October 20, 2010

Soup to Nuts: Sea(food) change
toward sustainability

To increasing numbers of consumers, sustainability matters, and local grocers are following their lead with new programs that trace a fish's often-winding path from source to shelf.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Imagine picking up a can of fish chowder at your local grocery store and tracing the fish that's in it back to where it was caught – and not only to where it was caught, but how it was caught.

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Whole Foods Market in Portland has launched a seafood program with color-coded signs indicating a fish’s level of sustainability. Green, or “best choice” ratings, means a species is relatively abundant and caught in environmentally-friendly ways. A yellow rating means there are some concerns with a fish’s status or catch methods. Red means “avoid” because the species is suffering from overfishing, or the methods used to catch it are harmful to other marine life or habitats. Whole Foods has already stopped selling many red-rated species.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

At Whole Foods Market in Portland, a green, or “best choice” ratings, means a species is relatively abundant and caught in environmentally-friendly ways. A yellow rating means there are some concerns with a fish’s status or catch methods. Red means “avoid” because the species is suffering from overfishing, or the methods used to catch it are harmful to other marine life or habitats. Whole Foods has already stopped selling many red-rated species.

Additional Photos Below

Now multiply that by a few thousand products, and you have some idea of the monumental task facing George Parmenter, corporate responsibility manager for Hannaford.

Hannaford is reviewing all of the fresh, frozen and canned seafood it buys to ensure it comes from well-managed fisheries that will not deplete fish stocks over time. Its Sustainable Seafood Sourcing Policy, developed with the help of scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, sets a March 2011 deadline for Hannaford's suppliers to switch to only sustainable seafood sources.

Over at Whole Foods Market, customers approaching the fresh fish case will now notice green, yellow and red signs that indicate just how abundant that Icelandic cod is that they're about to buy, and how environmentally friendly the fishing methods are that were used to catch it.

As consumers become more savvy about sustainability issues and curious about where their food comes from, grocery stores are taking notice and offering more information their customers can use to make smart choices about what they buy. In some cases, consumers are demanding more environmental accountability, and stores are coming under pressure to comply.

"There are organizations that are publicly embarrassing companies that are selling a lot of red-listed species," said Alan Duckworth, a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., the organization that developed the ranking method being used by Portland's Whole Foods. "And customers are becoming more clued in that there are only so many fish in the ocean, and the choices they make can actually improve the health of the ocean."

Parmenter said Hannaford is moving to a sustainable seafood-only program "because it was one of those issues where we think we need to be out ahead of the customers."

"In dealing with our suppliers and being in touch with stakeholders and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other interested parties, it was clear that there was a big issue here," Parmenter said. "We recognized that for us to be in the business of continuing to sell seafood that we need to do something to ensure that there will be seafood available to be sold in the future."

Hannaford started to develop its policy with the help of GMRI about two years ago. The company has a deadline of March 2011 for sourcing only sustainable seafood products.

Right now, the company is working through its list of products and contacting suppliers to make them aware of the policy and what Hannaford needs from them. Vendors are sending information back, and that information is being vetted by the scientists at GMRI.

Parmenter said it's a complicated process because the store doesn't necessarily keep track of the food it sells based on whether or not it has seafood in it. And in some cases there are multiple variations of a seafood product on their shelves – for example, frozen fish may come battered, coated in panko bread crumbs, plain, and so on.

LAYERS UPON LAYERS

"It's been a bit of a data mining exercise figuring out what are those products, who supplies them to us, and then asking them to provide us information based on their sources," Parmenter said. "In some cases, the supply can be multiple layers deep. We buy a processed product – say, battered shrimp in the frozen section – and we need to go back to perhaps a shrimp wholesaler who's getting it from someone else, who might be getting it from the actual person who's taking it out of the ocean or out of a farm. It's a lot more complicated than I thought it would be, that's for sure."

In the beginning, Hannaford cast a wide net, capturing 4,000 to 5,000 products on its shelves that are considered "substantially fish," including foods such as chowders. The list has since been narrowed down to about 3,000.

Parmenter found that some of the products on the original list aren't carried in the stores anymore. And he drew the line at things like anchovy paste in a fish sauce and clamato juice, foods that are highly processed and more difficult to trace. Those items are still on the list, but they are now a lower priority.

Reaction from suppliers has been across the spectrum. Big players in the seafood industry have seen this coming, Parmenter said, and in many cases were working on the issue anyway, because "we're not the only retailer asking them for something similar."

Smaller producers need more help understanding exactly what Hannaford wants.

"Everybody across the board has been supportive of the goal," Parmenter said. "What I've found is that the people working in that industry genuinely understand there's an issue and there are pressures and they want to do the right thing. I haven't felt there's been a lot of resistance, or people rolling their eyes or throwing their hands up. There hasn't been that reaction at all."

Whole Foods rolled out its color-coded rating program on Sept. 13. The ratings consider five main factors – the life history of the species, abundance, fishing methods, fishery management and bycatch, or the other animals that are caught along with the targeted species.

"It's a ranking method developed over 30 years," Duckworth said. "It's been examined by over 300 marine scientists and fisheries specialists, so we know it's a pretty good system."

Green, or "best choice," ratings indicate a species is relatively abundant and caught in environmentally-friendly ways. Examples of green fish include striped bass on the East Coast and black cod, or sablefish, from Alaska.

A yellow rating means there are some concerns with a fish's status or catch methods. Bluefish and Icelandic cod are examples of fish that have been given a yellow rating.

Red means "avoid" because the species is suffering from overfishing or the methods used to catch it are harmful to other marine life or habitats. Witch flounder and Atlantic halibut are ranked red.

The ratings are updated every two years, so if a fishery improves its catch methods, it can move up from red to yellow or yellow to green.

CODE RED

Whole Foods has already stopped selling red-rated species such as Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, bluefin tuna, sharks and marlins. Earth Day 2011, all swordfish and tuna from red-rated fisheries will also be gone.

Earth Day 2012, all other seafood from red-rated fisheries will be gone, with the exception of Atlantic cod and sole, which will be sold through Earth Day 2013 to give those fishermen some time to adapt.

The majority of Atlantic cod is caught by bottom trawling, Duckworth said, "which is a large net dragging along the bottom, which obviously is quite damaging to the sea floor."

"We've worked with these fishermen for a long time," said Carrie Brownstein, seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods, "and so what we want to do is see if we can work together to figure out if there are ways to change some of the fishing methods so we can improve issues like bycatch and habitat impacts."

Hannaford has a similar outlook. If vendors can't be in compliance by the March 2011 deadline, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be dropped right away – but they need to have a plan that will put them in compliance. "We really don't want to sever any relationships," Parmenter said.

How will all of this affect price? Are fish from better-managed fisheries more expensive?

Both stores say that pricing may come down to a case-by-case basis. "Some fishing gear that's really sustainable has been that way for a long time, and it's not like they have to make any changes" that would affect price, Brownstein said.

Both stores also say they try to make buying local seafood a part of their strategy because of customer demand, but sustainability comes first.

"We hope to work with GMRI and find underappreciated and plentiful local species that perhaps we could help market," Parmenter said.

Hannaford has already been buying sustainable swordfish from Linda Greenlaw, a well-known swordfish boat captain and author who uses long lines with circle hooks, a fishing method that avoids bycatch of other species. Her first of three hauls – more than 34,000 pounds of swordfish – sold out in a week.

Parmenter would like to see more branding of local fish like Greenlaw's swordfish. Currently, Hannaford has profiles of apple farmers on its website so customers can see where their apples are coming from, and he'd like to do the same for fish.

"We really would like to put a personal face on what we're doing, so we're working on that now," he said. "We're really excited about the possibility. There are so many great stories out there to tell."

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Whole Foods labels on wild-caught bay scallops and white shrimp indicate that they were harvested in Mexico and the USA, respectively, that they were previously frozen, and bear a yellow designation, which suggests some concerns with a fish s status or catch methods.

  


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