4 Surprising Places You Should Never Buy Seafood From


This is the first installment in Casson Trenor's monthly column, 4 Oceans, about protecting our fisheries and ocean health through sustainable seafood.

In 2009, Americans spent over $75 billion on seafood. That's more than a big pile of cash -- it's a tremendous communication tool. Truly, when that kind of money is talking, the whole world listens.

As such, it's important to be very careful about what message we transmit through this massive microphone. When we spend our dollars at seafood merchants that are pursuing business models which take environmental issues into account, we offer these purveyors financial incentive to continue along this path. On the other hand, if we buy pirate-caught Chilean sea bass from a seafood merchant that has no compunction about selling it, we reward this type of nefarious behavior and communicate to the marketplace at large that we, the consumers, don't particularly care about the ramifications of our seafood choices.

Here is a quick-and-dirty list of four seafood retailers that have adopted particularly reprehensible practices in their quest for fish-driven profit. If we shift our purchasing dollars away from companies like this and toward competitors that operate under a more eco-sensitive paradigm, perhaps we can encourage these operators to change their ways.

1. Costco

Costco is the largest retail-sector purchaser of seafood in North America. The discount giant turns a tremendous amount of profit on the bounty of oceans by compromising on prices in the name of gargantuan volume. Unfortunately, this market strategy can lead to massive environmental fallout.

Numerous environmental groups, such as the Mangrove Action Project and a number of Canadian anti-salmon farming organizations, have spoken out against Costco's seafood operation in recent years. Greenpeace, too, has been campaigning on this issue since June 2010, highlighting the company's lack of a comprehensive sustainable seafood policy and willingness to sell unsustainable products as long as they are certified by a "reputable" body (Costco has conveniently left this adjective undefined).

Costco has recently removed a number of key unsustainable species from its shelves, but the company refuses to elaborate on its policy or adopt any strict scientific benchmarks in its sourcing practices, and thus these dubious seafood items may yet reappear in Costco's freezers.

2. Legal Seafood

This venerable New England seafood market and restaurant chain recently announced that it will host a $115-a-plate dinner designed specifically to serve "blacklisted" fish -- that is, seafood items that are commonly considered to be unsustainable -- in an effort to educate the public. The press release for the event states that, "The [seafood sustainability] discussion is flawed by outdated scientific findings that unfairly turn the public against certain species of fish. In a direct effort to counter existing misinformation about sustainability, the menu for this event is deliberately designed to serve what is commonly believed to be outlawed or blacklisted fish."

Diners will be served Atlantic cod, haddock and tiger shrimp -- three items that are consistently frowned upon within the sustainable seafood community.

This tactic baffles me. It seems like Legal Seafood is encouraging consumers to mistrust the work and guidance of any number of scientists, environmental organizations, and progressive fishermen and aquaculturists around the globe. Why would scientists be trying to steer people away from safe, responsibly caught fish?

It is true that outdated data is a concern -- the dynamic nature of the ocean means we're always playing catch-up -- but who is more likely to offer a precautionary and wise course of action: a scientist who remains financially unaffected by the vicissitudes of the seafood market, or a fishmonger who is quite clearly benefiting (in the short run) from the sale of as much fish as he can get his hands on?

In defense of this event, Roger Berkowitz, the owner of Legal Seafood, said that "seafood assessments from the National Marine Fisheries and NOAA are done with trawlers, with broken pieces of equipment not quite giving accurate assessments... My mission is to get accurate science in front of people."

Right. Because, clearly, Legal Seafood is pro-science -- whereas all these fishery scientists that conduct stock assessments, and the environmental groups that use these scientific findings as the basis for their sustainability recommendations, well, they're obviously doing everything they can to obscure reality and to keep seafood consumers in the dark. Good thing we have Legal Seafood to feed us farmed tiger shrimp and show us the light.

3. Nobu

The Nobu sushi empire is the fantastically successful joint venture of renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the Raging Bull himself, Robert De Niro, and several other partners. The chain boasts 24 locations that dot the most chic neighborhoods of many of the world's most glamorous cities, and a menu replete with dozens of price tags that would make the average recession-choked American both green with envy and red with rage.

Nobu sells a tremendous amount of endangered bluefin tuna, and despite repeated warnings about the looming commercial extinction of this majestic fish from a vast international amalgamation of scientists, conservation organizations, foodies, bloggers, aquaria, filmmakers, actors, and even a European prince, Nobu refuses to change its practices. There is even a documentary, The End of the Line (based on the excellent book by Charles Clover), that highlights the company's intransigence.

As a true leader in the sushi industry, Nobu must change its practices and embrace some modicum of corporate responsibility. If Nobu were to drop bluefin and adopt a sustainable business model, it would be in the interest of the environmental community to promote the restaurant and encourage consumers to patronize it.

4. H.E.B.

The recalcitrance of the H.E. Butt Company is not an issue for consumers in most of North America, but in Texas and northern Mexico, H.E.B. is a force to be reckoned with. Regardless of its geographic restrictions, tens of thousands of consumers visit a H.E.B. grocery store on any given day -- and the company has managed to come in dead last in every seafood scorecard Greenpeace USA has ever released.

To make matters worse, while many other retailers are beginning to take steps toward sustainability by developing rigorous sourcing policies or partnering with environmental watchdogs like the Monterey Bay Aquarium or FishWise, H.E.B continues to sprint blindly ahead into the void, refusing to respond to any entreaties by the environmental or scientific communities to change its ways. Unsustainable species festoon the seafood section and transparency at point-of-sale is virtually nonexistent. At H.E.B., willful ignorance continues to be standard operating procedure.

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