Today marks the release of Greenpeace USA’s fifth Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report, our periodic snapshot of seafood sustainability in the US grocery sector.
Over the past three years, this report has tracked a current of progress and innovation emanating throughout the seafood industry.
There have been significant improvements that merit celebration, but there is much that still must be done if we are to attain a truly sustainable seafood retail industry.
We need a real paradigm shift in how we think about seafood. Most seafood merchants continue to focus on large, predatory fish such as cod, sharks, and tuna, while globally, populations of these ecologically vital animals have dropped by as much as 90 percent.
Bycatch remains a scandalous problem: each day, an enormous portion of the world’s total seafood catch is tossed over the sides of fishing boats due to inefficient, indiscriminate fishing methods. Less than one percent of the world’s oceans have been set aside as fully protected marine reserves, and highly destructive bottom trawl fisheries are still widely used.
Thankfully, we are starting to see some of the largest players in seafood retail make more responsible decisions in the name of ocean conservation. Through progressive policy development, public support for conservation measures, and the elimination of unsustainable seafood inventory items, a conventional mega-grocer – Safeway – has captured the top spot in the CATO rankings from the previous standard-bearer, the Target Corporation. In doing so, Safeway has underscored the reality that supermarkets from all sectors can and must incorporate sustainability into their seafood operations as the industry evolves.
Indeed, we have now seen the CATO pole position held by companies representing all three grocery sectors included in this report: specialty (Whole Foods twice in 2008 and Wegmans in 2009), big-box (Target in 2010), and conventional (Safeway in 2011).
There are encouraging larger trends as well, as leading US retailers are moving away some of the world’s most destructive fisheries. Over the past year, store after store discontinued the sale of orange roughy.
In fact, only eight companies – Delhaize America, Giant Eagle, Kroger, Meijer, Price Chopper, Publix, SUPERVALU, and Winn-Dixie – continue to stock this species. Many of these stores are in the bottom half of the CATO rankings; In fact, with the notable exceptions of Price Chopper and Delhaize, these stores are the bottom six members of the 2011 CATO ranking list. (Note: Safeway, too, has discontinued purchasing orange roughy, but at the time of this writing, the company is still in the process of selling off what remains in its product stream.)
We are also witnessing an increased level of participation by seafood retail companies in political conservation efforts. Perhaps most impressively, two retailers – Wegmans and Safeway – have publicly called for the protection of the Ross Sea (the last relatively pristine oceanic ecosystem left on the planet) as a marine reserve.
Other companies have made progress as well. Harris Teeter has increased its score significantly, largely due to a new online seafood information database aimed at increasing transparency for customers. Whole Foods has pledged to end its sale of all unsustainable seafood (minus a few Atlantic species) by Earth Day 2012. Target, Price Chopper, and Walmart have all stopped selling Chilean sea bass (the more palatable name for two of the apex predators of the Southern Ocean, the Patagonian and the Antarctic toothfish); A&P and Ahold have dropped additional red list items; and H-E-B has leapfrogged numerous other companies with a massive jump of 3.6 points in only one year – the largest single-year increase demonstrated by any company in the history of this project.
Unfortunately, we still have a significant number of disinterested and irresponsible companies to contend with. Companies like Winn-Dixie and Meijer still have yet to demonstrate even the most cursory interest in seafood sustainability. Other companies, like SUPERVALU and Publix, may be making some sort of progress, but refuse to discuss the issue publicly and have yet to discontinue any of the multitude of red list items that they sell. With so much progress demonstrated by so many other companies in recent months, it’s difficult to support these laggard retailers that are continuing to do such harm to our planet.
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.
Download the report: Carting Away the Oceans