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David Newman’s Blog

Whole Foods Stops Selling Unsustainable Seafood

David Newman

Posted May 7, 2012 in Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably, Reviving the World's Oceans

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Whole Foods recently became the first major North American retailer to stop selling unsustainable, or red-listed, seafood.  The red listing, as determined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute, indicates that the fish species is being overfished or that current fishing methods harm non-target marine life or habitats.  Fish that'll no longer be available: gray sole, skate, Atlantic cod (trawl-caught), Atlantic halibut, octopus, sturgeon, tautog, turbot, imported wild shrimp, and several species of tuna.  Fortunately, a wide range of similar, but sustainable, alternatives will continue to be.

A growing demand for seafood, combined with lax or non-existent fishery management in many parts of the world, continues to drive fish populations and ocean ecosystems toward the brink of ecological ruin.  Half of all marine fish species are fully exploited and another one-third are declining or collapsed, according to the FAO.  It takes more and more effort by larger numbers of fishermen to catch the same amount of fish as populations decline year after year.

While stronger laws and regulations have begun to reverse this trend in some countries like the United States (see my earlier blog on the success of U.S. fisheries policies), this is only part of a global solution to the fisheries crisis.  In places lacking the governance capacity, changing market demand may provide the greatest leverage for on-the-water improvements and meaningful fisheries conservation. 

Many tools are readily available to guide our seafood choices and drive market demand for sustainable seafood.  Consumer seafood guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute can help us choose fish at healthy populations being caught using more benign gear, much the same way Whole Foods is now doing.

Yet, it’s often a challenge for consumers to ensure they get what they think they’re getting, even if they’re well informed.  Consumer guides can easily tell you what fish are OK to buy, but they cannot divine whether an actual fish is what the fishmonger or waiter says it is.  Unless you know the species and where and how it was caught, you can’t always be sure you’re getting what you think. 

This information is essential to making an informed, sustainable choice, yet there are so many points along the chain of custody for things to get lost in translation or, worse yet, for fish to be marketed fraudulently.  A recent report by Oceana uncovered significant mislabeling in fish sold in the Los Angeles area.  Here are some of its key findings:

  • 55% of the samples collected (65 of 119) were mislabeled.
  • 87% of sushi samples were mislabeled, while 45% of those from restaurants and 31% from groceries were labeled incorrectly. 
  • None of the 34 fish samples sold as “snapper” were actually snapper species as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which lists 47 species that are permitted to be labeled as snapper.
  • Eight out of nine sushi samples labeled as “white tuna” were actually escolar, a snake mackerel species that carries a health warning for its “purgative” effects.

The traceability and labeling of seafood is key to realizing market-based changes in fisheries management.  Certification bodies like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has evaluated and certified 154 fisheries around the world, allow consumers to shop by the certification label to ensure the their seafood is sustainable.  However, even these programs have significant flaws.  A recent study in Marine Policy, reported in the Washington Post, found that nearly one-third of MSC-certified fisheries were actually at unhealthy population levels.

This is what makes Whole Foods’ decision so important.  Unlike individual consumers, restaurants and small fish markets that often cannot track seafood back to its source, large retailers like Whole Foods buy directly from fishermen and process their own fish, so they can quite easily verify species, point of origin, and method of capture.  And, this is where the excellent research done by the groups like the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute becomes particularly useful, as it guides the buying decisions of large market participants who can change behavior among fishermen and consumers alike.

Kudos to Whole Foods for its leadership on this important issue. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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