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Next Up: Standards for Farmed Oysters, Clams and Mussels

The last few years have been busy ones for the Seafood Quality Standards team at Whole Foods Market. We implemented new aquaculture standards for farmed finfish and shrimp and we launched our wild species ranking program — making our seafood cases more colorful and rich with information. Now the wild-caught seafood in our fresh cases carry either the MSC-certified label to indicate the seafood is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, or if it’s not certified, the color-coded sustainability status rankings by partnering organizations, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium. Our farmed finfish and shrimp carry our Responsibly Farmed logo, indicating that the farms have been third-party audited to ensure that our strict aquaculture standards are being met. But we’re not done yet. In our effort to move closer to fully sustainable seafood departments, we’ve got one group of seafood left to cover: farmed bivalve molluscs—oysters, clams and mussels. That’s just a technical way of saying farmed shellfish, but in an effort not confuse these animals with other shellfish like shrimp and lobster, we’re calling them by their real names—bivalve molluscs (or for the non-scientific spelling: “mollusks”).What does developing new standards entail, anyway? The process begins with a lot of research. As the seafood quality standards coordinator, the first thing I do is get my hands on stacks of published literature on shellfish science. Then I go to the source and talk with the scientists who published the papers. I spoke with experts in the US, Canada, Spain and New Zealand to name a few. I also attended the National Shellfisheries Association conference in Baltimore where shellfish scientists gather to share and discuss their work. One-on-one meetings with scientists on the topics of ecosystem carrying capacity and benthic impacts were the highlights. For me, the rewarding part of this process is that we really go into depth on all the issues we cover, ensuring that we understand the research and the repercussions of the decisions that we make for our supplier partners. When I needed to better understand how oyster seed is bred at the hatchery, for example, I drove to Washington’s Olympic peninsula and spent hours with Joth Davis, fisheries scientist at Taylor Hatchery. Fortunately, we don’t just sit at our desks. A big part of standards development takes place at the farms, where we spend hours with growers learning about the process of growing farmed molluscs. So far this standards process has taken me to farms in Washington, California, Connecticut, Prince Edward Island, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland and Florida, to name a few sites. When I’m lucky, others on our team will join me. Special trips include working with scientists, both local and from afar. As part of our work to develop standards for benthic impacts from farming — i.e., to ensure the health of sediments under and near the farm sites — I traveled to a Chesapeake Bay oyster farm with Jon Grant from Dalhousie University to collect and analyze sediment samples. We’re interested because even though farmed molluscs do not receive formulated feed like some other types of farmed seafood, organic loading (build-up of carbon-based waste from animal/plant matter) can still occur.  Many scientists agree that while cultured molluscs provide benefits to ecosystems, organic loading to the sediments is something to avoid. We had a great opportunity to meet up with Jeff Cornwell from the University of Maryland, who explained his research to us. Once we digest all the info we’ve collected, we draft standards and review them internally through a task force that includes buyers and the standards development team. That’s where we are right now. Next, we’ll request feedback from a range of experts, including scientists, producers and environmental groups. From there we’ll continue to refine the standards until they’re complete. It’s a long, involved process. Ultimately, we aim for standards that set the bar high for aquaculture performance and are the result of a highly collaborative process. So, when you start seeing our logo for Responsibly Farmed seafood on clams, oysters and mussels sometime next year, you’ll have an understanding of all the work that goes into developing our standards.