Sustainable Supermarket Sweep

Michael Conathan braves the aisles to find out which of our nation’s grocery stores are paying attention to where their fish come from.

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Filets are displayed at a supermarket in Princeton, New Jersey. (AP/Brian Branch-Price)
Filets are displayed at a supermarket in Princeton, New Jersey. (AP/Brian Branch-Price)

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Last week in this space we broke down the sustainability of fast food fish. As it turns out, sustainability is perhaps more prevalent at the drive-thru than it is on a white tablecloth at a high-end restaurant. But what about the supermarket with its endless glass doors keeping Mrs. Paul’s and Gorton’s in their blissful deep freeze and its fish counters of artful displays of tuna steaks, shrimp of every conceivable size, and pink filets of salmon glistening ‘neath the fluorescents? Is it safe to dip into these waters?

Increasing seafood sustainability mostly focuses on consumers, but the buying power of vast chain stores makes them a primary target for establishing sustainable practices. After all, a company with billions of dollars in annual sales can afford to hire people to investigate the finer points of a complex issue like seafood sustainability, while the average Joe shopper doesn’t have the time.

Consumers must ultimately take responsibility for their purchases, but it’s a whole lot easier if we can pick a retail outlet that already made the good decisions for us.

Fortunately, much of the seafood in the freezer section is already fairly high on the sustainable scale. Both Gorton’s and Mrs. Paul’s use pollock in their fish sticks and non-species-specific “filets.” The U.S. pollock fishery, as discussed in last week’s column, is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Worth noting, however, is that foreign pollock fisheries are not certified, so make sure what you buy is labeled “product of USA.”

In addition, many national supermarket chains have taken significant steps to make their seafood counters more sustainable in recent years. This helped take the pressure off consumers and fish stocks. The movement encompassed upscale organics such as Whole Foods and has been embraced by many massive chains not at the top of anyone’s most-likely list.

Since 2008, Greenpeace has been producing an annual report ranking 20 of the nation’s largest supermarket chains on sustainability. The report does not disclose the metrics used to assign the oddly detailed scores (the top-ranked chain, Safeway, received an arcane grade of 64.61 out of 100). But the takeaway here is that there’s marked improvement in supermarket policies on product sustainability in recent years. Not a single chain received a passing grade of 40 or above in the first report. Fully half of the chains eked past the threshold last year. And 15 out of 20 stores made the cut in 2011.

This includes even unlikely suspects such as Target, which ranked second, Costco, and Walmart.

Greenpeace recognizes stores that support particular initiatives, including ending distribution of clearly unsustainable species such as orange roughy (a.k.a. slimehead) and prioritizing conservation measures in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. It also rates retailers on more general policies such as:

  • Prioritizing species that minimize environmental damage and bycatch of nontarget species
  • Increasing transparency throughout the distribution chain to ensure fish are not sourced from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fisheries
  • Supporting policy changes including establishment of marine protected areas
  • Removing unsustainable species from inventories

The New England Aquarium has also been working with major seafood retailers for over a decade, and it’s been instrumental in developing sustainability practices at Ahold Supermarkets, which operates stores under the names Giant, Martin’s, and Stop-and-Shop, at seafood outlets such as Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and others), and with major frozen retailers like Gorton’s.

Greenpeace’s top five sustainable seafood supermarkets

1. Safeway (a.k.a. Pavillions, Tom Thumb, VONS) – 64.61

2. Target – 63.74 (tie)

2. Wegmans – 63.74 (tie)

4. Whole Foods (Wild Oats) – 61.77

5. Ahold (Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s) – 59.22

Greenpeace’s bottom five

20. Meijer – 10.0

19. Winn-Dixie – 11.5

18. Supervalu (a.k.a. Albertson’s, Shaw’s, Star Market) – 15.0

17. Publix – 21.5

16. Giant Eagle – 32.38

Still, some choices are bound to be better than others even if you’re shopping at a top-ranked supermarket. Wallet cards, like those you can get at many aquariums that help you choose ocean-friendly seafood, don’t always rank all species in the same categories, and their criteria aren’t always ideal. Maine lobster, for example, is one of the most sustainably managed fisheries in the world with virtually no bycatch or gear impact on habitat, and strict enforcement of size limits and protections for egg-bearing females. Yet it only receives a yellow “good alternative” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

If the experts can’t even agree, the average consumer’s efforts to make sense of the sustainability question can be enough to make you just say “forget it” and go get another package of chicken breasts, a decision which—as University of Washington Professor Ray Hilborn pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed—comes with its own set of environmental costs.

The fact is, you don’t need an advanced degree in environmental science to figure out which fish is going on the table tonight. And I don’t know about your local market, but I can’t get a cell signal in mine that will let me check one of those handy apps, like the ones from Blue Ocean Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium, or Safe Seafood.

So here are three key things you can do to make your fish choices more sustainable. Perhaps more importantly, they’re things you can remember to do while checking your list, placating your antsy kids, and trying to spend as little time as possible roaming the aisles. They even come in a simple ABC format:

Ask. Distract Junior with a free sample of bread and hummus and flag down the fish monger. Sure, there’s a good chance the person behind the counter doesn’t know much more about where the products come from than you do. But ask where the fish comes from, how it’s caught, and generally whether the store has a sustainability policy. Even if you don’t get comprehensive answers, you let the store know that it matters by asking.

Buy American. Fish is required by law to be labeled with its country of origin. Different organizations dicker over the application of the “sustainable” label. But U.S. fisheries are among the best managed in the world, and we have effectively ended overfishing in America. Buying domestic seafood supports U.S. industries, reduces the distance your fish has to travel to get to you plate (in most cases), and ensures your filet is not from an overfished resource.

Cut your portion size. Chef Barton Seaver spoke eloquently about the benefits of relishing seafood in a recent TED lecture. But he explained that you should enjoy less of it and fill the rest of your plate with veggies. It’s good for your wallet, good for your waistline, and good for the environment. Spend the money you save on that smaller swordfish steak on a better bottle of wine and savor the opportunity to sample the ocean’s bounty today and into the future.

Choosing sustainable seafood can be as complex or as simple as you want to make it. But picking the right store and then remembering these three points will get you a long way down the road to supporting sustainable fisheries.

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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