Food

The Results Are In: How Sustainable Is the Seafood Sold at Major U.S. Supermarkets?

Greenpeace just released their Carting Away the Oceans report and Target has topped the list of the most sustainable retailer. See who's trailing them and who's missed the boat.

It's been two years since Greenpeace released our first assessment of the sustainability of seafood sold at major U.S. supermarkets. The scorecard released today marks the fourth installment of the Carting Away the Oceans project, and while last year's leaders have maintained their presence at the top of the chart, they've certainly jostled around a bit.

Target has now taken over the top spot, largely due to a new purchasing policy that resulted in the removal of all farmed salmon products from their stores. This policy is still in nascent stages; word on the street is that Target is now wrestling with other thorny seafood complexes, such as farmed shrimp and tuna. No doubt even more impressive steps are still to come.

Wegmans continues to scale the rankings at an admirable pace, this time taking second place overall. Even though it is by the far the smallest chain appraised by the Carting Away the Oceans in terms of total stores, Wegmans has outdistanced most of the other retailers through their strong policy development and, most recently, their announcement that they will not sell any seafood from the environmentally fragile Ross Sea. This Antarctic body of water is the world's most pristine shallow sea, and Wegmans has publicly announced that they are not interested in selling any seafood that is caught at the expense of this delicate area. At this point, that includes Antarctic toothfish (sold as Chilean sea bass) and krill. I am extraordinarily impressed by Wegmans' stance on this issue - it bespeaks a seafood retailer that is truly taking responsibility for its environmental footprint. Hopefully other retailers will follow Wegmans' lead and stand up to protect the Ross Sea.

Whole Foods and Safeway have also made significant gains. Whole Foods now boasts the most complete seafood policy of any major retailer in the United States - unfortunately, the company continues to sell a great number of red list seafood items. If Whole Foods proves willing to discontinue its sale of Atlantic halibut, hoki, Chilean seabass, and other imperiled species, it will undoubtedly find itself back on top of the charts. Safeway has recently joined forces with the environmental organization FishWise, which is working behind the scenes to help the gargantuan retailer move towards a more sustainable seafood operation. In the short time the two groups have been partnered, Safeway has dropped monkfish and red snapper and pledged to support necessary protection measures for the critically endangered bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico. This is fabulous progress.

Ahold slipped in the overall rankings this time around, but that doesn't mean that the chain isn't making progress. Ahold excels at communicating sustainability information to its consumer base, and now that its purchasing policy is publicly available, it is leading the pack in overall transparency. If Ahold took some steps towards diminishing its red list seafood inventory and stepped up its game in initiative participation - perhaps by appending its name to the “No seafood from the Ross Sea” petition - the company would again be in the running for the brass ring.

In addition to these consistent leaders, some retailers that had been sources for concern have made tremendous progress. A&P has recently taken a flying leap into the seafood sustainability arena, discontinuing many unsustainable species and launching itself upwards by a larger margin than any other retailer since the 2009 Carting Away the Oceans report. Price Chopper, too, has started to engage the issue, and while the chain still slings a shocking variety of unsustainable seafood items - including shark - it has at least begun crafting a sensible seafood sourcing policy.

Trader Joe's -a perennial poor performer in the Carting Away the Oceans rankings - has leaped ahead with a commitment to its customers and to the oceans. Trader Joe's has discontinued orange roughy and red snapper, has begun the process of developing a sustainable seafood policy, and has pledged to redesign their labeling in a more transparent and informative manner. Beyond this, the company has called out the need for marine reserves in fishery management and has promised to use its purchasing dollars to support visionary leadership in industry (such as closed-containment salmon). Their work has only just begun, but it's nice to know that this company, which was once an incorrigible laggard in these areas, in now in the process of becoming a true leader.

Despite the actions of these progressive companies, however, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that there is still a cadre of laggards willfully ignoring the role that they are playing in our ocean's worsening crisis.
Companies like H.E. Butt, Meijer, and Costco have demonstrated absolutely zero interest in these critical issues. Even after nearly three years of entreaty by Greenpeace, these companies have not even deigned to respond to inquiries. This in itself is not the real issue, however; other companies, such as Aldi, continue to work under Greenpeace's radar but have made measureable progress. The true problem is that these three offenders have done nothing to even acknowledge - let alone to mitigate - the damage that their business operations are doing to the environment.

Publix, SUPERVALU, and Giant Eagle are certainly no stars in this contest - both companies continue to refuse any sort of public acknowledgement of their need to address seafood sustainability - but at least they have begun to address the issue through closed partnerships with other NGOs. Publix is now working with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) and the Ocean Conservancy, while SUPERVALU and Giant Eagle have entered into partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Virtually no information has yet been made available to outside parties as to the nature or timeline of these arrangements, however, which exasperates many concerned customers and environmental advocates alike.

Greenpeace calls upon all seafood retailers to enact strong, effective, sustainable seafood policies that will reduce pressure on flagging fish stocks and help heal our ailing oceans. Retailers must also use their massive buying power to leverage positive change in our oceans and to support governmental initiatives that will create marine protected areas (MPAs) and other measures integral to a sensible, ecosystem-based fisheries management approach. Lastly, responsible retailers should demonstrate their commitment to this process by removing key red list species from their inventories immediately. If we are to save our oceans from destruction by over-exploitation, we cannot continue to sell unsustainable species like shark, orange roughy, and hoki. There is a better way to sell seafood, and it is time for progressive retailers to take the reins and lead the industry away from the negligent practices that have brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

Consumers deserve to be able to purchase seafood from retailers that care about the condition of our oceans and that properly steward our marine resources. The days of selling fish with no regard for the environment are over. Companies have two choices-they can implement strong seafood policies and become leaders, or they can ignore reality and continue their unsustainable seafood practices until many popular seafood items are no longer available. And increasingly, if they choose the latter course, they will reap the wrath of a consumer public that has simply had enough.
 

Casson Trenor is Senior Markets Campaigner with Greenpeace USA, where he spearheads the organization's efforts to hold restaurants and supermarkets accountable for their seafood sustainability practices and to help educate the public about the global fisheries crisis. He is the author of Sustainable Sushi.