Love Seafood? Enjoy a Taste of National Marine Sanctuaries

August 2022

By: Zibby Wilder

National marine sanctuaries are special places set aside to protect and preserve areas of the ocean and Great Lakes with great natural and cultural significance. These national underwater treasures can be enjoyed by everyone—whether in person, virtually, or through their taste buds. Many national marine sanctuaries support community food traditions that have become culinary staples in their regions.

Get out on the water and try your hand at a sustainably caught fresh catch or simply stop in to one of the many locally-owned restaurants that serve up their local best from the waters in and around national marine sanctuaries. While it may seem like a large feat, there are many ways that you can make conscious choices when it comes to purchasing seafood—whether at the fish market or dining out. Check out NOAA’s FishWatch, which helps you make smart seafood choices by arming you with the facts about what makes U.S. seafood sustainable—from the ocean or farm to your plate. When you eat sustainably, enjoying the flavors of the sea never tasted better!

Here are some of the most iconic dishes found across the sanctuary system.

Hawaiian Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Maui & Kaua’i, Hawai’i

Popular dishes: Poke (all kinds), Lomi-Lomi salmon, sushi

pieces of diced tuna in a bowl sprinked with sesame, green onion, and soy sauce
Fresh 'ahi poke bowl. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Though whales are the namesakes of this national marine sanctuary, it’s the international flavor that attracts foodies to the verdant islands of Hawai’i. In addition to Native Hawaiian influences, food in Hawaii often features flavors from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese culinary traditions.

Perhaps one of Hawai’i’s most well-known dishes is poke, the Hawaiian version of sashimi. Usually made from 'ahi (tuna), poke is cubes of raw fish marinated in endless combinations including shoyu (soy sauce), spicy mayo, and wasabi. Other tasty dishes on many Hawiian menus include Lomi-Lomi salmon, a salsa-like side of salted salmon, tomatoes, onions, and green onions, and laulau fish, which is wrapped with pork in ti and taro leaves and then steamed—many times cooked underground with hot stones and served at luaus.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Northern Washington Coast

Popular dishes: smoked wild-caught salmon, shellfish, seafood chowder

several wooden planks with fish
Cedar sticks hold salmon for traditional "fish on a stick" being cooked during the Makah Days celebration. Photo: Karlyn Langjahr/NOAA

The Pacific Northwest is well-known for its iconic salmon—so iconic in Washington state that it graces the state quarter. For thousands of years this protein and fat-rich fish has sustained generations of Native Americans who began smoking salmon in order to preserve it. These days, smoked salmon of all kinds is found nearly everywhere you turn in the evergreen state.

The bounty of the ocean also extends to shellfish, which includes oysters, razor clams, Dungeness crab, and even the elusive geoduck. Many of these can be harvested right from the beach during permitted seasons. Try out a delicious Dungeness crab salad with avocado, spicy ginger vinaigrette, and braised fennel, or a Dungeness crab BLT with roast potatoes, delicata squash, and cider jus!

Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries, Northern California Coast

Popular dishes: California clam chowder, cioppino, grilled fish

a red sauce with clams and other seafood
Cioppino is an Italian-American fish stew in a tomato and wine base that originated in San Francisco, California. Photo: Karen Neoh, Creative Commons

Chowder is a classic American comfort food and Californians took it a step further by combining it with a Bay Area favorite, sourdough. Because clams are plentiful along the California coast, the combination of sweet clams and sour dough is among the region’s most popular tastes. It is believed that chowder in a sourdough bowl originated in a San Francisco restaurant called Boudin in 1849—and it’s been a favorite ever since. Another popular seafood dish in this region is cioppino, a rich mix of seafood in a tomato-based broth, that was brought to the area by fishermen from Genoa, Italy.

This region of California is also celebrated for its farmland and many seafood dishes, from fresh grilled fish to shrimp, are commonly enjoyed with fresh vegetables and fruits such as artichokes, garlic, asparagus, and even grapes!

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Northern Michigan

Popular dishes: lake whitefish all ways, walleye cheeks, bluegill

a dish with fish over veggies topped with leafy greens
Grilled walleye with fried walleye cheeks over pea and cucumber tartar sauce, and succotash. Photo: Edsel Little, Creative Commons

Northern Michigan may not be known for its food—but it should be! This area, banked by the cold waters of Lake Huron, abounds with breweries, wineries, fruit trees and…whitefish. This bountiful fish sustained Native American communities for generations and is now a popular regional dish—served fried, in a fish boil, smoked and chopped into a pate, or in chowder.

Walleye (yellow pike) is another fish commonly found in this area and the tender cheeks are considered a special delicacy.

If you love fresh fish and are a fan of curry, try out Michigan coconut curry with bluegill—a flavorful dish with coconut milk, vegetables, chicken broth, curry powder, bay leaves, and cayenne pepper. Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) are a freshwater species native to the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes systems.

If you are a fan of tartar sauce on your fish, Vlasic pickles are also from Michigan!

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts Coast

Popular dishes: chowder (all kinds), lobster, scallops, clams, oysters

a white clam shell
Quahog clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) are a smart seafood choice because they are sustainably grown and harvested under U.S. state and federal regulations. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Stretching from Gloucester to Provincetown, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is well-known for its whale watching opportunities but it also provides a sustainable supply of seafood that are the stars of some of this region’s most famous dishes. Comforting New England clam chowder is perhaps the most famous, but lobster (or, lobstah in local speak) is a close second. Though most American lobster (Homarus americanus) comes from Maine, Massachusetts has the second-largest harvest. Try out a classic lobster roll adorned with mayonnaise, a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of pepper, and finely diced celery, or indulge in a rich and delicious New England lobster pie.

Another favorite found from the coast to the cape are steamed clams. Steamers are incredibly popular and are simple to prepare. Just soak the clams in salty water, steam for about 5-10 minutes until the shells open, and enjoy with some melted butter. Clams can be found in many other preparations as well—from deep-fried clam bellies to clam pizza.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Keys

Popular dishes: yellowtail and mangrove snapper, black and gag grouper, and lionfish

a plate with french fries and grilled fish
Blackened or grilled grouper over french fries or a salad is a popular dish in the Florida Keys. Photo: Rachel Plunkett/NOAA

There’s so much to love about the Florida Keys and sustainable seafood from this national marine sanctuary tops the list. Thanks to its location at the southern tip of Florida, food in this area is influenced by Caribbean and Latin American traditions that bring both sweetness and spice. A favorite meal includes moist, delicate snapper. Though it is very versatile, one of the best ways to enjoy snapper is simply grilled with salt, pepper, and lemon.

Grouper is also something you can expect to see on many menus as there are more than a dozen species that proliferate in the warm waters of the Keys. Grouper’s sweet and firm flesh is suited for everything from tacos and sandwiches to fritters and even as a smoked fish dip with chips. Try some grouper blackened or grilled over a salad or with a large plate of french fries. For a more sustainable seafood alternative, try some lionfish tacos or filets! Lionfish are an invasive species that disturb the delicate food web balance in the Florida Keys, so by eating them you can do your part to help restore the ecosystem. They are also delicious and loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids.

A note, while conch is extremely popular on menus all over the Keys, harvesting of this large sea snail is illegal in Florida. Because conch populations were decimated simply for the collection of their shells, these restrictions will help populations rebound.

American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary, Tutuila, Aunuʻu, Taʻu, Rose Atoll, and Swains Island, American Samoa

Popular dishes: Oka (ceviche), Faiai Eleni (fish in coconut cream), Limu (seaweed grapes), Palolo (a truly mystical delicacy)

fish in a white sauce
A bowl of delicous Samoan Oka. Photo: Gabby Fa'ai'uaso

Fishing has provided sustenance to Samoan communities for thousands of years and fresh seafood is central to Samoan cuisine. Combined with the plentiful fruits and vegetables grown on these tropical islands, you’ll find dishes here that you won’t find anywhere else. Two of the most popular dishes are Oka (similar to ceviche) with fresh fish marinated in lime and coconut cream with fresh vegetables and chili pepper, and Faiai Eleni, fish cooked in coconut cream—many times baked and served in the coconut shell. Looking for a great vegetarian seafood option? Keep an eye out for limu (seaweed grapes) that can be found on the shallow reefs, and can be eaten straight out of the ocean. Limu has a bright and mild salty flavor with roe-like texture that goes well with salads or traditional Samoan dishes like palusami (taro leaves in fresh coconut milk).

A true delicacy local to the area—only available during a short period every year—is Palolo. Palolo are sea worms which many say have a delicate, caviar-like flavor. Once a year, seven days after the full moon in October or November, the palolo bisect themselves and send part of their noodle-like bodies out into the sea to procreate and this is when families harvest them with nets. Families get a tasty treat—eating palolo with eggs or cooked into bread—and the worms are already working on regenerating themselves for this special time next year.

Zibby Wilder is a recreation and tourism intern with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries