A Ban on Some Seafood Has Fishermen Fuming
Naz Sanfilippo fumed about the latest bad news for New England
fishermen: a decision by Whole Foods to stop selling any seafood it does not consider sustainable.
Fish like the Atlantic cod will no longer be sold by Whole Foods.
Starting Sunday, gray sole and skate, common catches in the region, will
no longer appear in the grocery chain’s artfully arranged fish cases.
a New England staple, will be sold only if it is not caught by
trawlers, which drag nets across the ocean floor, a much-used method
“It’s totally maddening,” Mr. Sanfilippo said. “They’re just doing it to make all the green people happy.”
Whole Foods says that, in fact, it is doing its part to address the very
real problem of overfishing and help badly depleted fish stocks
recover. It is using ratings set by the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium
in California. They are based on factors including how abundant a
species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method
damages its habitat.
“Stewardship of the ocean is so important to our customers and to us,”
said David Pilat, the global seafood buyer for Whole Foods. “We’re not
necessarily here to tell fishermen how to fish, but on a species like
Atlantic cod, we are out there actively saying, ‘For Whole Foods Market
to buy your cod, the rating has to be favorable.’ ”
The company had originally planned to stop selling “red-rated” fish next
year but moved up its deadline. The other fish it will no longer carry
are Atlantic halibut, octopus, sturgeon, tautog, turbot, imported wild
shrimp, some species of rockfish, and tuna and swordfish caught in
certain areas or by certain methods. (Whole Foods has already stopped
selling orange roughy, shark, bluefin tuna and most marlin.)
Although the new policy will affect fishermen nationwide, the reaction
from Gloucester and other New England ports may be the unhappiest. New
England has more overfished stocks than any other region, according to
federal monitors, and its fishing industry has bridled — and struggled
to survive — under strict regulations.
“We’ve been murdered,” said Russell Sherman, who sold his entire catch
to Whole Foods for the last six years and is seeking new buyers. “It’s
not fair at all.”
Jim Ford, who said he sold 700,000 pounds of fish to Whole Foods over
the past year, declared, “It’s a marketing ploy, that’s all.” Mr. Ford
said he would now sell to the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain instead.
Whole Foods has had a fish processing plant here since 1996, the oldest
of four around the country, and has processed about 10,000 pounds of
fish a day here in recent years. A number of local boats have worked
with Whole Foods, including a handful that sold exclusively to the
Still, Whole Foods is only one buyer, and there will be “plenty of other
market demand,” said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a trade group here.
“It’s the precedent and the message it sends out that’s really
unfortunate,” said Mr. Giacalone, whose family runs a fish auction that
sells to Whole Foods. “Whole Foods is a reputable, credible food source
for a big community of people, and so when their headquarters makes this
kind of statement, it’s not good for the industry.”
Some question the need for grocery stores to reject certain
American-caught fish when the government has already imposed its own
conservation measures. Many of the nation’s fishermen now operate under
federally created systems that allocate a yearly quota of fish.
And for some stocks, the quotas are being reduced; fishermen are facing a
22 percent cut in the amount of Gulf of Maine cod they can catch. In
New England, some areas are closed to fishing for part or all of the
year; in others, only certain kinds of gear can be used.
“We have the strictest management regime in the world,” said David Goethel, a fisherman from Hampton, N.H. and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council.
“So using the word ‘sustainable,’ maybe it looks good in your
advertising. But, without being too harsh, it means absolutely nothing.”
But Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, said Whole Foods was doing the right thing.
“Whole Foods is setting a good example by offering fish from relatively
well-managed fisheries,” she said. “It’s too bad that more New England
fish don’t qualify, but over time, such market forces should help bring
these fish back — both in the ocean and to the Whole Foods seafood
Whole Foods is not the first supermarket chain to limit the kind of
seafood it sells in the name of sustainability. Last month, BJ’s
Wholesale Club announced a plan to sell seafood only from suppliers
“identified as sustainable or on track to meet sustainability standards
by 2014.” Other chains are making similar moves.
But in Gloucester, anyway, some fishermen are taking the Whole Foods decision more personally.
Whole Foods will continue to sell New England catches like haddock,
pollock, scallops and hake. And it will still sell Atlantic cod that is
caught by gillnets or, preferably, hook and line, Mr. Pilat said. While
Whole Foods will still sell Pacific cod, he said, it will not appear
much in the company’s New England stores for cultural reasons.
“The number of local fish that we will have to discontinue is minimal,”
he said, “and we will be replacing those species with other very similar
species, such as buying more flounder instead of the gray sole.”
The company is developing relationships with more hook boats, he said.
But there are few such boats in the cod fishery, according to the
Some fishermen questioned why Whole Foods would approve net-caught fish,
as marine mammals are known to get entangled in gillnets, and
hook-caught fish, as hooks often end up catching undersize fish. Last
week, federal regulators announced that they would ban gillnet fishing
for part of the fall in coastal waters from Maine to Cape Ann, Mass.,
because too many porpoises had been dying in the nets.
“There’s no immaculate fishing gear,” said Mr. Goethel, the fishery council member.
Mr. Sherman said that Whole Foods told him it would still buy pollock
and hake from him, but that he could not even offload cod and gray sole
at its docks unless it was quickly removed. “They’re talking about my
fish like it’s atomic,” he said. “Believe me, they are a great outfit to
work for, but they are corporate, and this is a corporate move.”
Mr. Giacalone, while disappointed, did not waste an opportunity to talk
about some of the New England-caught fish that will still be available
at Whole Foods, starting with pollock. “It’s a great eating fish,” he
said. “Almost like the dark meat on a turkey.”
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