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Fishing For Progress in the Retail Seafood Sector

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Michael Schimaneck

Ever since a marine biologist friend turned me on to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program last year, I have often found my appetite for fish to be imbued with a combination of caution and guilt. When going out to dinner, I am now compelled to ask if the waiter knows where a fish comes from or how it was caught. I’m walking the line between being a conscientious consumer and an annoying hippie caricature pulled straight out of Portlandia, because my queries usually draw only blank stares or faint apologies. The rest of the situation plays out in one of two ways: I’ll either select something else on the menu, or anxiously duck under the cloud of guilt and order my preferred dish anyway. Until the food arrives, I’m left to silently hope that my decision hasn’t perpetuated the disastrous cycle of degradation to our oceans’ ecosystems.

Many restaurants have dragged their feet on supplying sustainable seafood and publicizing the fact for their customers. To be fair, small businesses rarely possess the wherewithal to ascertain the truth behind each of their products’ entire supply chains. Yet movements like Greenpeace’s campaigns against large retailers like Trader Joe’s have picked up the slack and yielded at least a modicum of success thus far. By helping to spread consumer awareness of the enormous problems associated with overfishing, they have in turn inspired other major chains to start cleaning up their acts, lest they have the eco-conscious spotlight thrust upon them as well.

Whole Foods introduced a new labeling system last year that mimics Seafood Watch’s intuitive color-coded scheme for identifying which options are more or less sustainable. Whole Foods’ senior seafood expert, Mark Curran, acknowledged the issues they were trying to address: “…a lot of the customers are confused at this point about sustainability and how to embrace it.” Under this system, green is good, yellow is acceptable as an alternative, and red should be avoided because of the dangers that particular stock is facing. Labels such as these are intended to not just put the onus on consumers to make the right choices, but to spread awareness about the significance of their buying power. Clearing up murky waters about what Whole Foods sells is a start, but it leads one to ask why they and other chains following the trend haven’t opted to just stop selling red-listed fish in the first place. And how long will it take before restaurants follow suit? How many people would still order a red-listed salmon off of a menu that clearly lists a green-labeled fish next to it?

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