Swimming in Greenpeace's Seafood Report

I heard from the Washington office of Greenpeace (GP) yesterday; the environmental activist organization has just released a new report on the continually-shrinking supply of seafood, with a focus on the big supermarket chains.

"Carting Away the Oceans: How Grocery Stores Are Emptying the Seas" is a 75-page document that includes a "supermarket scorecard" of the seafood purchasing practices and policies of 20 supermarket corporations and a "Red List" of 22 species that Greenpeace has identified as "most vulnerable" to overfishing and extinction. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which monitors 600 marine stocks, 52 percent of the world's fish supply is "fully exploited" and seven percent of species are depleted.

Interesting angle, I think to myself. Oceana is the only other environmental NGO that I could think of that has been focusing on the retail sector, with its mercury advisory campaign at supermarket seafood counters.

I'm eager to have a look at GP's take on the retail sector and see how the seafood counters stack up against one another. For the past two-plus years, we've been talking about the state of seafood in this space. We've talked about the reality of mercury and PCB contamination in our favorite fish fillets, ocean-friendly (and not so friendly) species, seafood cheat sheets to keep track and assorted practical tidbits for the seafood shopper.

As I scan the GP seafood scorecard, I'm thinking of you -- Joe and Jane consumer -- trying to make sense of the data in front of me. The top spot on the GP list goes to Whole Foods Market for a "seafood sustainability score" of 36.5 (out of a 100-point maximum) and an overall rating of 4 (out of 10). Tied for second with 35.9 points (and also with a rating of 4) are Ahold USA (Giant, Stop & Shop, Martin's Food Market) and Harris Teeter. Third and fourth place finishers Wegman's and Wal-mart get a rating of 3. (P.S. for all you Trader Joe's fans who buy those convenient flash-frozen fillets; TJ's came in at number 16, with a paltry score of 11.3.)

I stare at these numbers and say out loud: "Wait a minute. The best that American supermarkets can do is a four out of 10?"

My incredulity (but not surprise) prompted an e-mail exchange with GP senior investigator Mark Floegel, who contributed to author Kimberly Wilson's report. Floegel agrees; the lousy results are not surprising.

"It really wasn't a surprise that no one supermarket did well," writes Floegel in an e-mail. "Greenpeace has conducted similar surveys in other countries (UK, Netherlands) and in the initial go-round, retailers in those countries scored poorly. In subsequent surveys, they brought their practices up substantially and we're hoping that happens here as well."

Getting a better score, says Floegel, involves a series of interconnected practices "aimed at encouraging a market for sustainably-sourced seafood. We're asking that they [supermarkets] relay those concerns up the supply chain, that they communicate their sustainability goals to their customers and that they take part in retail industry roundtables and sustainablity efforts. Most important, however, is that they remove unsustainably-fished seafood from their shelves, freezers and fresh cases."

The unsustainably-fished seafood that Floegel refers to is the aforementioned "Red List," a three-tiered list of 22 species; the first tier, considered most at-risk includes: Atlantic halibut, Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian toothfish), hoki, North Atlantic bluefin tuna, orange roughy and shark.

Because I've become accustomed to such "red" and "green" lists compiled by several seafood-minded environmental organizations (Environmental Defense, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Audobon, Blue Ocean Institute, to name a few), I immediately looked for GP's "Green Fish" list, which is not a part of the new report but rather located online as part of its Seafood section.

Unlike the seafood guides of other environmental groups, GP's "Green Fish" list does not include alternatives to over-fished or exploited species; instead, it's a list of industry-specific recommendations for commercial purchasing.

I ask Floegel if GP has a consumer-focused "green fish" shopping guide; here's his response:

"We're not recommending any species of fish to consumers. We think it's more important to create awareness of the negative environmental consequences of overfished species and aquaculture practices. Also, we don't want to put a "seal of approval" on any particular species, because there are really none out there that can stand more fishing pressure."

As I read the in-depth supermarket profiles, I notice the following statement several times: Greenpeace does not endorse any seafood certification program, including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a global nonprofit that offers third-party certification of sustainable fisheries. Over the past few years, sustainably-minded seafood shoppers may have noticed an increasing presence of a blue label on fish wrapping, indicating MSC certification of the fishery from whence that fish came.

What the MSC certification means exactly, writes Brad Ack, MSC's regional director, The Americas, in an e-mail, is an environmental standard that "was developed out of nearly two years of international consultation with leading scientists, academics, environmentalists, industry representatives, government officials and other experts and is consistent with United Nations guidelines."

Presently, there are 28 MSC-certified fisheries around the world (and 72 undergoing assessment), which Ack says have "each gone through exhaustive third-party review backed by extensive science and data in transparent processes that take an average of 15 months. They also undergo annual surveillance audits."

Once certified, explains Ack, "MSC-labeled seafood is fully traceable throughout the supply chain, a critical element in assuring the integrity of the claim to be selling sustainable seafood."

For the consumer, that blue label has come to represent a level of transparency in a very murky marketplace, a symbol of corporate responsibility that instills a sense of security at the checkout line.

Here's GP's argument against MSC and certification programs in general: "Greenpeace believes there is room for improvement among certification schemes such as those developed by MSC and Friend of the Sea. First and foremost, products from depleted fish stocks should not be certified.

"In addition, certified fisheries should have an ecosystem-based management plan in place. Certified products should not come from fisheries that create a threat to vulnerable or endangered species. Certification schemes often fail to address issues of scale, weighing bycatch in terms of percentage instead of the overall
amount - even of protected species."

To recap: GP chooses not to suggest ocean-friendly alternatives to its "Red List," and the group is less than enthusiastic about an internationally recognized third-party certification program that was recently endorsed by the newly formed Conservation Alliance for Sustainable Seafood, a coalition of 14 environmental groups.

When word of the report got out yesterday, Ken Peterson, communications director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium issued a statement, which includes:

"Unlike Greenpeace, we and other members of the Conservation Alliance for Sustainable Seafood recognize and support the work of the Marine Stewardship Council. We recommend that consumers look for and purchase sustainable seafood products with the Marine Stewardship Council blue ecolabel."

It got me thinking: If I'm to infer from Floegel's earlier statement that GP believes that we should give seafood a big global time out (an idea that bears consideration, in my opinion), then why did GP bother to rate supermarket seafood in the first place?

To further muddy the waters, the top-ranked Whole Foods attributes much of its sustainable accomplishments to the MSC program. Says Whole Foods spokesperson Kate Lowery in a press release issued yesterday:

"By ranking us as number one on their supermarket seafood scorecard, Greenpeace has recognized Whole Foods Market as the country's leading retailer of sustainable seafood. We are very pleased with this acknowledgment as we have done more than any other U.S. retailer when it comes to seafood sourcing and quality standards. Even though we are ranked at the top of this list, we acknowledge that we have more work to do to carry out our own mission of doing what's right for our planet and its tenants. Since 1999, we have worked with the Marine Stewardship Council, which has shown that a multi-stakeholder, multi-country market-based approach provides true incentives to fisheries towards achieving true seafood sustainability."

Anyone else scratching their heads? The comments pond awaits your fish food.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 18, 2008; 12:06 PM ET Seafood , Sustainability
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I find the state of seafood depressing, and it doesn't sound like this report is particularly helpful in making sense of it. But with the health benefits of fish being pushed by the medical community, and consumer demand for tasty fish, I'm not surprised (distressed, but not surprised) to regularly see endangered fish like Chilean sea bass in the seafood case at most stores. But if Greenpeace doesn't support what little initiative the industry IS taking, what's their alternative?

Posted by: Culturemaven | June 18, 2008 1:00 PM

Greenpeace's report is not just confusing, and I have read the whole thing, it's also distorted and divisive. In some places it's borderline comical. For one thing the list of species Greenpeace is calling on supermarkets to boycott is not uniform across countries even when the same species is widely sold in all countries. So, if I'm eating Alaska Pollock in the U.S. it's bad but if I'm eating it in Canada it's okay--same fish different dinner table. Not to mention the absurdity of these store rankings are evident throughout the narrative that describes why stores received the rankings they did. For instance, one retailer that failed along with all the others is implementing a 10-point Sustainable Seafood Policy and works with the New England Aquarium, the World Wildlife Fund and the marine Stewardship Council on sustainability issues. To recap--a grocery store chain that is committed to an extensive sustainability policy and is working with no less than three NGO's on this issue gets an "F" for sustainability according to Greenpeace. So, what's next? Well, if their European model is a bellwether Greenpeace will further marginalize itself and turn from writing reports to vandalizing stores--sure an understandable next step when your organization has signed an Accountability Charter that promises its agents will not be involved in "illegal or unethical practices." A "campaigner for Greenpeace" recently wrote to a seafood publication called Intra Fish to say Greenpeace's direct action tactics (vandalism) were "a key instrument" for change and part of an "orchestra" that plays together with WWF, Oceana, MSC, and others. But after a who's who of environmental activists signed on to the Conservation Alliance for Sustainable Seafood's Common Vision statement (that Kim mentioned) and notably absent for the list was Greenpeace... it sounds like their sigin' solo on this one.
National Fisheries Institute

Posted by: Gavin | June 18, 2008 1:50 PM

It was probably my poor communication skills that left Kim scratching her head over why Greenpeace is calling for retail grocers to stop selling the 22 species on our "red list" if we believe the planet's oceans need a time out.

Greenpeace works with shore-based community fishermen all over the world. These folks, like family farmers, have proved themselves to be good stewards of the environment. They know they cannot hit fish stocks too hard or their children and grandchildren won't be able to follow in their footsteps.

The problem on the oceans today is industrial fishing. In the past several decades, massive trawlers, which process their catches at sea and ship them all over the world, are the ones that have driven so many stocks to the point of collapse.

We need to give the most overfished species a time out, but not all species. (We do, however, have to take car how we fish all species.) We also need to establish a series of "marine reserves" around the world, areas off-limits to fishing, so fish will always have areas where they can reproduce without the pressure of fishing.

But to be clear, we think fishing should and must continue. We think family fishermen have given us a model of how that can be done sustainably and we support them.

Mark Floegel

Posted by: Mark Floegel | June 18, 2008 6:48 PM

Nope, not scratching my head because I don't really care where my fish comes from!

Posted by: Kelly Kyle | June 18, 2008 11:28 PM

There's a series of articles here about the positive results that Greenpeace's ranking guides have gotten in several European countries in driving better sustainability policies:


Supermarkets respond to consumer pressure. Ranking guides are a good way to focus that pressure. I'm unsure why the National Fisheries Institute appears so concerned by the prospect of retailers becoming better global citizens by safeguarding our oceans, and ensuring the world has fish for the future.

Posted by: Brian | June 19, 2008 6:00 AM

To sum up: We can't eat commercially caught fish because they practice wholesale slaughter of the seas; and we can't eat farmed fish because of the farming conditions that are somewhat unhealthy.

And I was just getting up to speed incorporating fish into my diet. Damn!

Posted by: Dave | June 19, 2008 7:28 AM

Fish and every other beast and edible plant are here for us to eat. God would not create a world of edible goodness that doesn't last as long as the human race. The entire "endangered species" listings are all well and good until you start displacing human population so a small community of snails can live in an area where they aren't even indigenous to. I'll eat what I want to eat thanks.

Posted by: Sarah | June 19, 2008 11:34 AM

Doesn't God expect us to be good shepards? And if he does, doesn't that imply there are bad shepards? It sure would be nice to live in a world where God takes care of the details; but that would suggest a utopian ideal that never has and never will exist--apart from your superstitious view of heaven. But keep believing. Everyone gets to believe whatever they want. That's the deal. It's just that, when beliefs are the result of self interest and greed, others invariably suffer.

Posted by: Ceres | June 19, 2008 12:07 PM

Isn't there a joke about a man stuck on his roof during a flood. A neighbor in a row boat comes by and offers to help him, but the man says, "No, God loves me and will protect me." And then a helicopter comes by with a lowered rope. But the man says, "No thanks. God will save me."

When the man dies and goes to heaven, he says to God, "Why didn't you save me!" And God replies, "I sent you a rowboat and a helicopter. What more did you want?"

All these foods are here now, but we've had our first and second warnings.

Posted by: mollyjade | June 19, 2008 12:54 PM

Sarah says "God would not create a world of edible goodness that doesn't last as long as the human race."

Isn't it a mite presumptuous to pretend to know God's intentions?


WASHINGTON, D.C.-- Creating "national parks of the sea" may be the only effective way to reverse trends that have left 76 percent of world fish stocks fully- or over-exploited and marine biodiversity at severe risk, according to the new report, Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity, released today by the Worldwatch Institute.

According to Sarah's world view, if God has no further use for the fish that feed us, maybe He has no further use for us.

Posted by: Charley the tuna | June 19, 2008 1:31 PM

Very depressing, Kim, but thanks so much for your continued attention to these extremely important issues. I'm scratching my head about Trader Joe's, because I so often buy frozen seafood there - Pacific halibut and wild-caught salmon, mostly. It is odd, as the report notes, because clearly TJ's market is concerned about these things, and they do source some sustainable fish. Maybe it's worth a campaign there.

Meanwhile I am considering changing jobs to work on this issue, because I am really, really concerned.

(And to Kelly Kyle - you don't care because...? C'mon, it's not all about you!)

Posted by: Reine de Saba | June 19, 2008 1:40 PM

There are many retailers out there that are up and coming doing a better job on sustainability than Whole Foods by the way. I know shops that have 80-90% of their seafood SKU's that are green or amber on MBA. These are the retailers we need to be purchasing our fish from.

Anyone that suggests that we should stop fishing the oceans, or aquaculture need to really consider solutions to the problem, not just focusing on the negatives of these processes, but take a look at those out there that are doing it right.

Look at Hawaii on Tuna, look at Washington on Farmed Salmon. I think there are some fisheries out there that are really trying to grow consumer education, and really stand behind their product. Look at Alaska Seafood for example.

The only way this industry is going to "get" sustainability as a concept is to make it readily available to the masses, not just the niche seafood counters, but the big retailers, at prices that everyone can afford.

Posted by: Shawn | June 19, 2008 2:18 PM

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