Seafood Sustainability FAQ

The Whole Foods Market Approach

Source as much Marine Stewardship Council certified sustainable seafood as possible

Back in 1999 Whole Foods Market was the first U.S. retailer to collaborate with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and each year we continue to offer our customers more and more MSC-certified seafood options. Over a decade later we still view the MSC as the world’s leading certification body for sustainable wild-caught seafood and our collaboration with them remains strong. We support the MSC because they use a multi-stakeholder, international, market-based approach to provide incentives for fisheries to address key issues such as overfishing and bycatch. Their standards are strong and certification is based upon third-party certification, including chain of custody. This means that the fish you see in our stores with an MSC-certified label on it actually came from the MSC-certified fishery.

The MSC is continually developing its program and working to make certification available to a wider array of fisheries, including those in developing countries. For over a decade Whole Foods Market has supported their efforts. Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods Market’s Global Vice President for Quality Standards and Public Affairs serves on the MSC Stakeholder Council and for years prior, she was a member of the Board of Trustees.

Look for the blue MSC ecolabel identifying wild-caught seafood products that are MSC-certified.

When MSC-certified options are not available, give customers transparent information, let them vote with their dollars, and commit to further change

In addition to offering MSC-certified sustainable seafood, we are doing even more. Over the last decade, we stopped selling especially vulnerable 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).

And in partnership with non-profit organizations, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium, we present color-coded sustainability ratings for all non-MSC certified wild-caught seafood in all our seafood cases.  We’re proud to be the first national retailer to have such an extensive sustainability-rating program in all of our stores. Armed with information, our shoppers can make fully informed choices about their seafood.

But our commitment to having fully sustainable seafood departments goes even further. As of Earth Day 2012, we eliminated all wild-caught seafood from red-rated fisheries from our seafood departments. A red rating means that the fish population is at low levels of abundance and is caught in ways that cause serious harm to habitat or other marine life. Now, when customers visit the seafood department at Whole Foods Market stores, any choice is a responsible one—whether it’s MSC-certified, or green or yellow-rated wild caught seafood.  With these efforts, we are closer to our goal of moving our stores—and the seafood industry as a whole—toward healthier oceans.

Set the bar high with Responsibly Farmed™ Seafood

There’s no doubt about it. Whole Foods Market’s farmed seafood (aquaculture) standards remain the highest in the industry. The standards prohibit use of antibiotics, added growth hormones, added preservatives like sulfites and phosphates, genetically-modified seafood, and land animal by-products in feed. Our standards require that producers protect water quality, wildlife, and ecosystems. And we require third-party audits and traceability from hatchery to market. Look for the “Responsibly Farmed” logo, indicating that the farmed seafood meets these high standards.

Learn more about our Quality Standards for Farmed Seafood.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Seafood

Why do we need sustainable seafood?

Today, 80 percent of the world's marine populations are fully fished, over-exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. With seafood growing in demand, it’s critical that sustainable fishing practices are followed if wild-caught seafood is going to be available in the future and if farmed seafood is going to be able to supplement wild fish supplies. Whole Foods Market is committed to working with organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Blue Ocean Institute, and Monterey Bay Aquarium to bring advance the market for sustainable seafood.

What makes Whole Foods Market’s seafood different from other seafood?

Whole Foods Market works harder than any other retailer to source seafood from responsibly managed fish farms and abundant, well-managed wild-capture fisheries. This means that we seek fisheries that keep fish populations abundant, rather allowing overfishing to occur. It also means that in the process of fishing or farming, impacts on the ecosystem are minimized. In contrast, other seafood may not be sourced from farms or fisheries taking these kinds of measures. We’re committed to working towards sourcing all of our seafood from well-managed farms and fisheries.

Does sustainable seafood taste any different?

This may depend upon the individual fish. For instance, MSC-certified sustainable wild Alaska salmon has a much different flavor profile than farm-raised salmon.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Certification

MSC logoHow does a fishery become MSC-certified?

The MSC program is voluntary and any fishery can try to become certified, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll pass. The MSC standards and process are strict and rigorous. To assess if a fishery can meet the MSC standards, a team of experts from an independent, third-party certification agency evaluates the fishery to see if the fish population targeted is maintained at healthy levels, the ecosystem is intact, and that the fishery management system is effective.

How long does MSC certification last?

The certification lasts five years with an annual audit by the certifier to ensure that the fishery continues to meet certification requirements.

Can farmed fish qualify for certification?

The MSC program was developed for marine capture fisheries, and the MSC has decided not to cover aquaculture certification.

Wild Species Ranking Program

Who are Whole Foods Market’s partnering organizations, the Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA)?

Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) are the leading non-governmental, non-profit seafood sustainability organizations and our honored partners for this new program. BOI is led by Dr. Carl Safina, world renowned author, lecturer and marine ecologist. They work to inspire a closer relationship with the sea and use a variety of tools including the Seafood Miniguide, FishPhone, iPhone app and their chef culinary curriculum to help educate people about the differences among seafood choices in the marketplace. MBA is ranked the top aquarium in the U.S. With their Seafood Watch program, pocket guides and iPhone app they work to transform the seafood market in ways that support sustainable fishery practices and fish-farming operations.

Why is Whole Foods Market only partnering with the Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) and not other organizations?

We selected these partners because they are highly respected for the strength of their science-based seafood programs. Both groups are unique for their transparent ranking methods and both groups post their fishery evaluations online so that anyone can see them. While our Canadian stores are partnering with SeaChoice due to the popularity and visibility of that organization in Canada, SeaChoice color ratings are entirely based on the MBA program.

Why hasn’t Whole Foods Market developed its own standards for wild-caught seafood, like you have for farmed fish?

Our customers are eager to know, without delay, if the wild-caught seafood we sell comes from sustainable fisheries. Given the large number of wild-caught species that we offer (and the wide range of fisheries from which the species are sourced), rather than creating our own standards we believe partnering with organizations (Marine Stewardship Council, Blue Ocean Institute, and Monterey Bay Aquarium) who already have well-established, great systems for evaluating wild capture fisheries, is the most efficient and robust approach.

Why doesn’t Whole Foods Market also use Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) or Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (MBA) color rankings for farmed seafood in the seafood departments?

We have already developed industry-leading standards for aquaculture (fish farming) with strict requirements for each farm that supplies Whole Foods Market. Our partners, BOI and MBA, have evaluated general practices in fish farming, but do not evaluate individual farms and thus cannot fulfill our unique needs for ranking farmed seafood.

Why is some wild-caught seafood listed as “not yet rated?”

In some cases we may be sourcing a species that our partners, Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), have not yet rated or are sourcing from a different fishery than what they have evaluated. Until our partners can complete the research and rankings for these fisheries so that the color rankings reflect exactly what we’re selling, these items will display a “not yet rated” tag in the case.

Why don’t Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) products carry a color ranking?

The MSC has the most in depth and strict process for evaluating a fishery to determine if it's sustainable. Our partners, Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) do not need to replicate this process by conducting their own evaluations of all MSC-certified fisheries. This new color ranking program provides sustainability information for fisheries not yet certified by the MSC. To help customers make the best choices, it is important for all seafood from MSC-certified fisheries to display the MSC logo.

Why are green-ranked fisheries so important?

Not only do they help ensure a good supply of seafood going forward, but green-ranked fisheries are important because they demonstrate that fish populations can be healthy and that fisheries can be sustainably managed. By sourcing from green-ranked fisheries, we support the people and procurement systems involved in sustainable seafood.

Aquaculture

What is the benefit of farmed seafood at Whole Foods Market?

The farmed seafood at Whole Foods Market not only provides a consistent, high quality, year-round supply of healthy and delicious protein, it is also raised by farmers working hard to become the leaders in environmentally responsible aquaculture.

How did we create our Aquaculture (farmed seafood) standards?

For two full years, we conducted extensive research on the aquaculture industry, including review of all the best available science, consultation with the top environmental organizations, and visits to the most innovative farms worldwide to learn and consult with the farmers. We analyzed the issues associated with farmed seafood production in great depth, including the use of marine resources in feed, impacts on predator populations and risks associated with escaped fish, pollution, and disease. From there, we used all this research and stakeholder input to create standards that only the very best farms can meet.

How do we know that the standards are being met?

Our supplier partners must pass annual independent third-party audits to ensure that our standards are being met. Only farms that pass their annual audits may sell their farmed seafood to Whole Foods Market.

Why sell farmed salmon when we’ve heard about problems with salmon farms?

Instead of ignoring the problems in the industry, we decided that we would work to create an incentive for improvement by developing an extensive set of strict standards for farmed salmon production and by providing a market for producers who work hard to meet them. All of our farmed salmon must meet our Quality Standards and carry the “Responsibly Farmed” logo in order to be sold in our stores.

What does the Responsibly Farmed™ logo stand for?

The Whole Foods Market® “Responsibly Farmed” logo means that the product meets our strict Whole Foods Market Quality Standards for finfish and shrimp. No other grocery store or fish market has standards like ours for keeping farmed seafood healthy and for protecting the environment. The logo also means that the product has been third-party verified to ensure our standards are being met.

Is our farm-raised seafood organic?

In our U.S. stores we have chosen not to sell “organic” farmed fish until the United States establishes organic standards for aquaculture and there is a “USDA Organic” label in place for organic farmed fish. This is our way of maintaining the integrity of the organic label. We’ve contributed to the policy-setting process for national organic standards for farm-raised seafood in an effort to encourage the strongest organic standards possible.