Monday, June 23, 2008

Greenpeace Flunks Whole Foods on Seafood

It has always struck me that something looked terribly out of whack about the seafood selection at Whole Foods. Why, I wondered, were there so many fish species on display that I knew were listed as "avoid" by the organization I regularly rely on for seafood sustainability information, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program?

I had always planned to do a little more digging on the subject. But now it turns out I needn't have. Greenpeace has done all the work for me, and my suspicions have been confirmed. No less than 16 of the seafood species that Whole Foods sells appear on the "red list" of seafood that Greenpeace says consumers should avoid as unsustainable.

Whole Foods scores only 36.5 out of a possible 100 in a recent survey Greenpeace conducted looking in detail at the seafood sustainability practices of the nation's largest supermarket chains. But by comparison, that wasn't bad at all: Whole Foods was at the top of the list of the 20 supermarket chains Greenpeace examined.

Consumers buy more than half their seafood at supermarkets. Nationally, it's a $16 billion industry. But as Greenpeace found, most of the country's grocers are utter failures when it comes to helping to protect the world's oceans and the creatures that live in them. Most have no sustainability policy at all. Some seem downright hostile to the idea of taking any responsibility toward preserving ocean life and habitat.

Greenpeace does find some reasons for hope. Chains such as Whole Foods and even retailing giants such as Wal-Mart and Target are making moves toward being more conscientious corporate citizens where the oceans are concerned. Others, such as A&P and Trader Joe's, seem utterly clueless.

What's a consumer to do? Mostly I use the Seafood Watch guide to inform my seafood purchases. Personally, I think we would all be better off not buying ocean fish any more until this industry--so much like the wild, wild west in so many of its flagrantly unsustainable ways--gets its act together. We would be better off sticking to sustainably farmed choices such as tilapia, catfish, trout, striped bass, mussels and clams.

That's not likely to happen any time soon. In fact, restaurants flagrantly offer overfished species such as red snapper on their menus, while seafood too often carries erroneous labels in the supermarket. A recent Consumer Reports survey, for instance, found that more than half of the salmon fillets its researchers purchased were labeled as "wild caught" when in fact they were farmed salmon.

Seafood sustainability is still a morass for consumers. There is no standardization in labeling. There are too many species and too many different issues involved in the catching of seafood for the average person to keep track. But what's worse, the various organizations agitating for seafood sustainability don't agree on the information they give and sometimes are completely at odds. Groups such as Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean Institute, Environmental Defense, Oceans Alive and Greenpeace all need to get together and create a common convention for seafood sustainability that we can all understand. They need to start speaking in unison and in a language consumers can easily comprehend.

For instance, I checked the Greenpeace "red list" of seafood species it says are unsustainable against the listings that Seafood Watch maintains. Of the 23 on the Greenpeace list, I came away confused about 11 of them after checking them against the Seafood Watch list. (At least Greenpeace gives the Latin names for the seafood on its list, thank you very much. You cannot locate fish by Latin names at Seafood Watch, an important failing of that service, to my mind.)

"Hoki," and "Redfish" don't even appear in the Seafood Watch listings, for instance. According to Greenpeace, pollock--a bedrock species in the Alaskan fisheries and one of the most widely used fish in the prepared foods industry--"has not recovered from overfishing." Seafood Watch, meanwhile, labels pollock a "best choice" because of "a generally healthy and abundant fish population and responsible fishery management."

Greenpeace says to avoid sea scallops, especially those from the Mid-Atlantic region. It particularly does not like the dredging method used to harvest scallops--dredging destroys the seafloor habitat. But while acknowledging that dredging causes "significant habitat damage," and advising against Mid-Atlantic scallops, Seafood Watch says scallops caught in the Northeast U.S. and in Canada are a "good alternative."

I could go on and on, but I would just confuse you and myself with all the nuances of the sustainable seafood debate. In this area, if you want to be "green," you just have to do your homework and make your own decisions. If you have the time, do take a look at the Greenpeace report (the pdf file may take a minute to upload, and you will need the most current version of your reader). The executive summary doesn't take long to read. You will probably find some arresting information about your favorite supermarket, and the rest of the report is chock full of valuable information.

Here is the Greenpeace "red list" of unsustainable seafood. See how many your favorite grocer has on display:

Atlantic Cod or Scrod
Atlantic Halibut (U.S. and Canadian)
Atlantic Salmon (farmed and wild)
Atlantic Sea Scallop
Chilean Sea Bass
Greenland Halibut (aka Greenland Turbot)
Grouper (Red) (Imported into U.S.)
Hoki (aka Blue Grenadier)
Ocean Quahog
Orange Roughy
Pollock (aka Alaska Pollock)
Red Snapper
Redfish (aka Ocean Perch)
Skates and Rays
Tropical Shrimp (wild and farmed)
South Atlantic albacore tuna
Tuna--Yellowfin tuna


Gilahi said...

But doesn't farm-raised fish have its own set of problems? A recent show I saw on public television indicated that on most (many?) fish farms, there is abundant, perfectly human-consumable fish that is dried, ground, shaped into pellets, and fed to the farmed fish. Furthermore, insecticides, mercury, all the "standard" pollutants, are found in the feeder fish, which just concentrates in the farmed fish. The show was careful to say that many farms feed their fish crickets, worms, insects, things they would eat in the wild, and that those fish are perfectly safe to eat, but if you don't actually know which farm your fish comes from, then it's a very risky proposition to eat farm-raised fish. It seems to be a no-win for piscivores at this point.

Ed Bruske said...

Gilahi, you should avoid imported farmed seafood for all the reasons you mentioned. However, you can go to the Seafood Watch website and read their reports on why they rate seafood farmed in the U.S. as a "best choice," including all of the species I mentioned in the post. Here's the link:

Global Chameleon said...

Interesting and informative post - confirms my perception that Whole Foods is truly more in the gourmet store niche rather than in the organic, socially responsible grocery niche. Funny how the name makes one think it's more of the latter category, though.

Gavin said...

I was glad to read that you had planned to “do a little more digging on the subject” when it comes to seafood sustainability but I must suggest you not let Greenpeace do the digging for you. Their confusing red list, you mentioned, contains some of the world’s most sustainable fisheries that have been held out as examples of good management to the world fishing community – Alaska Pollock for instance. Additionally, you mention that environmental groups “all need to get together and create a common convention for seafood sustainability that we can all understand.” Well, such an effort is under way. The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions was created for just that purpose. The group includes: Blue Ocean Institute, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David Suzuki Foundation, Ecology Action Centre, Environmental Defense Fund, FishChoice, FishWise, Living Oceans Society, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Natural Resources Defense Council, New England Aquarium, Ocean Conservancy, Sierra Club British Columbia, and the World Wildlife Fund – US… the one notable absence—Greenpeace.
National Fisheries Institute

Ed Bruske said...

Gavin, it can't happen soon enough.

Greenpeace doesn't always play well with others. But I like their aggressive approach. I've asked them to clarify a number of points in their report. I'm still waiting to hear back from them. I don't see Oceana on your list either.

seasonseatingsfarm said...

Greenpeace and Whole Foods aren't the warm fuzzy entities they'd like everyone to think they are. They're both screwed up when you look beyond the surface.

Emily H. said...

I'm not so convinced that the pollack fishery is well managed—one major company that trawls for pollack off the Pacific coast has decimated the Alaskan King salmon fishery during the last year. That doesn't sound sustainable to me. It's disgraceful.