The Best (And Worst) Retailers For Sustainable Seafood

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For those looking to shop sustainably, buying seafood can be an especially fraught process. Is wild caught salmon better than farmed? Should you buy swordfish or sea bass? Is canned tuna safe to eat — or safe for the environment?

According to a new report by Greenpeace, one of the most powerful decisions a consumer can make when buying seafood is deciding which retailer to buy from. In their ninth Carting Away the Oceans report, the environmental organization ranks the top retailers in the country based on the sustainability of their seafood, from storewide policies to transparency of information. For the third year in a row, Whole Foods takes top honors, while stores like Publix, A&P, and Save Mart come in last.

“The report is really looking at how these companies can take leadership roles, whether that’s through their policies or the way they communicate with customers,” David Pinksy, the report’s author and Greenpeace’s senior oceans campaigner, told ThinkProgress. “When we look at them in terms of revenue, it’s very important that these large companies are doing the right thing.”

In this year’s report, four retailers earned a score of seven or higher in Greenpeace’s rankings, which take into account things like store policies, sustainability initiatives, information transparency, and types of seafood sold (anything on Greenpeace’s Red List of threatened species is off-limits). Pinsky said that these stores — Whole Foods, Wegmans, Hy-Vee, and Safeway — all have strong sustainability policies that guide their purchasing, and do an especially good job of providing information about their seafood and sustainability commitments to customers.


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

“Each of them have taken steps to confront illegal fishing, they’ve called on Congress to pass legislation, they’ve all called for protection of sensitive marine habitat, and they are actively working to offer more sustainable canned tuna,” he said.

Since launching the report in 2008, Pinsky said, Greenpeace has seen significant progress in terms of retailers implementing more sustainable policies when it comes to seafood. This year, 80 percent of the 25 retailers looked at in the report received a passing score — something that Pinsky commends — but he notes that many are still lagging behind in addressing the necessity for marine sanctuaries, sustainable tuna fishing, and human rights abuses in the fishing industry.

“The conversation is there, and we have started to see some shifts in terms of what companies are supplying,” Pinsky said. “I think the big challenge right now goes back to human rights abuses, and how are supermarkets going to rise to the challenge here. That is absolutely the task ahead that they need to address.”


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

This past year, several news outlets broke stories chronicling human rights abuses in the fishing industry, especially with regards to slavery on board fishing vessels. The Associated Press looked into slavery on Indonesian fishing vessels and found that “tainted fish” can end up at retailers like Kroger and Safeway, while a Guardian investigation uncovered slavery in the Thai shrimping industry and found that shrimp from these operations were being sold at some of the largest retailers in the world, including Walmart and Costco.

In many ways, Pinsky points out, unsustainable fishing practices encourage human rights abuses in the industry, forcing shipping vessels to travel farther out to sea for longer periods at a time in search of increasingly over-fished and dwindling populations. In some cases, workers on fishing vessels can remain at sea for months or years at a time, Pinsky said.

According to the Greenpeace report, these conditions are especially common for vessels that deal with tuna, where unsustainable management practices have led to a 60 percent reduction in populations on average. Some retailers — like Target and Costco — have created proprietary labels for canned tuna, assuring that the tuna sold in their store comes from healthy ocean stocks and is caught using sustainable management practices.

Beyond committing to sustainable fishing practices and taking charge on human rights issues, Greenpeace is also urging large retailers to double-down on their commitment to protecting delicate marine ecosystems, especially the Bering Sea Canyons located between Alaska and Russia. Nearly half of all seafood consumed in the United States comes from fisheries in the Bering Sea, and the canyons — the largest submarine canyons in the world — provide critical habitat for fish in the region. It’s also the only major habitat in the Bering Sea that isn’t protected, in some way, from fishing. To date, eleven retailers included in the report — Ahold, Costco, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee, Roundy’s, Safeway, Southeastern Grocers, SUPERVALU, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and Whole Foods — have publicly called for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to protect the Bering Sea Canyons.

The report, Pinsky said, is meant to encourage retailers to use their buying power to prioritize the need for sustainably-sourced seafood.

“The call is out there for major companies, like Walmart, Kroger, Publix, and Albertsons,” Pinsky said. “It’s time for them to get in the game and really prioritize this.”

But customers can also use their buying power to create change, Pinsky said. For those who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods or don’t live near a Wegman’s, he suggests a simple action: Talk to your grocery store directly.

“Share with managers in these stores, ask questions,” Pinsky said. “If folks are concerned about human rights abuses or they want to see something that is more sustainable, simply asking the seafood staff counter is a very powerful thing to do.”