Pond culture, carried out in earthen ponds, is used to culture freshwater fish, shrimp, algae, and some marine species.
  • Cage culture uses enclosed cages submerged in aquatic environments to grow finfish. Careful protocols and monitoring help to minimize potential interactions with the environment.
  • Recirculating systems can raise fish, shellfish, or aquatic plants in “closed-loop” production systems that continuously filter and recycle water and waste.
  • Shellfish farming techniques include grow-out in bags placed in the tidelands, suspended culture, and “rack and bag” grow-out, among others.
  • Sea vegetable farming often involves seeding young plants on long, submerged lines.
  • Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture involves raising several species together—such as kelp, mussels, and finfish—in a way that allows one species’ by-products to be recycled as feed for another species.
  • Integrated agriculture and aquaculture uses ponds or recirculating systems to raise both seafood and other organisms (for example, fish and lettuce in an aquaponics system).

4. Is it safe to eat farmed fish and shellfish?

Yes, farmed seafood is both safe and healthy to eat. In the United States, seafood farmers follow the same food safety guidelines as land farmers and any other producer of seafood, including (1) harvesting from approved waters, (2) following feed regulations, (3) handling and processing under sanitary conditions, and (4) maintaining records. The diets of and environments for farmed seafood are monitored and controlled throughout the life of the animal. In addition, companies producing aquaculture products for human consumption must comply with numerous state and federal food safety regulations and undergo regular inspections.

The primary federal agencies involved with seafood safety include:

5. What about arguments that farmed fish are contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals?

No farmed fish appear on the “avoid” list due to mercury. These compounds enter and concentrate in organisms largely through what they eat. Just like feeds for other domestic animals, aquaculture feeds are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the respective state Departments of Agriculture, with advisement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The FDA and state agencies conduct inspections and also collect and analyze feed and fish samples to help ensure adherence to strict state and federal requirements. Formulated feed ingredients used in aquaculture are regularly monitored to avoid possible contamination of feed with methyl mercury.

According to the FDA and EPA, studies show that for people eating the standard U.S. diet, the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids far outweigh the potential drawbacks of mercury toxicity due to fish consumption. There are specific advisories for pregnant women, those trying to get pregnant, nursing women, and children.

6. Are drugs and chemicals used in domestic aquaculture?

Rarely. Because of the success of vaccines to prevent disease in farmed fish, the use of antibiotics and other drugs has been reduced dramatically. While good management practices and vaccines alone are usually enough to prevent or control disease, a farmer may, in consultation with a licensed veterinarian, use a limited number of aquatic animal drugs (including antibiotics) when approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat specific conditions. In fact, only two antibiotics have been approved for use in aquaculture. Drug use in fish, as in land-based farm animals, is subject to strict application requirements. Before a drug is approved for use, FDA requires that it be demonstrated effective, safe for the environment, and safe for consumption.

7. Is farmed salmon injected with dye?

No. In the wild, salmon eat tiny shellfish that contain natural pigments called carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants and precursors of vitamin A. Carotenoids, specifically astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, give salmon flesh its distinctive pigment. Farmed salmon diets are supplemented with natural and/or synthetic astaxanthin similar to the pigment that salmon get in the wild. Both natural and synthetic astaxanthin are processed and absorbed by wild and farmed fish in exactly the same manner. Carotenoids are good for human health and are used in a wide variety of applications, including dietary supplements.

8. Why should I buy farmed fish and shellfish grown in the United States?

It’s good for you and good for the country. From a seafood safety standpoint, the United States has some of the strictest environmental and food safety rules and regulations found anywhere in the world. Buying U.S.-grown farmed fish and shellfish guarantees that your seafood meets rigorous state and federal standards and supports American jobs.

9. What is done to reduce diseases in farmed fish and shellfish?

Fish and shellfish farmers—as well as state and federal regulatory agencies—take many precautions to prevent infection and transmission of disease-causing pathogens and parasites. At commercial hatcheries, juveniles are reared under carefully controlled conditions to prevent the introduction of disease-causing agents from outside sources. Before fish or shellfish are transferred to farm sites or released into the wild, veterinarians and other aquatic health professionals monitor them to ensure they are free of pathogens or parasites. Most states also have regulations requiring fish and shellfish to be screened before they are transferred to another site or released into the wild.

Farmed fish are vaccinated against diseases that have caused problems in the past. Antibiotics are rarely used and, if required, their use is strictly regulated and always administered under the supervision of a veterinarian.

10. What is done to minimize the impact of fish escapes on wild populations?

Farmed fish enter the marine environment in one of two ways—intentionally or unintentionally. Read more about intentional releases of hatchery fish on our stock enhancement page.

Advanced containment systems and improved management practices have dramatically reduced escapes from U.S. fish farms in the past 10 years. Advances in cage design and technology include stronger net material and improved mooring components. Best Management Practices include the use of underwater cameras to monitor and inspect cages, as well as the use of divers to perform hands-on inspections and maintenance. If fish do escape, impacts to the genetic diversity of wild fish are minimized by selecting founding hatchery broodstock from local wild fish so the genetic make-up is similar.

Typically, domesticated fish raised in captivity are poor performers in the wild and few of them are able to reproduce. However, researchers are now working on methods to make cultured fish sterile so, if they were to escape, they would not be able to breed with their wild cousins.

Federal and state permits require containment management systems at all marine sites, and these measures are enforced through regular inspections and audits. Equipment and husbandry will continue to evolve and improve as operators test new designs and materials.

11. What do aquaculture operators do to protect the environment?

In the United States, aquaculture is regulated under stringent federal and state laws and regulations that protect the environment. Through lessons learned over time and by engaging in aggressive research, aquaculture operators have developed commonly-accepted Best Management Practices to minimize any impacts. Operators know it’s in their best interest to maintain a healthy environment for the fish and shellfish they are growing. In some cases, such as shellfish and seaweed farming, aquaculture actually contributes to environmental health by sequestering nutrients and cleaning up the water. In addition to adhering to strict environmental and food safety laws, aquaculture operators work with state and federal regulators to continually monitor potential impacts of their practices.

12. What laws and regulations exist to protect the environment?

Aquaculture operators in the United States must abide by a comprehensive suite of environmental regulations, which differ depending on the type of operation. For operations in marine waters, federal regulations address environmental issues including diseases, discharge, structures, the protection of threatened and endangered species, seafood safety, use of medication, feed ingredients, marine mammal protection, habitat, and consistency with state regulations, among others. Further, state and local regulations address these and other issues. For a table listing most federal statutory authorities for regulation of marine aquaculture, click here (Page 72, Table 4.6).

13. Do aquaculture operations consume more wild fish than they produce?

When aquaculture is considered as an aggregate industry, the answer is no. Globally, aquaculture uses about half a metric ton of wild whole fish to produce one metric ton of farmed seafood, meaning that aquaculture is a net producer of protein.

Feed conversion ratios (the amount of feed eaten by a fish related to the amount that fish provides for human consumption) vary among species, but farmed fish generally are far more efficient at converting feed than wild fish or other farmed animals such as cows, chicken, and pigs.