Eating by the season is almost second nature for many of us, with the seasonal cycle bringing us asparagus in the spring, peaches and cherries in the summer, squash in the fall, and apples, pears and oranges in the winter. But fruits and vegetables aren't the only foods that have seasons. Fish and seafood do as well, though their seasonality is based on natural breeding, migratory patterns (which are driven by water temperatures), or human regulations designed to prevent overfishing.
Of course, fish and seafood are different from fruits and vegetables, but thanks to modern food production, we can enjoy both foods, fresh or frozen, from their respective source, in or out of season. That said, it is still good to know the seasons for various fish and seafood. And if you are buying fresh fish, buying it in-season means buying when it is most abundant, which promotes sustainability.
Here's a guide to the most consumed fish and seafood in the United States and when (and where) each one is in season. For each of the items below, we'll be referring to the wild-caught variety.
Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States, and 90 percent of it is imported, which means it's always frozen, so seasonality isn't a factor. The season runs from late March through early December, depending on the type and location.
Fishing for wild Atlantic salmon is prohibited, so wild-caught salmon is almost entirely Pacific salmon, mainly from Canada and Alaska, including pink, king, sockeye, coho and Chinook. The best time to buy it starts in early summer and goes through the end of the year.
Wild Alaska pollock is harvested twice a year, once starting in mid-January through the end of March, and then again from mid-August to mid-October.
Both Pacific and Atlantic cod are available year-round with a peak in late winter for Pacific and late summer for Atlantic. U.S. regulations ensure that it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested.
There are numerous types of crabs, some of them harvested in the Pacific and some in the Atlantic. Not every type of crab is available year-round, but there is always some type of crab in season at any given time, depending on location.
- Stone crabs: Mid-October through end of April.
- Dungeness crabs: December through August.
- Soft shell crabs: Early March to late September.
- Blue crabs: March through November in Virginia; April through December in Maryland.
- King crabs: October to January.
- Snow crabs: Mid-October to mid-May.
Wild clams are available year-round, though they're at their best from September through April. They spawn during the summer months, which can produce a more watery texture.
- Atlantic hard-shell clams, aka quahogs: Available year-round, but mainly April through September, peaking in early summer.
- Manila clams: These pacific clams are available year-round, but are best in the winter months.
- Razor clams: Available year-round, but regulated by authorities.
- Tuna: Atlantic bluefin tuna are in season from June to November, while Pacific bluefin are in season between May and October. Albacore tuna are in season from July through October.
- Trout: Trout are available year-round, although spring is the best season for them.
- Mahi-mahi: The spring and summer months, from April through September, are best for this warm-water fish.
- Crawfish: Crawfish are available from November to July, but their peak months are from late February through May.
- Lobster: Maine lobsters are at their peak season between late June and late December, while lobsters in Florida and California typically peak from August to March.
- Oysters: Like clams, oysters tend to be at their best in months with the letter R in their names: September through April.
- Scallops: These shellfish are available year-round, but typically peak from December through March.
Farmed fish have gotten a bad rap in the past, but farmed fish can be a safe, sustainable and nutritious source of food, providing relief to overfished wild species. Most of the shrimp we eat is produced on farms. Farmed tilapia and catfish are far more common than wild. Farmed catfish is regarded as superior since wild catfish can have a muddy flavor, and be contaminated with toxins. Barramundi is another farmed fish known for its sustainability since it eats a mostly vegetarian diet. In general, farmed fish is cheaper and can be harvested year-round, so they provide a stable supply.
Thanks to modern flash freezing technology, frozen fish and seafood is generally superior to their "fresh" counterparts in every way. Since they are frozen right on the boat, within minutes of being caught, their flavor, quality and nutrition are locked in right at their peak. "Fresh" seafood, on the other hand, might spend 10 days on the boat before it ever arrives at the dock, with yet another week until it gets to the supermarket. Even under refrigeration, a lot of deterioration takes place during that amount of time.
Buying frozen fish and seafood also helps reduce food waste, since up to one-third of fresh fish at the seafood counter ultimately ends up being thrown away. Also, frozen fish requires less energy to transport, since it doesn't have to be flown by air, which means transporting frozen fish has a much lower carbon footprint. Thus the availability of high-quality frozen fish and seafood effectively extends the "seasons" for these products, so that you can enjoy them all year long. And by smoothing out demand, buying frozen helps minimize overfishing when species are below their peak.
Freezing and Food Safety. Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
A Fresh Look At Frozen Fish. Ecotrust.org