Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

My Aquaculture Journey

By Carrie Brownstein, July 16, 2008  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Carrie Brownstein

I am at the new Whole Foods Market store in Tribeca, NYC perusing the seafood counter on a most exciting day. Today we launched our new quality standards for farmed seafood at Whole Foods Market, a culmination of two years work to set the bar high for aquaculture practices worldwide. I watch as an inquisitive customer reads through our brochure detailing the key highlights of the new standards while the team member wraps up her salmon. Her eyes shift from the brochure to the salmon in the case. "Does this salmon that I'm buying come from this farm, pictured here in this brochure? Does it meet your standards?" she asks the team member. "It sure does," he replies proudly to the customer's delight, "all of our farmed seafood will need to meet our standards and be approved through an independent third party audit." "That's so cool," she declares, and away she goes, pulled by the hand by an impatient toddler. As I scan the seafood case, I see fish from many of the farms that I've visited over the last two years-salmon from Norway, trout and catfish from North Carolina, shrimp from Vietnam, and Arctic char from Iceland, to name only a few. It's been a stimulating and inspiring process developing these standards. Learning about the problems and finding solutions-my favorite kind of work. Speaking with scientists, environmentalists, and producers, I investigated every issue related to aquaculture: feed, predator control, water quality, chemical use, environmental contaminants, siting, traceability, etc. With the best available science, I armed myself with all the information. Then I went into the field. I visited hatcheries, farms, feed mills, and processing plants to get a closer look at how farmed fish are produced and to really understand what producers are doing, and not doing. {C}{C}{C}In Norway, for example, as I stood alongside our regional seafood coordinators on the outside rim of a salmon pen, clad in survival suits, with seawater lapping at the soles of our shoes, I learned how our innovative supplier partners at Villa Organic use cleanerfish (wrasse) to handle skin parasites rather than the typical industry practice of adding a chemical parasiticide to the feed. The cleanerfish have an appetite for the parasites and eat them right off the salmon. What I learned through this site visit, and the extensive research behind it, is that there are a handful of producers in the world that are going above and beyond conventional practices. In fact, less than one percent of the salmon produced worldwide can meet our standards. By partnering with these industry leaders, it's possible to offer the highest quality fish to our customers and set a high bar that move the seafood industry toward greater sustainability. Another example from our partners at Villa Organic is their work to eliminate the use of toxic anti-foulant paints on the nets. Over time algae and mussels build up on the nets and "foul" them, which reduces water flow through the pens and oxygen in the water (not good for the health of the fish). Most farms treat the nets with copper-based anti-foulants paints. Instead, our supplier partners at Villa have used divers to power wash the nets. Now, they're advancing things further with new technology. They're testing out a large power washing machine that allows them to clean the nets faster and without the use of divers, which is safer because it keeps farm workers out of the frigid water.

With farmed shrimp, a major concern is damage to habitat, specifically fragile wetland or mangrove forests. But in Honduras, for example, shrimp farmers have found a way to farm shrimp without damaging mangroves. Instead of cutting down mangroves to build shrimp ponds, these producers developed farms on salt flats, where mangroves do not naturally occur. I also saw a similar approach in Belize. Vietnam's low density extensive shrimp farms also have a low impact on mangrove forests. Our supplier partners there actually grow shrimp in ponds within the mangrove ecosystem, rather than clearing them out. Under this type of system the shrimp feed on the natural organisms in the ecosystem, eliminating the need to use any formulated feed at all. This is a real benefit for the conservation of small wild fish populations that are being used for aquaculture feed worldwide. So as I wrap up my tour of the seafood counter in Tribeca, I'm seeing the farmed fish with familiar eyes. Looking at the Arctic char, I recall the land-based farm on the coast of Iceland where the volcanic rocks in the tree-less landscape create the feeling of a moonscape. On the farm, the char are raised in tanks, allowing producers to control water quality and prevent escapes. And the tilapia from Costa Rica? The prevailing memory in my mind is of wildlife. There our supplier partners have done what advocates of sustainable aquaculture always hope to see. They constructed man-made wetland area to serve as a natural waste water treatment system. And the bird life was thriving! But not only that, the nutrients from the farm help out the local farmers who in turn are able to reduce their use of synthetic fertilizers. And have I mentioned that the tilapia farm sources its feed from trimmings from fish processed locally, rather than relying on catching wild fish for feed? And the stories go on... Check back for more postings on topics related to Seafood Quality Standards at Whole Foods Market. I look forward to your comments.

Category: Seafood




Bill Ferris says ...
Over the past weekend, while my wife and I were at dinner with friends, who also are Whole Foods Markets customers, the wife (friend) asked the question, "Why does WFM sell farmed fish, I thought it was not good for you?" I explained the length WFM has gone to establish a set of aquaculture standards unsurpassed in the industry; so that WFM can with confidence and certainity assure our guests of the highest quality, cleanest and most wholesome product available. I shared the information on the third party independent audit ability and what that means in terms of added confidence and credibility to her and her family as our guest. She expressed her surprise and appreciation that a company would go to "such lengths to back its philosophy and culture" of selling only the highest quality natural and organic product available". For this WFM TM it was a proud moment to be in a position to share that information first hand.
07/16/2008 10:54:57 AM CDT
Erick B says ...
Very cool to see Whole Foods leading the effort. I like my fish and I like to know that it's coming from the right place. Sounds like you're really focused on an integrated approach. Congratulations.
07/16/2008 1:08:19 PM CDT
Jan T. says ...
Very impressive! I really enjoyed reading about your trips and learnings and look forward to more of our fish being raised in an environmentally friendly fashion. It has to start somewhere, and I am pleased to read about it.
07/26/2008 1:37:13 PM CDT
Bonnie Hay says ...
Good to see these standards made public. I have an additional question on tilapia. I understand that farmed tilapia may be fed a primarily corn based diet and that recent research has shown that tilapia fed this type of diet have a less than healthy (for human consumption) profile of high omega 6 and low omega 3 fatty acids. Does WFM have a stance on this. Are WFM tilapia primarily corn fed? Thanks for any insight on this.
07/31/2008 1:55:16 PM CDT
Kevin Fitzsimmons says ...
A response for Bonnie and others interested in the omega 3 omega 6 ratio story. The Wake Forest research paper showed that tilapia were higher in omega 3 than most fishes other than salmonids. The omega 6 level was also higher than in most other fishes. The author stated that "all other nutritional aspects aside" tilapia may not be as good as some other fish, due to the ratio of omega 3 to 6. This is based on his theory, still being tested, that a high ratio of omega 6 to 3 is not healthy (theory is that it increase inflamation). He further stated that if his theory is correct, and as tilapia is a lower cost fish and if poor people ate only tilapia, and if they were at risk for cario-vascular problems, they should consider eating salmon instead as it was higher in omega 3 and lower in omega 6. Finally, contrary to the supposition of the author, corn is never the primary ingredient in tilapia diets. A review of many tilapia feed labels show that it is a minor ingredient, never more than the third most common ingredient in tilapia diets after soybean and wheat. Hope this is helpful. Kevin Fitzsimmons, Ph.D. University of Arizona
08/04/2008 6:04:09 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
We’ve received several comments from customers and readers concerned about the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio in tilapia. I believe that these comments most likely stem from articles profiling a recent paper by Weaver et al. (2008) in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, The Content of Favorable and Unfavorable Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Found in Commonly Eaten Fish. I have discussed this article with some experts and overall they believe that the findings of this study are not very significant or very new. The study found that omega-3 fatty acids were low in the tilapia sampled and as such, tilapia may not contribute significantly to omega 3-fatty acid content in a person’s diet. However, we already knew this. Tilapia doesn’t provide a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, while other species of fish do, such as salmon and sardines. In thinking about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in one’s diet, it’s important to think about one’s entire diet, including the sources of fats one consumes (such as cooking oils). In this context, consuming tilapia would only be one small part of all the components (foods) that contribute to this ratio. Thus, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to worry about tilapia; it’s a good source of lean protein. But in addition, it’s a good idea to eat a varied diet that includes fish that are higher in omega-3’s.
08/06/2008 8:59:13 AM CDT
Emilia says ...
I went to the new Whole Foods store that just opened and it is fabulous! A great place to stop in and pick up your breakfast or lunch if you work in the area. The store is really clean, the food is good what more could you ask for.
08/06/2008 4:35:08 PM CDT
Gordon Bowers says ...
Concerning farmed salmon sold by Whole Foods, Please indicate if farmed salmon feed contains corn-related products and vegetable oils. Current news indicates farmed salmon feed contains some corn-related products and vegetable oils. Thanks
10/24/2008 12:26:18 PM CDT
Chris Downs says ...
Farmed fish and the manner in which you monitor and manage the food that you sell as Organic is a blessing. For those people who are looking for a wholesome responsible farming of fish, you at Whole foods provide it. One of the questions that I had, was what nets for aquaculture do you use? I was given a great answer at the fish counter, and looking at the information that was provided, makes great sense. As consumers, we have the ultimate power in what is sold and why. Organic, with attention to detail and health is important to us as your customer. As a former Grocery Store owner, I know that the choices that I made impacted all of my customers health and happiness. Thank you for your attention to detail and a store full of products that have helped me regain my health. Although I lean toward a vegetarian diet, it is great to see integrity in our food chain.
07/12/2012 10:18:25 PM CDT