Greenpeace's annual survey of national retailers' progress on sustainable seafood reveals the leaders and the losers.
It's kind of (awfully) remarkable that even though the ocean is so vast – covering 71 percent of the Earth – we ravenous humans still manage to wipe out its creatures. Throughout history the sea has been thought of as a limitless source of food, but our rapacity and unsustainable fishing practices over the last 50 years have pushed many fish stocks to the point of collapse. Whole ecosystems can tumble as a result, which is not only bad for the fish and the ocean, but also devastating for the economies that rely on it.
On the bright(er) side, at least, it's a problem with growing awareness. As well as growing attention to fixing it, as evidenced by Greenpeace's annually published Carting Away the Oceans report. The report has been rating grocery retailers across the United States for how sustainable their seafood is. In the first report 10 years ago, every single retailer received a failing score. This year, 90 percent of the retailers profiled received passing scores.
Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner David Pinsky tells TreeHugger:
Almost across the board, supermarkets have made improvements on their sustainable seafood offerings, ten years after ever single supermarket failed in our initial Carting Away the Oceans report.
This year's report analyzes the seafood sustainability of 22 U.S. retailers looking at four key areas: policy, initiatives, labeling and transparency, and inventory. As you can see in the graphic below, Whole Foods Market takes the number one spot.
The report notes that in 2011, Whole Foods was the first U.S. retailer to sell private label sustainable canned tuna, and in 2017, became the first to commit to selling only sustainable canned tuna across its entire private label and national brands. The company also only sources tuna caught one-by-one, thereby avoiding the horrendous practice of transshipment, where smaller boats refuel, restock, and transfer catch onto larger vessels. "This practice is often used to traffic workers who have no means of escape," notes the report, "turning fishing boats into floating prisons, and enabling vessels to hide illegally caught fish and mistreat crew members."
In 2015, six of the markets profiled in the report had sustainable private label canned tuna products; today, that number has jumped to eleven, with more retailers planning to launch products soon.
(And even though that's great news, I always think of this quote by Katherine when the topic of canned tuna comes up: "Ever since I heard someone describe tuna as “the lions of the sea,” it has seemed absurd to be hunting and packing this mighty, magnificent sea creature as one of the cheapest forms of protein for humans. We wouldn’t sell canned lion for mere cents a can, so why do we do it for tuna?")
Anyway. There were four retailers who were ranked in the top category:
1. Whole Foods
Aside from the canned tune progress, Whole Foods also showed significant sourcing improvements. Hy-Vee placed second, earning praise for their advocacy and transparency initiatives. ALDI inched into third place for new policies to address problem practices like transshipment at sea. Meanwhile, Target placed fourth after improvements in policy and advocacy initiatives.
Here is how all of the retailers fared, based on their overall score. Below 40 is failing (red), 40 to 69.9
is passing (yellow), and above 70 is leading (green).
And while this is all relatively good news, the report takes a related detour and talks quite a bit about plastic pollution. So far, none of the retailers have introduced comprehensive policies to reduce and/or work on phasing out their reliance on single-use plastics. Noting that the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic enters our oceans every minute, and with plastic production set to double in the next 20 years, largely for packaging, "the threats to ocean biodiversity and seafood supply chains are increasing."
It makes sense to me that Greenpeace is pressing retailers to take responsibility for their contribution to the plastic pollution problem. I often do a thought experiment/visualization when I'm in a supermarket; I imagine removing all the edible contents from their packages, of all the products in the store, and seeing what was left. There would be one hill of food, and an enormous mass of packaging; packaging much of which will end up in the ocean. And that's for just one turnover of the shelves. Supermarkets may not be actually producing all that packaging, but they are the middleman, of sorts, and they have a lot of power to help curb the problem.
Speaking of the substantial progress retailers have made in addressing the issues of seafood sustainability, I'm hoping – and guessing – that Greenpeace will start focusing on plastic more.
"Now, we need to see that same energy put into the issue of plastic pollution," Pinsky tells us. "For the benefit of marine animals, our oceans, and people, it's time for retailers to reduce their single-use plastic footprints."
You can read the whole report in PDF format here: Carting Away the Oceans