Find More Sustainable Fish at Whole Foods

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School of fish swimming in oceanWhole Foods Market announced today that it will stop selling red-rated wild caught seafood starting on Earth Day, April 22, 2012. Fish affected by this change are currently being over-fished and/or are not sustainable food sources. Whole Foods look to the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium to make the determination of red, yellow or green ratings for fish based on how sustainable they are in today’s fishing environment. This announcement from Whole Foods Market comes a year ahead of its previously stated plans to eliminate these fish in 2013.

Which Fish Will Be Eliminated?

Grey sole, Atlantic halibut, and skate are some of the fish that will not be carried at Whole Foods until measures are taken to move them off the red list of unsustainable mined seafood.

Statement from Whole Foods

David Pilat, Whole Foods’ global seafood buyer, stated in a recent company press release, “We are now able to offer more sustainable seafood choices than ever before, and we are thrilled that our suppliers have worked with us so swiftly to find high-quality green- and yellow-rated seafood so we could not only meet but beat our deadline.”

What is Sustainable Fishing?

Sustainable fishing is the idea that the fishing ground utilized is harvested at a rate that is sustainable. That is, fishing practices in a specific area do not cause a decline in the overall fish population because of the fishing practices used. There are a number of ways that sustainable fishing can be implemented.

Population Dynamics of Fisheries

Fish FarmingA fishery is most commonly identified as an industrial location; however, this is not always the case. By its simplest definition, a fishery is an area with an aquatic population that is harvested. This harvested population is used for its recreational or commercial value. These types of fisheries can be either farmed –more industrial in nature – or wild. The population dynamics of fisheries determine how the population of fish increase or decrease overtime. These numbers are influenced by birth and death numbers in addition to immigration and emigration of fish populations. Understanding these population dynamics allow for fish to be harvested from the fisheries without greatly depleting the population. Fishing in this manner ensures that the fish population will not be reduced to a point where it can no longer sustain itself and disappears completely.

Fishing Quotas

Fishing quotas are another way that sustainable fishing is implemented. Many governmental agencies regulate fishing by establishing individual fishing quotas for fishermen. These quotas allow for a species specific total allowable catch that is determined by weight and is established for a set period of time. This quota ensures that no single species of fish is over-fished during fishing season. This practice also ensures that when the fish species is on a decline, they are not fished to a point where the population is no longer sustainable. Any fisherman who over-fishs his fishing quota is charged a considerable fine.

Avoiding Over Fishing

Over fishing is the single most concern when it comes to sustainable fish life. When fish populations are depleted to levels where they are unable to maintain and grow their population, the entire marine ecosystem suffers as a result. Sustainable fishing is designed to avoid these negative effects of over fishing. Currently over fishing is regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in articles 61, 62 and 65. Along with the regulations set forth by the United Nations the implementation of fishing quotas as already discussed are helping to discourage over fishing.

Curtailing Illegal Fishing Practices

Illegal fishing practices are any fishing practices that operate in violation of current fishery laws. Illegal fishing practices are taking place both on the high seas and in fisheries. Illegal fishing practices can also include unreported fishing and unregulated fishing. Governmental organizations attempt to curtail these types of illegal fishing practices by monitoring fishing areas and fisheries regularly.

Why is Sustainable Fishing So Important?

There are many reasons why sustainable fishing is important to the human race as well as to the ecosystem in general.

Elimination of Edible Protein from the Ocean

Certainly it is not the upmost concern when it comes to the effects of over-fishing, but without sustainable fishing practices we are likely to completely deplete edible fish populations. By fishing more of a fish population that is replenished over a specific time period, we will soon completely eliminate fish protein all together.

Suffering Marine Ecosystems

While the inability to eat freshly caught fish is not of upmost importance in this argument for sustained fishing, the sustainability of the marine ecosystem is. As specific fish populations are eradicated from the world’s oceans the ecosystem in that area will begin to suffer. Not only will the coral and other sea life that those vanished species fed on suffer, but so too will the predators that fed on those vanished species. As each species suffers, the entire ecosystem undergoes changes which forever alter the world’s oceans as a whole.

Less Marine Diversity

While healthy ecosystems are of significant importance so too is marine diversity as a whole. As species are over-fished they soon become extinct simply because they cannot breed fast enough to make up for our fishing practices. This decrease in marine diversity means that a hundred years from now our children’s children may never know what a fish species looks like.

Elimination of Unfair, Cruel and Illegal Fishing Practices

The implementation of sustainable fishing also puts rules in to place that help to eliminate many of the unfair, cruel and illegal fishing practices that currently take place. As sustainable fishing becomes the norm, increasing numbers of fishermen are going to become aware of what is and is not permitted in terms of fishing activity. As this awareness increases, the ability to “fly under the radar” with fishing practices will become more difficult.

The Adoption of Sustainable Seafood by Grocery Stores

As awareness of over-fishing spreads, an increasing number of grocery stores and fresh food stores like Whole Foods are adopting a sustainable seafood only policy. This policy means that all seafood being sold in the store (or any one of their franchised stores) has been caught or farmed in a way that takes in to consideration the long term vitality of the species of marine life being harvested. In addition to the overall outlook for the species, the sustainable seafood policy also considers the overall wellbeing of the ocean as it is impacted by fishing policies.

This effort to spread global awareness over the health of the world’s global marine ecosystems is a great selling point for these stores. However it is also a positive step in terms of planning for our future as a race. As we continue to grow as a population and over-fish the resources we have available to us, we are not thinking about the future, rather we are focused on the here and now. Stores that adopt the sustainable seafood policy are forcing consumers to think about the impact that they are having on the marine ecosystems when they purchase non-sustainable seafood. Hopefully as more stores adopt similar policies to Whole Foods, more individuals will become aware of the importance of replenishing what we take from the earth.

About The Author:

Michelle holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University and has worked in marketing at Bank of America, Mattel and Hanes. her 20+ years of digital and brand marketing experience informs our content and keep us on top of the latest security and safety issues. Michelle's advice and opinions have appeared in many outstanding media outlets, including The New York Times' Wirecutter, Forbes, People, Reader's Digest and Apartment Therapy, among others.

Michelle is passionate about living a healthy life. She shops farmers markets, cooks organic, and eats vegetarian. Juicing and smoothies are a part of everyday life. So are recycling, composting, and gardening. I guess you could say Michelle has a green thumb. Even when a plant doesn't make it under her care, she is still dedicated to making the earth a greener place for future generations.

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July 7, 2012 11:45 pm

Whole Foods has become a hero to all those who are very concerned about sustainable fish and seafood. They have announced that they will be removing all red rated wild caught seafood from their stores. This rating is a system that determines basically how eco friendly and sustainable the source of supply is. The red rating indicates that significant improvement must be made in the methods used to catch that type of fish or seafood.

Many types of fish and seafood are being caught or harvested at rates which are endangering future supplies. This is what many are worried about today. The fisheries and others who are involved in this business need to develop new strategies and methods that can help to stop over fishing and leading to dwindling supplies of popular fish and seafood varieties.

Some of the types of fish which will be affected by this decision include Grey Sole, Atlantic Halibut and Skate. I find it personally interesting to know that certain types of fish are able to be caught in eco friendly and sustainable measures, while other fish are not.

July 5, 2012 2:00 am

A major concern these days is offering people more healthy and eco friendly choices, especially with their food. The recent announcement of Whole Foods to eliminate selling fish and seafood from sources that are red rated is an excellent example of this concern.

Before reading this article I must confess to not knowing a whole lot about the sustainable fish and seafood movement. It seems that there are a number of institutes and aquariums or fisheries which have implemented a rating system. This is a method used to judge the fisheries or aquariums as to their methods and whether they are catching fish and seafood in an ecologically friendly manner. The rating system incorporates color codes ranging from green to yellow to red. Those with a red rating are not using environmentally and ecologically friendly or sustainable methods.

As a cynic, I would say that this move by Whole Foods may have been an attempt to appeal to a growing segment of their market which seems to be more and more concerned with sustainable fish and fishing methods. However, it is still a great move and should be loudly applauded.

Kathy Faust
July 3, 2012 12:16 pm

I find it refreshing to read that a company even cares at all about whether or not they are using a sustainable supply. I wish more companies would think about things like this. If consumers paid more attention to what they were buying, more companies would too, since they don’t want to lose our business.

I applaud Whole Foods for what they are doing and will go out of my way to look for their name. We can’t just complain about what companies do. We can encourage the ones who are going right by buying their product and promoting their cause. But you have to wonder why there are not more laws to prevent companies from destroying the environment and whole species. Why do they have to wait until it’s almost too late before anything is said or done?

Thanks to Whole Foods for looking out. I’m sure that some bean counter found that it would be more profitable to do this, but that does not take away from the effort that is put into it. I am happy to help a company profit if they can do it on terms that are beneficial to the planet and consumers.

July 3, 2012 3:37 am

Whole Foods has always been a company known for their social conscience and awareness of helping the planet. However, their recent announcement that they are going to stop selling any type of red rated wild caught seafood was a bit of a surprise. Not the fact that they want to step up to the plate and do the right thing, but the fact that this comes a full year ahead of their own schedule was a bit of a shock. I suppose that we are so used to seeing companies back off from promises and miss deadlines and time schedules that we have become overly cynical.

This means that the whole system will be eliminating a number of different types of fish and seafood from their stores. Grey sole, Atlantic halibut and skate are some of the ones that were specifically mentioned in this article. Of course, if any of these fish were to eventually be removed from this red list, then it is possible that Whole Foods would be willing to carry them again.

This is a great move which should be copied!

June 27, 2012 8:31 am

There is growing concern over how fish is raised, caught and treated. After reading this article I am now aware that seafood and fish are rated according to how eco friendly they are. Apparently, red rated fish are those which come from over fished areas or just are simply not sustainable sources.

Yellow and green are additional rating classifications in this color coded system. Yellow means basically middle of the road, that the fishery or company is taking some steps to improve their sustainability. Green means a company that is generally doing a pretty good job in using and maintaining sustainable sources.

The article also mentions that Whole Foods has been considering this step for quite a while now. This announcement actually came a year ahead of the previously scheduled date for removing fish that carried the red rated label. Certainly this is very good news for anyone concerned about improving the quality of store bought fish and the environment. There is even a list provided of which fish are going to be eliminated.

Kathy Faust
June 10, 2012 7:10 pm

Once again, thank you for giving me a bit of an education. I had no idea there even was a rating process for fish. I suppose it makes sense and goes right along with the process of pricing. I just didn’t know they did it.

This sounds like a good plan to me. Dare I even think that a company is trying to be environmentally responsible or should I just start thinking of all the benefits they are trying to reap from this particular decision?

In part, this won’t even have an impact on my life. I am getting to the point where I am terrified to eat anything that came out of the water, even if it came out of a lake. We have poisoned so much of our water that I have to laugh every time someone is shocked by the mutations of the animals that live in the water. I mean, if we were bathing in motor oil, it would eventually make us sick. Did they think that living and breathing in crude oil and all its particulars was just going to be something that had no impact? Seriously, I’m just about scared to eat anything any more.

May 9, 2012 1:40 am

Everyone should shop here and at least try these products out! It seems that Whole Foods is very committed to using only sustainable fish and seafood in all of their stores. They were the first US retailer to offer Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified seafood. Each year, they continue to offer more and more MSC fish and seafood products.

You may be wondering what the big deal is with sustainable fish and seafood. The UN reports that a huge majority (somewhere in the area of 80% of the fisheries are fully exploited, over fished or even depleted. A few are in the process of recovering from depletion. This means, simply, that it is getting more and more difficult for customers to find fish and seafood that they can be sure is safe and healthy.

The MSC is an incredible organization which actually understands the problem and is genuinely working toward a positive solution for everyone involved. One of their key elements is the use of a market based approach to provide incentives. This actually makes it profitable for the fisheries themselves to address issues like over fishing and depletion (among others). They also have incredibly strict standards including chain of custody and third party certification. The bottom line is that anything you see in Whole Foods which has an MSC label on it is guaranteed to have come from an MSC certified fishery.

The stores have also even implemented a color coded system for fish and seafood not certified by the MSC. This gives customer sustainability status for everything offered for sale. This program is actually the first of its kind and something which the chain is rightly quite proud of. They are also taking very aggressive steps to eliminate every type of seafood provided by red fisheries (these are ones which have questionable or unverifiable sustainability practices).

You can really expect only the highest quality fish and seafood items in any Whole Foods retail location. This includes no added antibiotics or growth hormones. No sulfites and phosphates, genetically modified seafood, or land animal by products in feed. These are very high standards, which many other retailers are simply unable or unwilling to commit to.

Additionally, all seafood producers which supply Whole Foods must protect water quality and wildlife. They also require third party audits and traceability from hatchery to market. Anything which has the responsibly farmed logo on it is guaranteed to meet these high standards. Just in case any of you are wondering, fish and seafood produced by such methods taste absolutely wonderful. I think that the wild caught Alaskan salmon has a much different flavor to it than comparable farm raised Alaskan salmon.

Ultimately it would be great to see the latest scientific methods of protecting endangered fish species and encouraging population growth spread to emerging markets. Good for Whole Foods for taking steps on its end. Let’s hope for more direct investment from other sources, too!

Kathy Faust
May 7, 2012 1:17 pm

I love seafood and fish. In fact, I would eat those kinds of foods more than any other kind of meat if I felt they were safe to eat today. All of the oil spills and nuclear disasters have contaminated our seafood supply so badly that I’m afraid to eat anything that comes out of the water. If you can’t get it from its natural habitat, you have to get it from a farm. And as far as I’m concerned, buying fish or other seafood that’s raised on a farm is just a slight step above eating deep fried fish sticks.

April 29, 2012 10:43 pm

Keep in mind, there is an additional problem with the partnership model, one that may be even more worrisome. This issue is legal, and twofold. First, for all the rules that are being made in order to combat the growing problem with overfishing, there are many groups that are flat-out ignoring these rules. Fishing is very difficult to keep a close eye on, so illegal fishing and improper fishing activities in international waters is a common problem. Asia is a primary culprit when it comes to illegal fishing, but this problem has been noted around the world in nearly every emerging market. Making money with a little black market fishing is simply too easy in areas where governments have trouble enforcing their own rules.

The other side of the coin is the governments themselves. Illegal fishing aside, there are some governments that have not interesting in changing their fishing activities because a few ecological groups from other nations tell them to. They refuse to drop a major part of their economy for future implications. This is very shortsighted, but then governments rarely take the long view on such matters, for all their five-year and ten-year plans. In this case, however, the results of government inactions could be global, and catastrophic. It’s a sad thing when a business like Whole Foods, which actually stands to lose money by cutting off some of its products options, can act more mindfully and long-term than governments upon which whole economies depend.

Here against Asian countries are often the worse offenders, potentially because their economies, more than nearly any other country in the world, depend on fishing to bring in revenues and feed their people. Market forces also play their own part. In Japan, for example, certain fish are so highly prized for particular types of sushi that they have been hunted onto the endangered lists simply because of high demand. When demand is so high over a particular species, black markets tend to spring up no matter what regulations the government tries to set up.

Of course, there are also organizations like Whole Foods that are trying to do the right thing and stop fishing problems by removing endangered fish from the market (from their market, at least) and so hopefully cutting off demand as people become used to other fish options. If this works, there may be enough time to find new ways to encourage the more at-risk species to repopulate. Of course, this strategy would work far better if businesses across the world also stopped buying fish from suppliers, but that step isn’t really practical. Really, Whole Foods is planning for a market boost from the ecologically minded crowd with this move, so it does have some future strategic value. That value doesn’t exist for many companies that sell fish.

April 29, 2012 12:33 am

I’m so glad that Whole Foods is taking this step and removing some of these fish from their product lists until solutions can be found! Unless people are involved in the fishing industry or study the ecology of the ocean, they rarely understand the grave situation that our fish populations are in. Fish farms and sustainable fishing practices work well for some populations, but are not effective solutions for some of the ocean species, especially the sole and halibut species that Whole Foods is refusing to carry anymore.

The dangers threatening these fish are manifold, but most simply come down to overfishing. Years ago, the fishing populations were large enough to easily meet demand. As fishing became an industry, many wasteful practices snuck in unnoticed. There was such a glut of fish like tuna that entire catches were just dumped overboard because there was no more room for them. Fish prices stayed low, so corners were cut to bring in as many hauls as possible in order to raise demand.

But the fish populations did not grow at the same speed as the human populations interested in fish. As a result, a disconnect occurred between the demand of the market and the ability of the ocean to supply fish. This disconnect was ignored for so many years that when it was finally noticed, in many cases efforts came too late to make a difference. Several fish species are on their way to extinction, driven to the brink by overfishing until they probably cannot survive much longer even if left alone. With fish populations disintegration, other creatures of the ocean that depended on the fish for their survival are also being decimated, causing a ripple effect up and down the food chain which may change the way ocean ecology works forever.

Remedies are being planned. Right now one of the more promising steps is a type of fully integrated partnership that has worked well in certain regions of India and Indonesia. The basic idea is very simple. The fishing business or industry works with local fishermen on the coasts whose livelihood depends on the fish in overfished waters. These two business groups then partner with governments and overseeing organizations to make rules on how many fish to catch and how to encourage fishing populations to survive and thrive. Together, the three groups then turn toward sustainability organizations and ecology centers to help craft rules that will keep fishing sustainable in years to come. With every group involved and providing feedback, workable solutions can be created.

While this can lead to ideal fishing waters, the partnership approach also has its drawbacks. Even when all groups involved agree, negotiations can take a very long time, often time that fish populations do not have. And in many parts of the world, such negotiations are not even possible because a key party will refuse to join in or listen to the concerns of the other groups.