The newswires are full of stories that warn us about the dangers to the ocean’s ecosystems. Overfishing is threatening many species of fish, many of which could disappear during our lifetime. Visit Tokyo’s Tsujiki Fish Market at 4 in the morning, and you will see Exhibit A as to why fish stocks are depleted. Thanks to the global demand for sushi, Tsujiki is host to decapitated tuna on conveyor belts, then stacked in heaps and sold to the highest bidder, and then shipped around the world.
It is a depressing story but one that has hope. The white sea bass in California, for example, has somewhat recovered after a moratorium was imposed. But more needs to be done: one academic study has suggested that 20 million more people could be fed adequately if fishing across the globe were better managed. Now the way fishing is practiced is costing lives and a US$100 billion hit to the global economy.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has long taken leadership in educating consumers about how to make better food choices, and the non-profit has a pocket guide and other reports that its researchers update regularly. But not everyone remembers to slip that guide into his or her wallet, nor do they have a smartphone—or time—to check at the store whether that fish on display is sustainable choice or a wretched one. Now the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has partnered with the Blue Ocean Institute, and Whole Foods, which will collaborate to label all of WF’s wild-caught seafood in its North American stores according to various sustainability criteria.
From now on, customers at Whole Food’s fish counter will see a green Best Choice, yellow Good Alternative, or red Avoid labels next to every item in the seafood case. To that end, Whole Foods has pledged to eliminate all red-labeled seafood by Earth Day 2013.
Making the right fish choice is confusing to many consumers. First lies the decision over selecting fish that have Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 fatty acids, and then there are the fish that have high levels of contaminants including mercury and should therefore be avoided. Next there are the line-caught, trawler-caught, and farmed options. What is the best choice, and what should absolutely be avoided, varies by the species of fish. One challenge in the United States that some of the best alternatives, mackerel and sardines, have an oily flavor that Americans dislike—and the popular culinary choices on just about every menu, farmed shrimp and salmon, are red-listed for their farmings’ effects on the environment.
One question many may ask is that if a fish is red-labeled, why even sell it at all? Retailers including Trader Joe’s and Walmart are phasing out overfished varieties, and Whole Foods, with its matra of organic, local, and sustainable products, is in a position to push its vendors to supply only responsibility sourced fish while educating its customers how to make the best possible choice. And another question festers: why wait another 2 ½ years to phase out the sales of fish that most experts agree is causing destruction to our oceans and in the not so long term, many livelihoods?