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.
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
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
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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Mine! Mine! All mine!
In an age where we are pushing our planet’s limits in search of resources, we find more and more poignancy in questions of corporate social responsibility. What obligations, either ethical or legal, should govern an a extractive operation as it roots around in the rainforest, slurps up the oceans, or grinds its way into the Earth’s crust in search of coltan, cod, or crude oil?
We have reached a point where the simple ability to access a resource can no longer be interpreted as right to do so. This kind of anachronistic thinking has gotten us into a world of trouble. The fact is that we are an incredibly powerful species, with the technological capacity to perform jaw-dropping feats. We can build immense transit tunnels below the ocean, launch intricate networks of satellites to enrich communication, and splice vegetable DNA into a chicken. This kind of space-age tech lends perceived legitimacy to business plans which make endeavors like offshore oil drilling appear safe and massively profitable. A few people make a lot of money, something goes horribly wrong, and we all pay the price.
The toxic results of this kind of unmitigated rapacity have been spurting into the Gulf of Mexico for weeks now. A small group of people decided that they were willing to gamble with the health of our planet for their own personal gain. We should be furious. Who do these pompous egoists think they are, and why, for God’s sake, are we allowing them to compromise our future for their own profit?
This appallingly selfish approach to business must be stopped. Given that we live together on a finite planet, the corporations of the future must be those that are willing to take responsibility for their actions.
The concept of sustainable seafood is predicated on the idea that seafood purveyors, which have for decades served as implements of oceanic destruction, must start standing up for the planet regardless of traditional consumer preferences. The fact is that the average seafood diner or sushi patron simply does not have the time to educate him/herself on the environmental impacts of the vast and ever-changing array of seafood options available to consumers in today’s world. Diabolically efficient fishing technology coupled with cheap refrigeration and well-organized global freight networks allow us access to countless seafood items for all corners of the globe, some environmentally acceptable and some quite the opposite. As such, chefs, merchants, and restaurateurs that take the initiative to defend the ocean and its future. After all, if you work in the seafood industry, it is the ocean that is providing your paycheck.
The face of the future?
Thankfully, we are seeing a gradual shift towards this more responsible way of thinking. In the seafood world, I can think of no better example than Martin Reed and his sustainable seafood delivery business, ilovebluesea.com. Reed shoulders the burden of sorting the proverbial wheat from the chaff himself, so his customers really can’t make a mistake in terms of the environmental repercussions of their choices. Ilovebluesea.com refuses to offer seafood items that are in the Seafood Watch “avoid” category or on the Greenpeace red list, and demands transparency and traceability on the part of his suppliers. Gear type, catch location, and other important information must all be provided before ilovebluesea.com agrees to offer the fish. The company is even addressing packaging and shipping issues by using recyclable and/or biodegradable containers rather than Styrofoam and similar petro-synthetic nightmares.
A much larger company also recently took an impressive step towards corporate social responsibility in the seafood world. Maersk, the shipping giant, has declared that it will not transport any whale products, any shark products (including fins), any Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish, or any orange roughy on its ships due to concerns about the sustainability of these products. This is a very powerful message, especially when one considers that Maersk ships about 20% of all of the world’s internationally traded sea-borne seafood products.
Full steam ahead
The Greenpeace seafood retailer rankings also help to shed some light on seafood purveyors that are – or are not, as the case may be – doing the right thing. Companies like Target and Wegmans are taking positive steps and working towards truly sustainable seafood operations, while others, like Costco, are charging full steam, hands clapped over ears and yammering loudly, propelling us all in our mutual handcart down to Hades.
We obviously do not have the legal framework in place to reign in this kind of behavior. Otherwise, one could surmise, we would never have had a Deepwater explosion, and Costco wouldn’t be selling Chilean seabass and orange roughy in the first place. Given that, it is up to us as consumers to act.
We need to reward businesses that are making the change towards legitimate corporate social responsibility. Buy seafood from honest purveyors that don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes. Some companies are willingly selling out our oceans to line their bank accounts – so why are we shopping there?
If you want to make your money from my ocean, you’d better treat it with respect. It’s about responsibility, jerk.
It’s a bad time to be an ocean-dweller.
Nets of doom
First, we have the overfishing crisis, which continues virtually unabated. Every day, we yank hundreds of thousands of pounds of life out of the sea, often in strikingly inefficient and destructive ways – bottom trawls rake the floor of the ocean, pulverizing corals and flattening any animals that lack the locomotive capacity to evade them, while pelagic longlines indiscriminately slaughter curious seabirds, turtles, and sharks as collateral damage in our unrelenting quest for seafood.
To make matters worse, President Obama, who was elected in part by an engaged and hopeful environmentalist demographic, has completely turned his back on the oceans and their largest denizens – whales. His 2008 promise to strengthen the international moratorium on commercial whaling has been completely subsumed by an insidious new agenda that seeks to dismantle the moratorium, legalize whaling in the Southern Ocean (including Japan’s ongoing hunt for endangered fin, sei, and humpback whales), and create an unspoken tolerance among the world’s governments for this intolerable activity.
Nice work, slick
And above it all, offshore drilling has finally revealed itself as exactly what we have always feared it would be – an inevitable environmental cataclysm. The ruptured Deepwater Horizon pipeline continues to release untold amounts of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, strangling birds, fish, and any other life forms unfortunate enough to be caught within its suffocating expanse… which is currently the size of the State of Delaware, not to mention up to 45 feet deep in some areas.
Our oceans and their denizens are besieged on all sides. Given these seemingly insurmountable odds, it is difficult to maintain any sense of optimism when one considers the state of our world’s waters. Still, all is not lost. All three of the aforementioned menaces have sparked resistance, and with the right kind of passion and leadership, we just may find a way out of this mess after all.
Misleading labels: an endangered species
Although overfishing remains a tremendous problem, Greenpeace’s recent Carting Away the Oceans report highlights some significant progress: quite a few major retailers have taken strong steps towards the development of sustainable seafood operations. Companies like Target, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Safeway are making positive sourcing decisions that reduce environmental degradation and enable their customers to shop with a more confidence. Even Trader Joe’s, which earned both ire and infamy last year for its indifference to sustainability in seafood, has turned a corner. A recent announcement on the company’s website indicates that Trader Joe’s has discontinued orange roughy and is currently developing a sustainable seafood policy as well as more informative and transparent labeling. Beyond this, the company has called out the need for marine reserves in fishery management and has promised to use its purchasing dollars to support visionary leadership in industry (such as closed-containment salmon). The work has only just begun, but it is comforting to know that this company, which was once an incorrigible laggard in these areas, may now be in the process of becoming a true leader.
Our government’s efforts to legalize whaling and reward Japan, Iceland, and Norway for their continual disregard of international law and the will of the vast majority of the Earth’s population seem to have hit a snag as well. Monica Medina, the lead US delegate to the International Whaling Commission and the champion of the legalization effort, seems to be backpedaling a bit in the face of enormous public resistance. Opposition to this despicable initiative is so vocal, in fact, that a petition urging Congress to reconsider has received over 100,000 signatures – and the number is growing every day.
Apply lessons learned... please
It’s not easy to find something positive to say about the horrific oil disaster in the Gulf, but maybe – just maybe – we can find a way to coax a silver lining out of this mess. One can surmise that if it is this difficult to repair oil drilling mishaps in an area as accessible and temperate as the Gulf of Mexico, it would be infinitely more challenging in the Arctic. And there will be mistakes in the Arctic. There will be spills, fires, and other accidents – they are inevitable to some degree, as we have so painfully learned. So perhaps our government will read the writing on the wall and reinstate a total moratorium on offshore drilling, including the new leases in the Arctic. While this won’t quell Deepwater’s hemorrhaging, save Louisiana’s shrimp industry, or clean the crude off of any brown pelicans, it would certainly be a massive positive step towards precluding even more – and even worse – nightmares like this from occurring in the future. Even California’s Governor Schwarzenegger has heeded the harsh lessons of Deepwater Horizon and rescinded his support for a bill that would prompt new oil exploration off the coast of California. Now, I never thought I’d want Obama to take a page from the Governator’s book, but in this case, it seems like Schwarzenegger has the right idea.
So yes, things look grim for our oceans, no doubt about it – but there is hope. There is always hope. Countless people are struggling against the crises facing our oceans, doing their utmost to heal this planet that we are ravaging so blindly. And it is those people, and their efforts, and the possibility of a better future for us and for our children that keeps hope alive. It is undoubtedly a bad week to be a fish, or a whale, or a turtle, or a Louisiana shrimper – but next week just might be a little better.
The rainy saison
Last week, the world’s fish geek community converged on a frigid, misty Paris to form the 2010 Seafood Summit, an annual event organized by the Seafood Choices Alliance and designed to facilitate discussion about the current state of the seafood industry and the future of our planet’s fish. Over 600 representatives of industry, academia, the environmental movement, government agencies, and intergovernmental bodies came together to exchange ideas, intelligence, and insults while firmly ensconced in a Parisian conference hotel.
A wide swath of topics was covered by a diverse medley of panels and presentations over the three days of the summit. Fisheries were analyzed, certification schemes were compared and contrasted, and environmentalists sparred with industry hardliners. Through it all, gossip ricocheted down the corridors of the conference center, partnerships were forged in the fires of crisis, and luminaries rained wisdom down on a parched audience.
Fortunately for seekers like myself, the conference was blessed by the attendance of the most illustrious group of aquatic icons since the cast reunion of Finding Nemo.
Pauly pulls no punches, people
Dr. Daniel Pauly, preeminent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, opened the event with a keynote speech that magnificently wove candor, charisma, and the statistical equivalent of howitzer fire together to illustrate the grave state of our oceans. He pulled no punches. Notable quotes from the address include: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as a sustainable trawler,” “[Carnivorous] aquaculture is robbing Pedro to pay Paul,” and my personal favorite, “You are all too fat! You don’t need to eat so much protein!”
The peaceful yin to Pauly’s blood-and-thunder yang came at the end of the summit in a gentle, supportive, and passionate closing speech by Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a chairman of the ocean-worshipping Packard Foundation. Packard’s words helped to sooth nerves rubbed raw by the energy and fervor that had electrified the Summit. Eco-freaks, ocean plunderers, and everyone in between sat in silence during the address, thankful for the clarity and the solace in Packard’s words.
Clover combats culinary catastrophe
Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line and one of the planet’s most valiant defenders of the bluefin tuna, brought his mission to the Summit as he engaged in any number of discussions with key figures from the industry, academia, and the environmental movement. His unique ability to meld the twin facets of his personality — “dashing eco-warrior” and “stodgy old tory” — into a surprisingly charming duality worked wonders as he promoted his newest venture, the environmentally-oriented restaurant review website fish2fork.
There were a number of themes that influenced the general direction of discussion. Target’s decision to eliminate farmed salmon was a major focus of discussion, as was the progress being made in France towards the inclusion of Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1. The was a great deal of interest in the emergence of new and lesser-known fisheries, such as salmon runs in the Russian Far East, and there were some powerful discussions comparing and contrasting various sustainable seafood “approval” schemes and certification systems — this proliferation of rankings, stickers, and seals is clearly one of the most important issues facing the industry today.
While some of the same old baggage was trucked in yet again — I found myself in yet another hard-headed shouting match with a salmon farmer, for example — there was actually a great deal of progress visible at this year’s summit. People were actually discussing real issues. An entire day was devoted to tuna, and while some of the weaker industry-WWF collaborations (such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation) did receive an inordinate share of unjustified back-slapping, there was some positive, reality-oriented talk as well. No one stood up to defend ICCAT during the discussion on bluefin stock management, for example. One can only hope that those days are over.
A light in the darkness
As we move forward into 2010, I am optimistic and full of hope. There was a genuine, palpable desire for change rippling through the attending body at the Summit. Our patience for the plausible (and implausible) denial of the changes our planet and our oceans are undergoing seems to be at its end. I sincerely believe that if we work together and challenge old, broken paradigms without fear, we will be able to capitalize on this desire for change, and rebuild the seafood industry into something that works.
The conventional salmon farming industry has never had it so tough.
In an unprecedented policy shift, the Target Corporation – one of the largest retailers in the United States and a direct competitor with Walmart – has just today announced the elimination of all farmed salmon products from its stores. Fresh, frozen, shelf-stable, and smoked items will from here on out exclusively be made with wild Alaskan salmon — no exceptions. Even its sushi department, which is notoriously the most stubborn part of this industry when it comes to change (thus the existence of this website), is in the process of phasing out the last bits of its farmed salmon.
While this act is truly staggering in its magnitude and its implications for the seafood retail industry, of equal importance are the reasons behind Target’s decision. The company does not mince words when it comes to why they have made this transition — Target’s communications department clearly states that the company is not interested in supporting an industry that has done such harm to our marine ecosystems. Their press release spells it out quite simply: “Target is taking this important step to ensure that its salmon offerings are sourced in a sustainable way that helps to preserve abundance, species health and doesn’t harm local habitats… Many salmon farms impact the environment in numerous ways – pollution, chemicals, parasites and non-native farmed fish that escape from salmon farms all affect the natural habitat and the native salmon in the surrounding areas.”
Wild salmon for the people
This move will undoubtedly shake the salmon farming industry to its very core. Target, after all, is not exactly a high-end gourmet market – rather, it’s a price leader that specializes in providing quality products for low prices. How, then, does a market that worships price-driven competition manage to eschew an item that embodies the very concept of bargain seafood?
With help from Greenpeace and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Target has opened the door to a new era of seafood – one that dares to question tired old paradigms that cannot withstand this kind of innovation. Retailers which have parroted the weary excuse of farmed salmon filling an otherwise unattainable price point will now be exposed as complacent rather than pragmatic. If a low-cost hypermarket like Target, which needs to sell salmon for $6.99 a pound, can manage to transition entirely to wild, sustainable product, how can the Whole Foods clones of the world defend their reliance on environmentally dubious farmed products that sell for over twice the price?
Off to the races
To make matters even more difficult for the industry, a new threat has arisen in the form of legitimate and economically viable closed-containment salmon. Earlier this month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program took another swipe at the open-net nightmares that festoon the Canadian and Chilean coasts by giving the “Best Choice” green light to a new closed-containment salmon farm in Washington State. This operation, lovingly termed “Sweet Spring” by its proprietor Per Heggelund, raises coho (silver) salmon in a sealed recirculating system located many miles inland, far from the fragile habitats of the Pacific Northwest’s wild salmon populations. The feed component of this operation is still not perfect as it does exceed an even fish-in-to-fish-out ratio, but compared to the parasite-riddled, antibiotic-laden concentration camps that provide much of the world’s farmed salmon, Heggelund’s facility is a beacon of progress.
The horror... the horror
Conventional farmed salmon is caught between a rock and a hard place, and it is not a moment too soon. Salmon farms have been the source of countless problems over the past decade – diseases in Chilean farms rip through penned animals like hot knives through butter; parasite swarms in Canadian farms threaten the very survival of co-habiting wild salmon runs, not to mention the essence of Pacific Northwest cultural integrity.
Salmon are the backbone of who we are here on the west coast. It is the wild salmon runs that bring nutrients from the sea to the land, that fertilize the river banks and feed the yawning bears. If we allow this, our greatest legacy, to perish at the hands of a small group of cash-blinded eco-criminals, it is doubtful that we will ever find another source of such selfless bounty.
We need courage, innovation, and foresight if we are to create a wise and responsible seafood industry that can steward our oceans in the coming decades, and it’s companies like Target and entrepreneurs like Per Heggelund that are leading the charge. Remember this day — this was the day that we took our salmon back.
Days gone by
It’s been quite a year.
As the last few heartbeats of the year 2009 fade away, it is natural to take stock of how far we have come. It’s important to recognize our victories, as well as to isolate and examine our shortcomings. After all, there’s certainly no need to make the same mistakes again in 2010.
I’m also happy to say that it was Sustainable Sushi‘s first birthday at some point in the last few weeks. Over this past year, this website has afforded me with the opportunity not only to explore many fascinating issues, but to discuss them with people commenting from all across the globe. It has been a wonderful experience, and I thank you all so very much for helping to make it happen.
So, 2009: a tumultuous year by any standard. The oceans have had a tough time of it, but in other ways, we’ve achieved more than we could have possibly hoped for.
There have been times over the past twelve months when things have seemed bleak. It is beyond debate that the oceans took some major blows this year, and some of the ominous clouds on the horizon have grown even darker:
At the same time, we’ve seen some incredible successes this year. All across the planet, people stood up for the oceans, bringing their passion for a better planet with them as they cooked, shopped, wrote, worked and marched:
The End of the Line, a documentary on overfishing and the state of the world’s oceans, was released. This led to increased pressure on Nobu restaurant to discontinue the sale of endangered Northern bluefin. This momentum manifest in celebrity petitions, dozens of articles in trade and mainstream press, and a Greenpeace campaign.
It's finally over
The Cove, a shocking documentary about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, was released worldwide. Broome, Australia, discontinued its sister-city relationship with Taiji over the fiasco. Taiji has temporarily halted its dolphin drive, but other communities in Japan continue to hunt dolphins. The Cove has even been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”
- 2009 marked the first year in a world beyond the grindadrap: the annual Faeroese pilot whale drive that had caused much consternation among environmentalists. In response to warnings by their chief medical advisors, the Faeroese practice of slaughtering pilot whales and distributing the meat throughout the community was halted permanently in November of 2008.
The majority of these positive changes are part of a greater pattern: an accelerating increase in our overall awareness of the problems faced by our oceans. Movies, magazine articles, and activist campaigns have brought the health of our fisheries to the headlines and to the tips of our tongues. The amount of conversations we are having at coffee shops, in grocery stores, and around backyard barbecues about seafood sustainability and environmentally responsible fish consumption has never been higher – and rising faster than ever before.
Stand and fight
Yes, it’s true that the bluefin tuna is in dire straits. It is true that eel poaching continues unabated, that bottom trawlers still prowl the seas, and that we are on pace to empty the oceans of all seafood in less than forty years. Still, as menacing as these threats are, they are not the most important issues at hand.
The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet. We are more aware. We are more alert. And we are much more energized and focused.
Hundreds of new ocean activists are standing up every day to make a difference. Maybe they write a check, or they buy a different kind of fish, or they have a conversation with a chef or grocer. Maybe they simply have coffee with a good friend and spread the word. It doesn’t matter – it all helps. Every day we come closer to achieving critical mass, a fully realized awareness that will mobilize our true potential to save our oceans.
A brave new world
So let’s make 2010 the year that we redouble our efforts. It is time to capitalize on our momentum and push even harder, accomplish even more for the sake of planet and our future. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, but make no mistake: we are stronger than the forces that would hold us back. And on those particularly gloomy days, when bad news comes crashing down and the future looks insurmountably bleak, just remember: you are not alone. We’re all in this together – you, me, and the millions of other people that are out there fighting every single day, working to make this world a better place for all of us.
Take heart — we are winning.