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Eat Sustainable Seafood: The Magic of Bivalves

Scallops seared in garlic and butter.
g Fresh scallops seared in seasoning and butter? Yes, please. DronG/Shutterstock

Sustainably eating seafood can be a complicated endeavor. That is unless you stick to bivalves. Enjoying these hard-shelled aquatic creatures, like mussels, oysters, or clams, is good for your health, and it’s far better for the environment.

For over 165,000 years, human beings have been chowing down on oysters, mussels, and clams. Over that time, bivalves have fallen in and out of favor. One decade they’re featured at royal feasts, and the next they’re cast out amongst peasants and late-night bar patrons. Today though, the health of our oceans is an ever-growing concern, and that means we see bivalves in a new, sustainable light.

What Exactly Are Bivalves?

Bivalves are aquatic creatures that have compressed bodies enclosed within a hinged shell. This includes clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops. They’re abundant throughout the world and can live in both fresh and saltwater.

Also known as filter-feeders, to eat, bivalves open their shells, allowing water to enter and exit. As the water moves, bivalves take in microscopic nutrients. This eating method effectively cleans the water. So bivalves end up creating a healthy environment for the organisms that live around them.

Good For You and Better For The Planet

Filter-feeders create clean water, so their importance to the planet is pretty apparent. But bivalves are good for the earth in other ways too. Oysters, mussels, and clams can all be sustainably farmed and harvested. So we can enjoy them without the hefty environmental cost that some wild-caught seafood carries.

Unlike other sea creatures, they need no supplements when grown for consumption. Supplements used to maintain farmed fish stocks often come from unsustainable practices. So, this is a huge win when it comes to sustainable seafood.

Plus, oysters, mussels, scallops, and clams are good for you. They’re loaded with protein, healthy fats, and minerals like iron and manganese. Maybe most important, they’re delicious in all sorts of preparations from chowder to pasta.

What to Watch Out For

You should still be wary of where bivalves come from, though. The advantages of filter-feeders become disadvantages if they’re harvested from unsanitary conditions. In dirty water, mollusks like these can easily carry disease. The U.S. does an excellent job of ensuring that bivalves for commercial sales come from clean waters. Still, you should avoid harvesting them yourself unless you’re familiar with water conditions in the area.

In terms of the environment, farmed bivalves are a great option. Watch out for wild-caught ones, though. Unsustainable practices, like dredging, are still used to harvest them in some areas. And when possible, stick to eating local species. Shipping bivalves halfway around the world, like anything else, consumes a lot of fossil fuel in the process.

To find out if the mussels, clams, or oysters at your local market are sustainable options, use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Their website lists different types of bivalves and harvesting practices, ranked by sustainability. In general, though, if it’s local and farmed, you’re on the right track!

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »

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