As Of Earth Day 2012, the organic and natural food superstore Whole Foods no longer carries fish considered unsustainable.
In a post on its company blog, Whole Foods explained that its decision to eliminate "red-rated" seafood -- species that suffer from overfishing or catching methods that harm other marine life or habitats -- is motivated by a desire to reverse these global trends. The sustainable seafood rating systems used by Whole Foods were devised by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute.
Whole Foods had already stopped selling orange roughy, shark, bluefin tuna and most marlin.
But do such high-minded measures really help the environment? Some scientists are now voicing doubt, saying that some labels lead customers to wrongly believe that the impact of choosing one fish over another is greater than reality.
On Sunday, The Washington Post ran a story highlighting the fallible nature of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the most widely used certification system. To date, MSC has certified 148 wild-caught fisheries, which account for between six to seven percent of the global supply.
A study published online last week in the journal Marine Policy showed that, for fish stocks where there was sufficient information, 31 percent of MSC-certified stocks were overfished and subject to continuing overfishing.
“Certifiers must sharpen their criteria and close any loopholes,” said Rainer Froese, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and lead author of the study, who said consumers should still buy certified seafood. “Given that there are thousands of [fish] stocks, there needs to be some guidance on which ones you can eat and have a good conscience.”
The Post notes that Whole Foods isn't the first large company to revamp its offerings to boost sustainability efforts. Target has ditched farmed salmon, and has promised to eliminate foods that aren't sustainable or traceable from its shelves by 2015. Wegmans has said it won't sell seafood drom the Ross Sea in the Antarctic, an area that some environmentalists say should be off-limits. Beginning this summer, Wal-Mart will require all its fresh, frozen wild-caught and farmed seafood must be certified as sustainable or have a plan to be named as such.
The decision may leave many fishing companies that'd previously done business with Whole Foods out in the cold.
A New York Times story on the subject detailed the grievances of several fishermen, most based in New England ports. According to federal monitors, the area has more overfished stocks than any other region.
"We've been murdered," said Russell Sherman, who sold his entire catch to Whole Foods for the last 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." Mr. Ford said he would now sell to the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain instead.
Click through the below slideshow to see which types of seafood will no longer be sold at Whole Foods and why.
Wild-caught gray sole, or Atlantic sole, has been dangerously overfished over the last 50 years, leaving its numbers are very low. Whole Foods will instead buy more flounder, a similar species.
Skate has also been very overfished. The majority are caught with bottom trawls, which result in accidental catches and significant damage to the seafloor.
Atlantic cod caught by trawlers will be banned, although some caught by gillnets or hook and line will be allowed by Whole Foods. Photo by Flickr user Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.
Most Atlantic halibut have been overfished. They're also often caught with trawls, which disturb and destroy the seafloor.
Octopus is a popular ingredient in sushi, though there's little firm population data available. However, most octopus are caught in bottom trawlfisheries, which have concerning levels of bycatch and can damage the seafloor. Photo by Flickr user XcBiker.
The numbers of imported wild sturgeon have taken a dive as a result of overfishing for their eggs, or caviar.
Partly as a result of their slow rates of reproduction and growth, populations of tautog are low.
This large flat fish is overfished in the Atlantic.
Imported wild shrimp are often caught with bottom trawls that damage the seabed and result in bycatch of endangered species like sea turtles.
Some species of rockfish will disappear from Whole Foods, but others will still be found. Among the threatened varieties are some species of Alaskan rockfish, which may already be locally depleted. They're also caught with environmentally-destructive trawls.
Whole Foods stopped selling bluefin tuna several years ago, and now banned tunas include species listed as "red" by its partners. Photo by Flickr user InvernoDreaming.
Many swordfish are caught with methods that are often snare sea turtles, seabirds and sharks. Whole Foods will only carry swordfish caught using handlines, which involve a single baited line that catch one fish at a time and result in virtually no bycatch.
Photo by Flickr user Glyn Lowe Photoworks.