April 25, 2012 -
Whole Foods, the Texas-based natural foods supermarket, no longer carries fish considered to be unsustainable. The Whole Foods ban includes fish that is either overfished or caught in a harmful way, according to their website. The popular Atlantic Halibut made the list, though the company will still sell Atlantic cod that is caught by hook and line or gillnets. "Stewardship of the ocean is so important to our customers and to us," David Pilat, the global seafood buyer for Whole Foods told the New York Times. "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.'" Here's a look at the list of fish that the superstore no longer sells and why.
Octopus Whole Foods uses ratings set by the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The ratings are based on factors including how abundant a species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method damages its habitat.
Imported Wild Shrimp "At Whole Foods Market, we've been saying that our mission is to sell only wild-caught fish that has been responsibly caught. For a few years now, we've used color-coded sustainability ratings, from green (best choice) to red (avoid), to help you make an informed choice. Now we're putting our mackerel where our mouth is: To support greater abundance in our oceans, we're no longer carrying red-rated wild-caught seafood!" the company wrote on its blog.
Tuna (from specific areas and catch methods rated "red") On their website, Whole Foods says that they stopped selling "species that were extremely depleted in the oceans, such as orange roughy, shark and bluefin tuna" years ago. The company uses the sustainability ratings of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Rockfish According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, "In recent years, reduced fishing has allowed many rockfish populations to recover from low levels. Gear concerns remain, however -- trawl-caught rockfish should still be avoided."
Swordfish Some of the gear used to fish swordfish "accidentally catches sea turtles, seabirds and sharks," according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Skate Wing Skates are in the overfished category. Most are also caught with bottom trawls, which result in high levels of accidental catch.
Sturgeon According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, "Sturgeon farmed in the U.S. is a good alternative to most wild sturgeon, whose populations have seriously declined due to overfishing for sturgeon eggs (caviar)."
Tautog Also known as black fish, Tautog are considered a "vulnerable" species. They are found close to shore on hard-bottom habitats, occasionally entering brackish water.
Trawl-Caught Atlantic Cod Fishermen often catch cod with bottom trawl, large nets that skim across the seafloor. Trawling, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, "damages marine habitats and produces bycatch."
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Turbot A cousin of Pacific halibut, turbot are a right-eyed flatfish -- as they develop, their left eye migrates across the top of the skull toward the other eye on the right side. Turbot are yellowish or grayish-brown on top and paler on their underside.
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Around the world, the status of fish and fisheries is grim indeed. Approximately 85 percent of global fish stocks are either over-exploited, fully-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. But rigorous management efforts have resulted in some American fisheries making a comeback.
The new report by the National Research Council assessed 55 fisheries and found 10 that have been rebuilt and five that showed good progress toward rebuilding; only nine continue to experience overfishing. What about the rest? Eleven have not shown strong progress in rebuilding but are expected to rebuild if fishing levels remain reduced and a whopping 20 were not actually over-fished despite having been initially classified as such.
The report comes with a neat interactive online graphic to track the fate of fish populations in different regions over the years. By selecting particular species or geographic areas, users can watch, as for example, yelloweye rockfish becomes steadily overfished, as chinook salmon numbers – especially susceptible to changing environmental conditions – swing wildly back and forth, and the likes of lingcod, George’s Bank haddock, king mackerel and Bering Sea snow crab stage their marches toward recovery.
The report is fairly technical, so for a summary – and an explanation of what it means in practical terms for U.S. fish consumers – Discovery News turned to Chris Dorsett, Director of Ecosystem Conservation Programs for the Ocean Conservancy.
“If you look at a map of the United States and where overfishing is still occurring, it’s almost exclusively an east coast problem,” he points out. “And when I say east coast, I mean Gulf of Mexico as well. Where we have not seen success in terms of species recovering based on management actions, that could be due to climatic factors, which aren’t particularly good for productivity. It could be due to management regimes that aren’t particularly effective. But what exacerbates the issue is that, when you drive a population to an extremely low abundance level, environmental variability plays an even more meaningful role in the recovery of that population, so recovery is a little less predictable.”
As the classic case in point, Dorsett points to cod fisheries off Canada, which collapsed in the 1990s and subsequently saw catches slashed essentially to zero. Despite such drastic measures, neither the fish population nor the fishery has shown signs of recovery.
As the NRC report notes, however, there remains some variation: fishing pressure is still too high for some fish stocks, and others have not rebounded as quickly as plans projected. To a large extent, argues Dorsett, that’s a function of natural variability in fish populations and their environments, as well as differences in the ways fisheries have been managed over the years.
In general, though, the news remains positive, increasingly so, and is reflected in the choices available to consumers.
“If you look at the recent trend line for rebuilding fish populations in this country, we’re making unprecedented progress in restoring populations and ending overfishing,” he explained. “In this past year, if you look at the National Marine Fisheries Service Status of Stocks Report – each year, they have to produce a report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries – you see a record progress in the rebuilding of fish populations, and we’re at an historic low in the number of species subject to overfishing.”
“Because of the law, we’re seeing more fresh, local seafood as populations rebuild,” Dorsett explains. “We’re seeing fishes like scallops in New England and lingcod on the west coast that have been rebuilt. That’s very good news for consumers. Overall, the U.S. is helping move more fish into that ‘green’ category in seafood guides, where they are sustainable. I think consumers should continue to be vigilant, but I think they should feel good that, by and large, fish populations in the United States are heading in the right direction.”
IMAGE: Monk fish display at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Wash. (Rick Friedman/Corbis).