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.
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Posted by: Culturemaven | June 18, 2008 1:00 PM
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Posted by: Mark Floegel | June 18, 2008 6:48 PM
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