Whole Foods opts for 'sustainable' seafood

  • Article by: ABBY GOODNOUGH , New York Times
  • Updated: April 21, 2012 - 6:54 PM

Grocer says it won't sell overfished species as of today. "It's totally maddening," one fish trawler said.

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FILE - This Sept. 10, 2010, file photo, shows the seafood counter at Whole Foods Market in Hillsboro, Ore.

Photo: Rick Bowmer, Associated Press - Ap

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GLOUCESTER, MASS. - Standing on the deck of his rusted steel trawler, Naz Sanfilippo fumed about the latest bad news for New England fishermen: a decision by Whole Foods to stop selling any seafood it does not consider sustainable.

Starting Sunday, gray sole and skate, common catches in the region, will no longer appear in the grocery chain's artfully arranged fish cases. Atlantic cod, a New England staple, will be sold only if it is not caught by trawlers, which drag nets across the ocean floor, a much-used method here.

"It's totally maddening," Sanfilippo said. "They're just doing it to make all the green people happy."

Whole Foods says that, in fact, it is doing its part to address the very real problem of overfishing. It is using ratings set by the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The figures are based on such factors as how abundant a species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method damages its habitat.

"Stewardship of the ocean is so important to our customers and to us," said David Pilat, the global seafood buyer for Whole Foods. "We're not necessarily here to tell fishermen how to fish, but on a species like Atlantic cod, we are out there actively saying, 'For Whole Foods Market to buy your cod, the rating has to be favorable.'"

The company had originally planned to stop selling "red-rated" fish next year but moved up its deadline. The other fish it will no longer carry are Atlantic halibut, octopus, sturgeon, tautog, turbot, imported wild shrimp, some species of rockfish, and tuna and swordfish caught in certain areas or by certain methods. (Whole Foods has already stopped selling orange roughy, shark, bluefin tuna and most marlin.)

'We've been murdered'

Although the new policy will affect fishermen nationwide, the reaction from New England may be the unhappiest. The region has more overfished stocks than any other, federal monitors said, and its fishing industry has bridled -- and struggled to survive -- under strict regulations.

"We've been murdered," said Russell Sherman, who sold his entire catch to Whole Foods for the past six years and is seeking new buyers. "It's not fair at all."

Jim Ford, who said he sold 700,000 pounds of fish to Whole Foods over the past year, declared: "It's a marketing ploy, that's all." He said he would now sell to the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain instead.

Whole Foods has had a fish processing plant in Gloucester since 1996, the oldest of four around the country, and has processed about 10,000 pounds of fish a day here in recent years. A number of local boats have worked with Whole Foods, including a handful that sold exclusively to the company.

Still, Whole Foods is only one buyer, and there will be "plenty of other market demand," said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a trade group.

"It's the precedent and the message it sends out that's really unfortunate," said Giacalone, whose family runs a fish auction that sells to Whole Foods.

Stock already strictly managed

Some question the need for grocery stores to reject certain U.S.-caught fish when the government has imposed its own conservation measures, including yearly quotas.

And for some stocks, the quotas are being reduced; fishermen are facing a 22 percent cut in the amount of Gulf of Maine cod they may catch. In New England, some areas are closed to fishing for part or all of the year; in others, only certain kinds of gear can be used.

"We have the strictest management regime in the world," said David Goethel, a fisherman from Hampton, N.H. "So using the word 'sustainable,' maybe it looks good in your advertising. But, without being too harsh, it means absolutely nothing."

But Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, said Whole Foods was doing the right thing.

"Whole Foods is setting a good example by offering fish from relatively well-managed fisheries," she said. "It's too bad that more New England fish don't qualify, but over time, such market forces should help bring these fish back -- both in the ocean and to the Whole Foods seafood counter."

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    Other supermarket chains are also limiting the seafood they sell in the name of sustainability. Among them:

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