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4 Surprising Places You Can Buy Sustainable Fish

Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans, Serial Pieces

A dangerous path

This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on April 26, 2011.

Even as the plight of our oceans worsens, a large sector of the seafood industry continues to defend the status quo. Issues of grave concern like overfishing, bottom trawling, and piracy are swept under the carpet time and time again by the same tired argument: “sustainable seafood is too expensive.”

This adage comes in many forms. “Sustainability is just for the rich,” is a common one. Or maybe the scoundrels go for the jugular with pseudo-patriotic poppycock like “real Americans can’t afford to eat sustainable fish.” This scare tactic is designed to end the conversation so conventional industry can get back to slinging the same ill-gotten plunder that’s gotten us to this point of ailing seas and depleted fish stocks.

The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, it’s not sustainable seafood that’s too expensive – rather, it is unsustainable seafood, with all of its associated externalities, subsidies, and Faustian bargains that is out of our price range. It’s time to put this argument where it belongs: in the past.

This month’s 4 Oceans highlights several stores priced for mainstream America that are leading the charge on sustainable seafood in conventional retail. If these guys can do it, anyone can.

1) Safeway

It may come as a shock, but the 1700+ Safeway stores across the country are on track to become a powerful force for ocean conservation. According to Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, Safeway has the most sustainable seafood operation of any major market in the United States. With a score of 6.5 out of 10, Safeway has a long way to go yet, but has still managed to outperform stores like Whole Foods that are generally assumed to be more able to provide sustainable options thanks to more affluent clientele.

Safeway has recently discontinued some particularly unsustainable seafood items (like orange roughy) and is providing thorough in-store information about their commitment to sustainability. The company has also spoken out publicly in favor of global conservation efforts; their recent shout-out supporting Ross Sea protection is an excellent example of how mainstream retailers are rounding the horn on seafood sustainability and foraying into the highly political – and critically important – arena of marine reserve establishment.

Do the right thing

2) Target

The big-box retail titan from Minnesota tied for the #2 spot in this year’s rankings with Wegmans (a progressive high-end grocer that has also done some extremely impressive work on seafood sustainability).  This is actually a slight step down for Target – the company took the top spot in last year’s rankings, largely because of its willingness to tackle Matterhorn-like challenges that other companies refuse to even consider. A prime example is Target’s decision to discontinue all forms of farmed salmon throughout their entire operation. This initiative has greatly deflated conventional industry “farmed salmon is necessary because people want inexpensive salmon” fear-mongering.

Target has also evolved beyond the sale of unsustainable mainstays like Chilean sea bass, and continuing to press forward along other avenues of seafood sustainability. It’s true that Target doesn’t sell a great deal of seafood when compared to many other nationwide retailers, but this kind of progress still goes to show that even big-box discounters can do great things for environmental preservation when they commit to it.

3) Harris Teeter

The growing consumer demand for sustainable seafood is not only found in the leftist enclaves of Northern California or among patrons of trendy, feel-good East Village restaurants. The sustainable seafood movement is making headway all across the country, and in the American South, this has been spearheaded by the remarkable efforts of Harris Teeter, a household-name grocery store that has dominated much of the retail sector in Georgia and the Carolinas for decades. Even though Harris Teeter competes directly with price-focused grocers such as Food Lion and Walmart, the company has taken an aggressive approach to seafood sustainability and is becoming an undeniable leader in the sector.

Over the past couple of years, Harris Teeter has discontinued orange roughy, augmented their sourcing policy to take key environmental issues (such as pirate fishing) into account during purchasing, and created a comprehensive seafood information clearinghouse within their website to enable their customers to learn more about all of the various seafood options available at Harris Teeter. The company is currently #6 in Greenpeace’s retailer ranking, but with a score of 5.8/10 is less than three-quarters-of-a-point behind the current #1 (Safeway).

Lifting the veil

4) Aldi

Aldi’s no-nonsense approach to discount retail has earned the company appeal in the eyes of many bargain hunters across the Midwest. Still, it doesn’t often figure as a top destination for seafood shoppers… but maybe it should.Aldi doesn’t sell a tremendous amount of seafood, but for such a small category, Aldi’s seafood gets an impressive amount of attention and dedication from company leadership. Aldi has leapt up Greenpeace’s retailer rankings for the second year in a row, moving from a 1.9 out of ten in 2009, to a 3.9/10 in 2010, and now to a 5.5/10 this year (which has earned the company seventh place overall in the 2011 rankings).

Aldi sells no farmed salmon, has already eliminated the worst of its unsustainable species (like orange roughy), and currently offers only seven red list items (where most markets average around 12 or 13). The company also provides a substantial amount of information to consumers through comprehensive seafood labeling practices. Interested customers can discern where any given Aldi seafood product was caught (FAO catch area), the precise species in question (latin name), and the method used in capturing the fish (gear type indications) just by looking at the label. It’s refreshing to see a discount retailer selling fish without obfuscating it under market monikers; hopefully this is a trend that will continue as seafood sustainability continues to enter the mainstream.

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