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How to Buy Fish Like a Local: 6 Questions to Ask at the Seafood Counter


It’s no secret that Alaska’s fish are considered some of the most desired in the country, if not the world. From Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to Bering Sea crab, black rockfish to Pacific Halibut, Alaska’s seafood industry contributes a significant amount to America’s booming economy, including over 78,000 jobs and and bringing in an estimated $5.8 billion in annual revenue.

For seafood enthusiasts that live in the lower 48, companies like Island Seafoods, Great Alaska Seafood, and Findigo have made these prize-winning catches available online, making salmon, crab, shrimp and other in-season specialty shellfish available to consumers, thanks to plenty of dry ice and overnight shipping.

But if you’d rather dip your toes in the waters of preparing and cooking great seafood at home, before committing to hefty shipping and per pound online pricing, you’re probably wondering: what’s the best way to buy fish close to home? Here are our top five considerations for buying fish like a local, no matter where you hang your hat.

1. Where does it come from?

This one’s a no brainer. If your local grocer, fishmonger, or seafood market can’t tell you this, you’re better off running for the hills than eating from the sea! When you ask about the fish’s origins, your seller should be able to tell you whether the fish was wild or farmed (“harvested”), caught in American or foreign waters, and the type of vessel it was caught on.

Since 2005, large retailers and supermarkets have made this information more transparent, thanks to country-of-origin labeling (C.O.O.L.) You know your fish has been in good hands if the seller can share its origin story, so don’t be shy about getting all the information you need to make an informed purchase.

2. How was it caught?

Jig fishing differs from commercial fishing in the way fishermen use techniques and timing to their advantage. Instead of using nets, pots, or multiple lines to catch many fish at once, jig fishermen catch one fish at a time, let them bleed in cold waters to preserve the fish’s taste and texture, and flash freeze them often within seconds of being on board. Experienced chefs and cooks agree that jig fishing’s hand-caught, hand-prepared, and hand-packed quality contribute to a better product that’s not only more sustainable and traceable, but more flavorful, too.

If you don’t live near open waters, simply ask your fish seller which catch is the freshest. They should be able to tell you which fish on hand has the shortest trip from dock to dish. (If they can’t, that’s a good sign that you can find fresher fish elsewhere!)

3. When was it caught?

When it comes to buying fish, timing is everything. Don’t leave the seafood counter without asking when the fish was caught, and how long it’s been sitting out. In many cases, commercially caught fish are reeled in and shipped off overseas to Asia, where they’re frozen, gutted and processed on the cheap, and refrozen for their journey back to the U.S. The number of times your fish has been frozen and thawed influences taste, texture, and most importantly, safety.

4. How does it smell?

As ironic as it sounds, fish should never smell fishy. Quality fish have a smell that’s briny and fresh, not stinky. While some oily, fatty fish are known to have a stronger smell and taste, it should never be overpowering. Don’t be too shy to ask your seller to take the fish out of its case so you can give it a good whiff – the nose knows when it’s buying fish at the peak of freshness.

5. Does it look fresh?

Give your fish a good, strong poke. (Don’t worry, it can’t bite.) If it springs to the touch and bounces back with a firm texture, your catch is fresh. Often, the texture of fish has to do with the techniques that are used shortly after it’s been caught.

Because jig fishermen immediately slice the fish at the gills and return them to bleed in chilled water, the fish’s protein doesn’t break down as quickly as those that are commercially caught and placed in large chunks of ice. This delayed rigor mortis creates barely-visible ice crystals to protect the fish from shrinkage, resulting in a firm, flaky fish upon cooking. If you can’t get your hands on jig-caught fish, be sure to examine the fish’s eyes for clarity, body for cleanliness, and skin for firmness.

6. How should I cook it?

Your fish seller should not only be familiar with the fish’s origins and quality, but it’s best method of preparation. For instance, some white fish like tilapia, sole, or flounder don’t hold up well when marinated but shine when baked or sauteed; thicker, fattier fish tend to hold up well on a grill or make for great curries and chowders.

If you’re not familiar with cooking fish, keep it simple: a bit of olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, and a bit of lemon can go a long way whether fish are baked, broiled, or pan fried.

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2 comments on “How to Buy Fish Like a Local: 6 Questions to Ask at the Seafood Counter

  1. Marie Watson

    Stephanie, thanks for recommending some questions to ask that will ensure you are getting the best fish. It makes sense that you would want to ask when it was caught so you can make sure you are buying fish that is fresh. You also make a good point about how you can tell whether or not your fish is good by the way it smells. I will have to remember that if it smells fishy it I shouldn’t buy it the next time I’m at the fish market.

    1. Stephanie Pacillo

      Hi Marie!
      I’m so glad you found this article helpful, I appreciate your feedback.