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Greenpeace Reviews Major Food Retailers for Sustainable Seafood Purchasing

RP Siegel | Wednesday June 4th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Greenpeace seafoodWhile the dedicated startups that spearhead the sustainable seafood movement through things like community supported fisheries (CSFs) and green aquaculture are exciting, these fish will take a while to hit your local grocery store.

That is why today’s story about the work Greenpeace has been doing in rating the sustainability practices of major food retailers might have the greatest impact of all, at least in the near term.

Greenpeace just issued the eighth edition of its report entitled Carting Away the Oceans. The wide-ranging report covers everything from human-rights abuses in the industry, to GMO salmon, to protecting America’s fish basket in the Bering Sea, where roughly one-half of all seafood landed in the U.S. comes from.

But the main focus of the report is the ratings, which evaluate 26 major American grocery store chains — including everyone from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to Kroger, Safeway, Target and Walmart.

I spoke with report author James Mitchell, senior oceans campaigner with the Greenpeace Oceans program, about the significance of the report.

Triple Pundit: So what have you learned from doing these supermarket ratings?

James Mitchell: It’s phenomenal how these grocery stores have been changing over time, in response to consumer demand. When we first ran this assessment back in 2008, literally all of the stores failed. Now in our 2014 edition, the vast majority of retailers, 22 out of 26, passed. And four of them — Whole Foods, Safeway, Wegmans, and Trader Joe’s — actually landed a “Good” score.

3p: Can you put these results into some kind of context for me? How are the oceans and fisheries doing?

JM: In the grand scheme of things, looking at the oceans as a whole, we’re in trouble. But in this specific area, the power of consumers is really becoming stronger every year. Not all retailers are that responsive, but on the whole, we’re seeing progress at a level that is really impacting the industry.

3p: Can you give me an example?

JM: Take a look at the canned tuna — the most heavily consumed wild-caught seafood. We eat more canned tuna here in the U.S. than any other country. Canned tuna is probably the most affordable seafood out there. We’ve been having a lot of conversations with retailers about this. asking them to release a sustainable private label (store brand) tuna. We’ve seen some great turnaround in that area in the past couple of years. This is important because now sustainably caught tuna does not cost much more than some of the big tuna companies that unfortunately have not changed their ways yet.

3p: And grocery stores have done it?

JM: Yes. Now you can walk into a Whole Foods, a Safeway, a Trader Joe’s, a Walmart, or a Hy-Vee if you’re out in the Midwest, and you can walk out the door with sustainable private label tuna for a couple of dimes more than the cheap stuff. That’s a really impressive change in the industry over just a few short years, and it’s in an area that’s important to all shopping demographics.

3p: So what makes one can of tuna more sustainably produced than another?

JM: Most tuna out there, talking about chunk light, which makes up about 75 percent of the market, has primarily been caught with a conventional fishing method known as FAD fishing, where FAD stands for fish aggregation device. The FAD is nothing more than a manmade lure, which could be something very simple. Tuna fishermen deploy these FADs with a radio beacon attached so they can find them again. Unfortunately, what happens is you get an entire community of sea life aggregating around these FADs.

The fishermen then use a purse seine net that scoops up everything around it, and you’re left with a substantial amount of bycatch. This is done on such a massive scale worldwide, especially in the western and central Pacific Ocean, that the impact on the oceans is enormous. So what we’ve been saying is this: “There are two ways that you can make this better. One is to simply skip the use of the FAD itself and do what is called ‘free school fishing,’ where you find a school and pursue it, which results in a cleaner catch. Or, you could go back to pole and line, which is the gold standard for sustainable tuna fishing.” If you are hooking tuna, one at a time, this cuts the bycatch down to nearly zero, unlike the purse seine method, where,  by the time you pull all those fish out of the water, most of them quickly die.

Another method used with albacore is ‘long-lining,’ which is where the boat pulls a long line with multiple baited hooks. This has about 30 percent bycatch, where birds, sharks and turtles often get caught or tangled up. We’ve talked with retailers about putting in some mitigative measures to make long-lining less destructive. This involves things like using circle hooks that keep the catch alive, so that incorrect fish can be released. Better yet, you can use pole and line. There are actually some companies doing that right now — even some American companies, off the coast of California.

3p: But that’s bound to cost quite a bit more though, right?

JM: You’d think so. But you can buy pole and line caught skipjack tuna at Trader Joe’s for $1.49 a can. That’s top-of-the-line sustainability for $1.49. As these retailers become more vertically integrated and cut out the middle man, they can bring prices down. They also can employ economies of scale.

3p: That’s great. So let me ask you. I’ve spoken with a couple of people in the CSF world and they describe the very sustainable method they use, like pound trap nets as well as pole and line and even spear-fishing. They also said that fishing in the U.S. is quite sustainable because of the way fisheries are regulated under the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But you mentioned a couple of methods that are really not very sustainable. Are these legal under U.S. regulations? This is confusing. Can you shed some light on this?

JM: You’ve touched upon a really interesting issue. Our government’s laws only apply to fishing done within 200 miles of our shores. The vast majority of the tuna we have been talking about is coming from the other side of the planet. So we are commonly sourcing our seafood from very poorly regulated, and sometimes totally unregulated areas, while our own seas are highly regulated. What most Americans don’t realize that somewhere around 80 percent of all the seafood in the grocery store (Sean Barrett said the number was 90 percent) is imported. So we often end up eating fish that has been harvested in a manner that is less than ideal, if not downright terrible.

So both of those statements you made are actually correct. As a country, we manage our fisheries better than most. But we also end up exporting approximately 70 percent of all we catch here, while we import somewhere around 80 percent.

3p: And the reason why we do that is…?

JM: The reason why is because the Europeans and the Japanese recognize the appeal and the value of American-caught seafood and are willing to pay a premium price for it.

3p: That is so ironic, it’s bizarre.

JM: It is. It is. For some species, like farmed shrimp, for example, something like 97 percent of it is imported. So all the great standards that we have for seafood are not ending up on our dinner tables.

3p: Amazing.  So let’s go back to your report. Tell me about the criteria you used.

JM: We basically look at four criteria in evaluating a supermarket’s performance. The first criteria is policy. We look to see if a retailer has a sustainable seafood policy in place governing purchasing decisions. If they do, then we look at how rigorous their standards are.

The second thing we look at are initiatives. Do they participate in coalitions with other external groups to really push for seafood sustainability. Do they communicate directly to fishery management authorities and policy-makers?

3p: Could you give me an example?

JM: One of the things we are involved in is protecting the Bering Sea canyons. Our rating system rewards retailers for getting involved in issues like this.

The third criteria is labeling and transparency. Consumers need information to make informed choices, so it’s important to know where the seafood comes from. Seafood fraud has been a big issue, so we really dig into this to be sure that the seafood truly comes from where they say it does.

Finally, there is the Red list inventory section. We have 23 marine species that we feel should not be made commercially available for a variety of reasons. One reason is overfishing, which is to say that they are being caught at a rate that is faster than they can reproduce. Then there is destructive fishing in terms of bycatch, as we talked about earlier. Even if species X is plentiful, but you are fishing for species X in a way that obliterates species Y and Z, that’s not okay. Likewise, if you fish for species X in a way that obliterates habitat, that’s not considered sustainable fishing either.

3p: This is great, though it doesn’t cover other facets of fish consumption like mercury levels, am I right?

JM: That’s true. We don’t get into that, only because that’s not our expertise. However, if you look at tuna, it turns out that sustainably caught skipjack tuna will have lower mercury levels because it doesn’t have bigeye and yellowfin mixed in with it.

3p: Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: Just that it’s always a good idea to ask: Where did this seafood come from?

3p: Often employees say they don’t know.

JM: That’s true. But some stores, like Hy-Vee, have employee training programs in place to be able to answer these kinds of questions.

3p: What about salmon, what kinds of concerns do you have about that?

JM: Best is wild-caught Alaskan.  Anything that is farmed is Atlantic, even if it’s being raised on the West Coast. These should be avoided in general (though stay tuned for an exception next week). The fishery for wild Atlantic salmon has collapsed. We consider Atlantic salmon farms as being comparable to CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] of the ocean.

3p: Where can one find more information about other red list species?

JM: You can find it here.

3p: Thank you very much!

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Ellie Winninghoff

    I am surprised not to read about trolling, which is what most of the American tuna fleet does in the waters of the Pacific Northwest. This is arguably superior to pole and lining because you do not THROW a bunch of fish in the boat, and so you therefore avoid bruising them. I am suspicious of cheap canned tuna. It may be more sustainably caught, but is often canned in Vietnam and Thailand, where workers are often treated as near-slaves.