Shopping for sustainable seafood has just gotten easier. Starting this Earth Day (April 22nd), Whole Foods Market will no longer sell so-called “red-rated” fish. This term refers to fish that have been found to be overfished, caught in ecologically damaging ways or with a high instance of by-catch (accidental catch of other species). By doing so, Whole Foods is beating its self-imposed deadline by a year.
Whole Foods worked alongside the nonprofit organizations Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to determine what seafood to take out of their ice chests for good. These organizations rate seafood with symbolic colors (green, yellow and red) for ecological sustainability as well as contamination levels of toxins such as mercury or PCBs.
The color rating system was designed to tell consumers about the state of the fishery for each commercially available fish species. Green-rated species are relatively abundant and caught in environmentally friendly ways. Yellow-rated species are those for which there is some concern but are considered the next best option.
At Whole Foods, shoppers will no longer be able to purchase Atlantic halibut, grey sole, skate, and others, in addition to bluefin tuna and orange roughy which were removed by the retailer years ago. Instead, the staff will recommend more sustainable alternatives such as the green-rated Pacific halibut and yellow-rated Dover sole and Atlantic flounder.
Walmart (and their sister company Sam’s Club), BJ’s Wholesale Club and Supervalu (who run Albertsons among others) are adopting similar measures, such as having all of their suppliers certified as sustainable by a third party using Marine Stewardship Council, World Wildlife Fund Fishery Improvement Projects, or equivalent standards.
All of these companies, including Whole Foods, are also working to offer sustainable farm-raised seafood. Evaluating farm-raised seafood is a trickier task, because there are no national or international guidelines. There are similar third party certification groups, such as Best Aquaculture Practices, that look into two forms of pollution that can result from poorly-run aquaculture facilities: water pollution and genetic pollution.
According to the Best Aquaculture Practices, sustainable seafood farms must:
-limit the use of chemicals such as those used to control disease or to promote spawning;
-provide fish plenty of room to swim because overcrowding can lead to disease and excess excrement;
-implement safeguards that prevent farmed fish from escaping or affecting wild fish by upsetting the natural biodiversity.
In the 2012 documentary Fish Meat: Choose Your Farm Wisely, Ted Caplow, an environmental engineer, and Andy Danylchuk, a fish ecologist, visit fish farms in the Mediterranean to observe the spectrum of aquaculture techniques used today. They are on a search for the most sustainable farms. They begin offshore, before eventually heading inland.
The farming techniques in the film range from a centuries-old carp pond nestled in the mountains to a floating tuna ranch dependent on modern technology such as spotter planes and scuba gear.
Ted and Andy found that, in Turkey, the oldest techniques were also the most sustainable ones. These more established forms of aquaculture were the most efficient, with fish requiring less feed and a smaller waste stream.
Over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted, making it critical that we learn the best aquaculture methods, to meet the ever-growing demand for seafood. 2012 is the first year that more than half of the seafood we consume worldwide is farmed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). But, as Fish Meat points out, there are a multitude of factors that go into making a fish farm sustainable.
There is no simple answer when it comes to deciding to buy wild or farmed seafood. Each fishery and farm must be evaluated individually. Luckily for consumers, programs such as Seafood Watch and the Blue Oceans Institute take some of the guesswork out of grocery shopping. And now, thanks to the efforts of Whole Foods, Walmart, BJ’s and Supervalu, we are moving a bit closer to transparency for consumers.
Photo: Whole Foods.