Year-round, supermarket refrigerators, freezers, and shelves are stocked with bountiful supplies of affordable fish, but at what price to the environment and human wellbeing? Last month, the advocacy group Greenpeace released its ninth Carting Away the Ocean (CATO) report, which scrutinizes the sustainability and human rights record of seafood at 25 major U.S. supermarkets.
The report is a call to action for the retailers to do their part to stop unsustainable and illegal fishing practices and human rights violations in the seafood industry.
Greenpeace evaluated the retailers’ seafood sustainability, awarding points based on performance in four categories: their policies guiding purchasing of seafood, their participation in initiatives to promote sustainability in the fishery sector, their labeling practices and transparency in communicating how and where their seafood is caught, and their sale of seafood on Greenpeace’s “Red List” of marine animals that are either endangered or caught through destructive fishing practices.
As part of the evaluation, the supermarkets were asked to participate in a survey. Nearly a third did not respond, including H-E-B, Kroger, Albertsons, WinCo, Publix, A&P, and Save Mart.
The top performing supermarkets, which received a good ranking, were Whole Foods (ranked 1st), Wegmans (ranked 2nd), Hy-Vee (ranked 3rd), and Safeway (ranked 4th).
“Whole Foods, Wegmans, Hy-Vee and Safeway are leading the pack, supporting the protection of vital marine habitat like Alaska’s Bering Sea canyons, calling on Congress to confront illegal fishing. We expect continued leadership from these companies to stop human rights abuses in the seafood industry, and call on them to help transform the retail sector in the U.S.,” David Pinsky, Greenpeace’s Senior Oceans Campaigner, told mongabay.com.
Sixteen supermarkets received a passing ranking. The five poorest performing supermarkets, which received a fail ranking, were Southeastern Grocers (ranked 21st), Roundy’s (ranked 22nd), Publix (ranked 23rd), A&P (ranked 24th), and Save Mart (ranked 25th).
Although ranked near the bottom of the list, the report recognized Southeastern Grocers and Roundy’s Supermarkets for having one of the five most improved scores since last year’s report and for participating in an initiative to protect fish habitat in the Bering Sea. Representatives of both companies expressed a commitment to improving the sustainability of their seafood when contacted by mongabay.com
“While we are still at the lower end of the rankings we have made a serious commitment to improve our seafood sustainability performance. Are we done? Far from it – we intend to continue to work with David [Pinsky] and Greenpeace to improve our seafood sustainability measures,” Roundy’s vice president James Hyland told mongabay.com. The company is also collaborating with the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies the sustainability of seafood, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which puts out a consumer guide to sustainable seafood, Hyland said.
“We have a sustainable seafood policy, which is too comprehensive to communicate in a survey,” Brian West, Publix Super Markets’ Media and Community Relations Manager, told mongabay.com, explaining why the company did not respond to Greenpeace’s survey. West outlined several actions the company has taken to improve seafood sustainability, including working with suppliers to verify that the fishmeal used in aquaculture feed is not from illegal fisheries.
The other two poorest performing supermarkets did not respond to inquiries about the report.
Seafood buyers and supermarkets have huge influencing power that can be used to positively change global fishing practices, according to the report. This is where retailer policies and initiatives come into play, as the report emphasizes the retailers’ responsibility to advocate for recovery of depleted fish stocks, fair and safe working conditions in the seafood industry, and protection of critical habitats, particularly in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia.
The Bering Sea is known as “America’s Fish Basket” because nearly half of the seafood sold in the U.S. originates there, according to the report. It includes a vast and highly productive shelf-break zone called the Green Belt, as well as the world’s biggest underwater canyons, and provides habitat critical for productive fisheries, according to Pinsky.
The report awarded extra points to eleven retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Safeway, that have petitioned the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect areas in the Green Belt and its canyons. (The council will decide in October whether or not to consider doing so.)
Retailers also earned points for providing clear labeling and signage telling where and how they sourced their seafood. Such practices improve the transparency of the seafood chain and help consumers make sustainable purchases.
Discontinuing sale of the 22 kinds of seafood on Greenpeace’s Red List was another major criterion in assessing the supermarkets’ seafood sustainability. The CATO report docked points for selling listed species, such as Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and shark. The retailers Hy-Vee, which discontinued Chilean sea bass, and Roundy’s, which discontinued shark and orange roughy, are examples of good practices in this regard.
Publix, by contrast, still sells shark, 95 percent of which is blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus), according to West, a species he maintained is considered to be sustainable. However, Greenpeace’s Red List includes all sharks.
Also figuring into the stores’ rankings were their canned tuna offerings. Last year’s CATO report investigated canned tuna products, concluding that over 80 percent of canned tuna found on supermarket shelves is caught by means of destructive and socially irresponsible fishing practices. This past march, Greenpeace published a Tuna Shopping Guide for U.S. consumers, which ranked the sustainability of the 14 best-known canned tuna brands, and found Starkist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea to be the most unsustainable.
In addition to environmental issues, concerns about slavery and human rights abuses in the seafood industry played a role in the ranking. Fishermen are exposed to some of the harshest working conditions in the world, according to a 2014 Greenpeace report outlining such abuses as extremely low wages, inadequate sanitation, lack of safety equipment, forced labor, human trafficking, and even murder. Depleted fish stocks, increased demand for cheap fish, and lack of law enforcement on the High Seas — areas outside countries’ territorial waters — are some of the main drivers behind these human rights violations.
Labor abuse in the fishery sector has been occurring for years, but has only recently gained attention in the media and among seafood buyers.
“U.S. retailers have a responsibility to…provide ocean-safe seafood for their customers that is not only sustainable, but also socially responsible,” said Pinksy, “Retailers must urgently address slavery and human rights abuses in the seafood industry, starting by internally and publically committing to action plans and consulting leading human rights and labor organizations.”
The report also recommends actions grocery shoppers can take, such as voting with their wallets by only purchasing sustainable seafood and eating less seafood since current demand far exceeds sustainable fishing rates.
Pinsky highlighted that supermarkets, even the worst performers, have made great strides over the years, and said he expects continued progress.
“Unlike the first [CATO] report in 2008 when most retailers received failing scores, this year a majority of retailers received at least passing scores,” he said. “Look out for Southeastern Grocers, the most-improved retailer this year, and Roundy’s, which was among the most improved retailers. While both still received failing scores this year, we expected marked improvements in the future.”
Pinsky noted that for real progress in the seafood industry to occur, all of the retailers must improve their sustainability practices.
Carting Away the Oceans 9 (June 2015). Greenpeace USA.