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New Wild-Caught Seafood Sustainability Ratings

By Carrie Brownstein, September 14, 2010  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Carrie Brownstein
Hey readers, big news! We've just launched a new sustainability ratings program for wild-caught seafood. Through this partnership with Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium, our customers can now use color-coded ratings to make informed decisions about their seafood purchases. And with our promise to phase out all red-rated sources by Earth Day 2013, we've deepened our commitment to having fully sustainable seafood departments. This new initiative builds upon the partnership that Whole Foods Market has had with the Marine Stewardship Council since 1999 and it complements Whole Foods Market's existing farmed seafood standards, which remain the highest standards in the industry. It's all part of our overall effort to move our seafood purchasing, and the seafood industry as a whole, towards healthier oceans and greater sustainability. What's important to know about the ratings program is that our partners, Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, use solid, science-based methods for evaluating species and fisheries. They're transparent with their criteria, methods, and ratings. Anyone can go online on their websites and review the ratings. Note that we're using the ratings only on wild-caught seafood from fisheries not certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC-certified seafood already undergoes a rigorous process to become certified. Another important thing is that ratings aren't set in stone; there's opportunity to improve. Fisheries that are ranked yellow or red may be able to improve by implementing stronger management measures, or by changing the way they fish to reduce bycatch or impacts on habitat. Green or "best choice" ratings indicate a species is relatively abundant and is caught in environmentally-friendly ways. Our stores already feature a number of green-rated species. Having green rated species is critical because it demonstrates that fish populations can be healthy and that fisheries can be sustainably managed. Yellow or "good alternative" ratings mean some concerns exist with the species' status or catch methods; and red or "avoid" ratings mean that for now the species is suffering from overfishing, or that current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats. We're evaluating the red-rated fisheries to see if changes can be made to improve fishing practices and ultimately earn a higher rating. A few people have asked, "if it's red-rated, why not stop selling it right now?" Actually, we already stopped selling especially vulnerable red-rated species such as non-MSC-certified Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, bluefin tuna, sharks, and marlins (with the exception of Hawaii-caught blue marlin, sold only in Hawaii stores). Under this new program, all swordfish and tuna from red-rated fisheries will be eliminated from seafood counters by Earth Day 2011. And by Earth Day 2012, all other seafood from red-rated fisheries will be discontinued with the exception of Atlantic cod and sole, which will be sold through Earth Day 2013. In the meantime, we're evaluating the red-rated fisheries to see if changes can be made to improve fishing practices. Some fishermen have worked with us for many years so it's a partnership and a process that takes a little time to change. So, check out these new color ratings in our seafood departments and let us know what you think. Also, watch Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods Market's Global Vice President of Quality Standards and Public Affairs live in our Austin store explaining the new program below and visit our Navigating Sustainability page to get more information about the new rankings program, as well as the other seafood sustainability efforts and quality standards already in place at Whole Foods Market. 'Til next time….
Category: Seafood




Sean says ...
I find it heartily disappointing that Whole Foods is caving to the eco-labelling of seafood. There are so many problems with the current state of seafood labeling I can understand why consumers and to a certain extent seafood dealers like Wholefoods resort to the oversimplification of the labels. The most egregious problem with seafood labeling is that it does not consider how far a seafood traveled to get to the consumer. Some of the most 'eco-freindly' green light fish have the largest carbon footprints. Additionally, eco-labelling tends to reward industrial scale fisheries who can afford certifications. Alaska Pollack for example is an industrial scale fishery that gets a 'green' label on most seafood labeling programs, however that fishery has wild salmon by-catch problems, sends fish to China for processing, has had a disastrous effect on the elephant seal population and has essentially eliminated the community based fisherman in favor of factory ships. Meanwhile, New England's groundfish species are all on the rebound and of the 16 stocks in the grounfish complex all are expected to be rebuilt by 2014. Gulf of Maine Cod for example was recently declared to be not over-fished and overfishing is no longer occurring. Yet Whole Foods plans to stop selling all Atlantic Cod by 2013? How does that help a fishery that is doing the right thing? The solution is not oversimplifying things for consumers. Consumers readily purchase items like cheeses, meats, wines and coffee's marketed by pedrigrees vastly more complex than red/yellow/green. Whole Foods should stand up for fisheries and fishermen who are doing the right thing and they will also be standing up for consumers. Tell consumers where the fish is from, how it was caught, the state of the fishery (increasing or decreasing stock) and let them make their own choices. Yes it can be confusing to be a seafood consumer who cares. Unfortunately the red/yellow/green oversimplifies important issues to the detriment of the consumer and to fisheries that have made the hard choices but are now seeing positive results from fishing effort reductions.
09/14/2010 2:31:56 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Hey Sean, Thanks for your comments. You raised a number of topics. First, we source locally caught and farmed seafood as much as possible. Furthermore, the new seafood rating program in our stores is based upon the sustainability criteria of our partners, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium. The criteria do not address carbon footprint at this time. While we continue to source as much local seafood as we can, we’ll look more into carbon footprint in the future. However, my understanding is that evaluating carbon footprint is often greatly oversimplified. You can’t just look at how far the final product traveled (i.e. distance) from point of catch to point of sale to assess the carbon footprint. The energy costs associated with various methods of production, how products are stored (fresh vs. frozen), and exactly how they’re transported (plane vs. ship), etc., all contribute to the carbon footprint. At this time, we don’t have all the data available to fully evaluate the carbon footprint of all seafood products. In the meantime, we work hard to address other sustainability concerns, such as the status of the fish population, bycatch, etc.   Please understand that while a final rating is represented by one simple color, there’s peer reviewed research behind each rating. Since it’s our partnering organizations that do the ratings, I passed your comment about cod onto Blue Ocean Institute. Here’s what they had to say:   Our color-coded seafood rankings represent extensive research that is peer-reviewed for scientific accuracy and then displayed online for full transparency. We use a quantitative ranking system to examine 5 core points (each with 8 sub-questions or 'points of adjustment'), and the final numeric score is translated into a corresponding color. Consumers can rest assured that our easy-to-use system represents authoritative science.   Looking at our comprehensive report for Atlantic Cod, we do point out that Gulf of Maine spawning biomass has increased in recent years (see "Abundance" in our cod report: http://blueocean.org/seafood/seafood-view?spc_id=56). However, considering the population status in other parts of Atlantic Cod's range (e.g., George's Bank), the improvements in the Gulf of Maine aren't currently enough to elevate the Atlantic Cod ranking above a red. As with all of our seafood, as new information on populations becomes available, we will factor it into our reports.   To get more info on our rankings, including full reports and details on our methodology, please visit: http://blueocean.org/seafood. If you have any outstanding questions, don't hesitate to contact us at info@blueocean.org.
09/14/2010 2:33:29 PM CDT
Evan says ...
I really admire any company that's going to put a red badge that says "Avoid" on their product because it's not an environmentally friendly choice.
09/14/2010 2:36:20 PM CDT
anonymous says ...
Are the reports from your farmed salmon producers which show that they meet your buying standards publicly available? I would love to get them if they are available and if not, I think its a bad decision for Seafood Watch to give you guys a free pass on farmed salmon. Thanks!
09/14/2010 9:54:58 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
<p>Thanks for your question, anonymous. No, audit reports are not publicly available. Third-party auditors are responsible for evaluating farming practices and all company details to ensure that they meet our farmed seafood standards. Contracts between auditors and suppliers require that auditors maintain the confidentiality of the client’s business information. This is similar to how if you were audited by the IRS, the IRS would decide if your taxes were filed properly, but your personal tax information would not be available to the public. </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whole Foods Market has developed industry-leading standards for aquaculture (fish farming) with strict requirements for each farm that supplies Whole Foods Market. We require annual third-party audits of each and every farm that raises fish and shrimp that will be sold in our stores.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the work we've already done on farmed seafood standards, our partnerships with Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA, who runs Seafood Watch) and Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) are specifically focused on wild-caught seafood. These organizations have not "given us a pass" on farmed salmon nor any other farmed seafood. Their programs evaluate general practices in fish farming, rather than evaluate specific, individual farms, and therefore do not meet our needs for farm-by-farm assessments with third-party verification.</p>
09/14/2010 9:57:42 PM CDT
Erick Troutstream says ...
Gotta love seeing a large company take the lead in shifting a huge industry. Nice work Whole Foods and nice work Carrie B.
09/15/2010 12:18:29 AM CDT
M'lou Arnett says ...
This is great. I have the Seafood Guide App on my iPhone (from Monterrey Bay Aquarium) but it's not completely comprehensive in that the description of the seafood in the store/restaurant isn't always a direct match for a seafood on the list. By having Whole Foods use the list to ensure that their offerings are "acceptable" will make it so much easier when I select seafood for home consumption. Now, I just need a Whole Foods to open up near my house so I don't have to burn gas with 30 minutes of driving each way to get sustainable fish!
09/15/2010 6:47:36 PM CDT
Ida says ...
This is the right thing to do, period. And now you have the opportunity to educate people who have not learned about fish. Somebody has a soul.
09/15/2010 8:15:49 PM CDT
Nancy Chen says ...
Thank you for your seafood sustainability work; it is much appreciated. My family has no easy way of selecting safe, quality fish, and we trust and rely on Whole Foods to do this for us. I only buy fish from Whole Foods.
09/15/2010 9:44:27 PM CDT
andrew davis says ...
wait a minute. you are congratulating yourself for your forward thinking regarding fish population sustainability, but not until 2013? come on, these problems are very serious. get with it, whole foods. we all love you but you need to change this policy as of soon. april 2013 is over 2.5 yrs from now. that is a lot of dead, endangered patagonian toothfish, turtles, and porpoise, among other over-fished stocks and by-kills caused by greedy fishing practices. You have, potentially, a loud voice in this conflict and a stronger voice against over-fishing and unkind fishing could change things a lot faster.
09/15/2010 9:50:51 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Thanks for your comment, Andrew. It’s great to see people fired up about these issues. We’re fired up about this stuff too and at the same time we’re working hard to combine our ambitious goals for a sustainable seafood market with efforts to make lasting changes in fisheries without compromising long-term partnerships and livelihoods when possible. I’d like to clarify a few things. First, we’re actually starting to phase out the red-rated species and fisheries sooner than 2013. &nbsp; Here’s the timeline: All swordfish and tuna from red-rated fisheries will be eliminated from seafood counters by Earth Day 2011. And by Earth Day 2012, all other seafood from red-rated fisheries will be discontinued with the exception of Atlantic cod and sole, which will be sold through Earth Day 2013. We’re giving a bit of extra time for a few of these species because we need to see if changes can be made to improve fishing practices. As I said in the blog, some of these fishermen have worked with us for many years so it’s a partnership and a process that takes a little time to change. As much as we might want change to happen immediately, it can’t always happen overnight. We care about the fishermen that have worked with us for years and we want to see how we can work together to make improvements. &nbsp; Second, we don’t sell endangered Patagonian toothfish. The only Patagonian toothfish we sell is from the MSC-certified fishery, which is a separate, distinct population, which is not endangered.
09/15/2010 9:52:46 PM CDT
Pam Howard says ...
Love this!!! I am always unsure of many fishes, so I tend to stick with the ones I know are safe. This will help me branch out!
09/16/2010 7:53:27 AM CDT
lee caleca says ...
Some corporate hypocrisy going on here. If Red is not sustainable, why not get rid of it now?
09/16/2010 8:30:19 AM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Hi Lee. I think my response to Andrew Davis (see above) applies to you as well. Please check it out.
09/16/2010 8:32:56 AM CDT
alicia says ...
Great! This is true corporate responsibility. Thank you. I just may shop at "Whole paycheck" even more often than I already do. :)
09/16/2010 8:36:37 AM CDT
Joan says ...
this is terrific -- yay for Whole Foods.
09/16/2010 2:37:47 PM CDT
Krista says ...
I am very concerned that Whole Foods has choosen to take the word of Monterey Bay Aquarium as gospel relating to Oregon wild caught salmon. Salmon is a highly regulated fishery on the West Coast. The Oregon commercial fishery has suffered from two closures and restrictions. This year they were allowed to harvest for about half of the days of a typical season. The red-avoid listing issued by Monterrey Bay Aquarium and now practiced by Whole Foods has hurt the industry and totally confused consumers. Oregon wild caught fish are some of the most premium fish in the world. Please do more research by contacting the Oregon Salmon Commission and the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Not only is this hurtful to our local economy, it also concerns me that Whole Foods would not be take more precautions to avoid confusing its loyal consumers.
09/16/2010 6:13:34 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Thank you for writing in, Krista. For this program, we are relying upon the fishery research and ratings by our partnering organizations, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium. I forwarded your comment to the aquarium and here’s what they had to say: &nbsp; The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommendations draw a clear distinction between Oregon-caught salmon from the Columbia River (landed north of Cape Falcon – a “good alternative” because Columbia fish stocks are in moderately healthy condition) and salmon from the Sacramento River (landed south of Cape Falcon – fish to “avoid” because of the precarious state of the fish stocks). The distinction – and the science behind it – is available online at http://bit.ly/9gwhN. The key factor is that Sacramento River fall-run Chinook, which support fisheries in California and most of Oregon, are at a record low abundance and have failed to meet projected escapement goals for three consecutive years. The decision to open the fishery this year was based on another forecast that the fishery would meet its escapement goals in 2010. In our view, a precautionary approach requires demonstrated evidence of improvement, not a projection or forecast of improvement, before you reopen a fishery – especially one in as much trouble as Pacific salmon. &nbsp; We encourage you to contact the aquarium with any specific points you’d like to discuss about a fishery: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/sg/sg_fb_mailroom.aspx.
09/16/2010 6:15:51 PM CDT
Sara says ...
This is an excellent idea, consumers are becoming far more active in searching out quality sustainable products. We hope that the E.U will adopt something similar soon. Very brave thing to do I hope it pays off.
09/17/2010 9:50:04 AM CDT
kadre says ...
It's a good start, but why not stop buying/selling the red label immediately? That's another 2.5 years! We need to take action NOW. It's already too late for hundreds of species.
09/17/2010 10:22:23 AM CDT
sam says ...
cod is not "best", it is actually facing serious overfishing. i cannot help but wonder if you label that "best", how seriously can we take any of the labels?
09/17/2010 6:03:55 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Hi Sam, are you thinking of Atlantic cod? Atlantic cod is rated red, but the photo on this blog captures the rating for Pacific cod, which is not overfished. When Pacific cod is caught by bottom longlines, pots, or jigs, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (the rating featured in the photo) gives it a green/best choice rating.
09/17/2010 6:05:39 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Thanks, readers, for supporting our efforts!
09/20/2010 9:30:00 AM CDT
Craig says ...
So are you saying the Chilean Seabass in my local whole foods is MSC certified and not endangered? Also what about posting or having available the mercury levels of the fish you sell if you don't already?
09/20/2010 11:40:38 AM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Hi Craig, yes. The ONLY Chilean seabass we sell at Whole Foods Market stores is from the MSC-certified fishery. Also, all of our stores have brochures with information about mercury, specifying which species are typically lowest in mercury.
09/20/2010 11:42:35 AM CDT