You’ve decided to meet a few friends for dinner at your favorite seafood restaurant. As the conversation focuses on the menu, someone brandishes a wallet card and says, “Wait. Before you order the baked scallops, are you sure it’s ok? Guilt-free, that is. George’s Bank scallop is rebuilding, but is it sustainable? They’re in the red zone on my National Audubon ‘Seafood Lovers’ Guide’ meaning they’re severely depleted and overfished.”

Luckily, the guide suggests a seafood alternative we can enjoy in good conscience: if we have calamari we can feel safe from the Guilt Police because squid is in the green zone labeled “best choices.” The relief ends abruptly when someone else brandishes another wallet card. “Wait, my Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Guide puts squid in the yellow zone with sea scallops. We have to proceed with caution!”

“Can we eat them with caution, too?” you ask.

“Maybe,” says a third person. “But I’m playing it safe. I’m having tuna.”

“If you want to sleep with a clear conscience you can only have the tuna if it’s yellowfin, bigeye, or albacore, and then only if it’s pole or troll-caught,” says someone else smugly, “according to my ‘Blue Oceans’ seafood guide.”

The characters are fictitious, but the scenario isn’t that far-fetched. Seafood consumer guides are proliferating. About a half dozen national organizations offer their take on guilt-free fish. Their color-coded categories make seafood buying a simple red light-green light proposition. Their intent is to bring a higher level of conservation awareness to the “end-user” – you. But in the process of distilling highly complicated analyses of stock status, fishing method, and habitat impacts into three categories, such listings can lose their accuracy.

Take Salmon in National Audubon’s guide ( There, salmon is listed in the yellow, or caution category. But the fine print indicates that’s actually an average of the green light given to wild Alaska salmon and the red light for wild salmon from elsewhere, and farmed Atlantic salmon. How to choose?

Think For Yourself

“The debate is better served by getting people to think, rather than telling them what to avoid,” says scientist Chris Glass with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, who served on the advisory board for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide. “You need more information than just the mean value. If you don’t know where to put a fish, you should leave it off the list altogether.” Glass says any list that red-flags a fishery will inevitably paint someone into a corner who feels it is unfair. Fishermen who use hook and line instead of a bottom trawl, for example, claim they do less damage to the marine ecosystem, so their fishery should be given credit for that.

The problem with any wallet-sized national seafood guide is that there’s little room for such fine print. The card’s size requires that each fishery be painted with a broad brush. Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says his organization has come up with a solution: regional guides. A seafood guide to the Southeast and Gulf Coast will be available Earth Day, and one for northeast and mid-Atlantic seafood by mid-summer. “It makes it easier to make finer differentiations. So we might recommend against cod in the national guide, but as you get into a region there may be artisanal hook and line fisheries that follow sustainable methods, we could recommend that,” says Peterson.

All the major seafood guides are produced by organizations that tend to be conservation-oriented and conservative with their rankings. If a fishery is on the rebound, such as haddock, they might wait until the stock is fully rebuilt before giving consumers the green light. For now, seafood guides are ending up in the hands of those who naturally lean towards conservation, so users are a self-selecting group. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood guide was initially distributed in Sierra magazine and National Wildlife, and their goal is to distribute two million pocket guides by Earth Day this year.

Most seafood sellers in Maine apparently don’t subscribe to those publications. Few have heard about the pocket seafood guides, let alone accepted them as accurate or trustworthy. Ben Alfiero, co-owner with his brothers of Portland’s Harbor Fish Market, wondered why conservation groups concerned about sustainability are targeting seafood. “Where does it end? If you’re talking about conservation, let’s talk vegetables, or about mad cow. Or chickens in China. The list goes on and on.” Alfiero suggests if people used common sense and moderation, problems wouldn’t become overwhelming.

Maggie Terry, owner of Free Range Fish & Lobster in Portland, worries what will happen when somebody’s wallet card gets to be a year old. With the fishing industry in flux these days, year-old information can be totally unreliable. Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium answers that the cards have dates printed on them, and the push is to get people to use the website for updated information. But what happens to the 2 million cards they mailed out? “The science isn’t up to date,” says Terry. “Avoid cod? Sure, but why avoid monkfish?” she asks when given a sampling from one guide. “If you look at the science, monkfish are coming back. I hate that little card you’re talking about!”

Maybe consumers aren’t the place to distribute seafood guides after all. Perhaps when we go to seafood restaurants we should trust our conscience to the wisdom of the chef. If you are lucky enough to dine at Portland’s upscale Fore Street restaurant, you’ll be in good hands. Owner/chef Sam Hayward sounds so much like a fisheries biologist he could be on the New England Fisheries Management Council. “This is important. I feel obligated to the health of the stocks, but I’m sensitive to the plight of my local fishing community,” says Hayward. “I need more evidence than red light-green light; it’s way too summarized for my use.” To explain why that’s so, he launches into a technical assessment of the distinct populations of northeast cod stocks.

It’s a safe bet most seafood guide recipients will be content with the inherent go-slow approach to “sustainable” seafood. That’s their inclination. For the rest, where you stand “depends on where you start from,” explains Glass. “Do you want to avoid [eating a fish] until someone tells you it’s OK, or do you want to eat it until someone tells you to avoid it?”

The question becomes especially relevant with seafood in the yellow category. They’re neither red nor green. To see how you deal with these, ask yourself (and answer honestly): when you’re approaching an intersection in a car and the green light turns yellow, are you inclined to speed up and get through the intersection before the light turns red, or do you slow down, knowing you’ll have to wait for the light to change?