How fishermen gather seafood, freshwater fish and shellfish is under increased scrutiny. And with good right as recent tragedies in coastal waters punctuate the delicate balance between man and marine and demand sustainable practices.

What’s safe? Wild versus farm-raised? Add to that question the varying best practices that rate or categorize seafood’s sustainability and you’ll find comfort in knowing that as a restaurant owner or operator, you’re right to be confused.

Differing agencies have differing “safe fish” lists to follow and they seem to be ever evolving. Santa Barbara seafood restaurant, Elements, serves local, sustainable fish. Elements executive chef, Brian Champlin says it’s the restaurants way of doing their part to be more “green.”

Champlin leans on the standards set by Monterey Bay Aquarium to determine how sustainable the restaurant is operating and proudly displays Monterey Bay Aquarium’s certification on the wall for customers.

“We do that to make our customers more aware, to educate them. Many tell us they eat here because we are attentive to the kinds of fish we serve,” Champlin says.

But there are a few loopholes to certification and a little research goes a long way according to kathleen Hanson, board member of California Fisheries & Seafood Institute – the voice of the Consumer Seafood Supply Industry – who admits there is no hard and fast rule to sustainability since so many ranking agencies and websites exist on the topic and opinions vary.

“It’s up to the customer, the restaurant, and the chef to determine just how sustainable they want to be,” Hanson says who is also a seafood specialist with Anaheim-based Anderson Seafoods, which supplies Jordano’s with their fresh fish and frozen seafood.

To compile these “safe fish” lists, many organizations outsource the auditing of fisheries, paying companies to conduct the research. One highly respected agency is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is run by the U.S. Department of Commerce and conducts their own field research to determine their list.

A clash exists among agencies that often disagree with one another. For instance, some agencies favor only wild fish, ruling out farm-raised fish entirely, while others argue that, if raised in a sustainable manner, farm-raised fish is, in fact, fully sustainable.

New practices are being implemented to reduce the impact on the environment and the wildlife. One effective approach is Integrated Multi Tropic Aquaculture. The practice strategically places fish pens above other organisms to help breakdown and recycle waste. lower levels of the pen are inhabited by sea urchins, clams, oysters and mussels that filter the waste naturally. Incorporating the use of a seaweed bed can further filter the waste. These are all sellable links in a sustainable chain. Waste can also be fed to worms that are raised to become part of the fish feed down the road.

The way the fish is caught matters too. Hook, line and harpoon are favorable methods while netting practices creates bi-catch (the discarding of certain fish at sea due to unmarketability or sizing). These and other practices slow the reproduction of species. Scallops are trawled or dredged, yet NOAA considers that a sustainable seafood because there are strict seasons and locations to trawl. “Agencies disagree with one another and this is where the chefs need to make their own decision and need to educate themselves and their customers,” Hanson says.

“A restaurant limits itself to what they can serve if they only go by one agency list because you just can get a good selection of fresh fish you know the facts,” Hanson says pointing out that sustainability lists are ever changing and it pays to stay current with new laws, practices and government reports.

Sustainable seafood is seafood from either fished or farmed sources that can maintain or increase production in the future without jeopardizing the ecosystems and communities from which it was acquired.