Posts Tagged Whole Foods

Jun 1 2012

Q&A: Eat that fish! When Overfishing is Also Sustainable

Ray Hilborn, Professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, and Co-Author of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know

Written By Christie Nicholson 

Contributing Editor at SmartPlanet


Many of us think that if a fish species is overfished we probably should be wary about choosing it at the supermarket or on the restaurant menu. But the opposite may be true. Our boycotting of some overfished species may be hurting us and the American fish industry, not the fish.


This counterintuitive opinion is laid out by Ray Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, and co-author of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know.


Hilborn holds that the public, food retailers, NGOs and congress have misunderstood what defines a sustainable fishery. In fact overfishing and sustainable can, oddly enough, go together.


SmartPlanet caught up with Hilborn in Seattle, WA to get a better understanding of this paradox and why he thinks a fish boycott doesn’t make sense.


SmartPlanet: What are red listed fish?

Ray Hilborn: Red lists are advice that a number of NGOs provide on what species of fish one should avoid eating.

SP: And Whole Foods stopped selling such fish based on these red lists?

RH: Yes Whole Foods made a commitment to not sell any food that’s on the red list of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Oceans Institute.

SP: And other stores and restaurants have done similar things?

RH: Yes red lists are widely used.

SP: What are the criteria for red-listed fish?

RH: The three criteria that most NGOs use. One is status with respect to overfishing. The second is concerns about bycatch. So if you have a fishery that is catching a significant number of turtles, or sharks, or other species they’ll often get red-listed. Finally there are concerns about the environmental impacts of fishing, particularly concerns about trawl nets, or nets that touch the bottom and change bottom habitat.

SP: But you have made the point recently that if a species is overfished it doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be sustainable. And this seems counterintuitive. People might say well red lists sound more like the right thing to do.

RH: There’s an enormous lack of understanding about what sustainability really is. Essentially sustainability has nothing to do with the abundance of the fish and much more about the management system. So if you’re managing it in a way where if it gets to low abundance you’ll reduce catches and let it rebuild. That’s clearly sustainable.

You can have fish that are overfished for decades but still be sustainable. As long as their numbers are not going down they are sustainable. Some of it is “overfished” with reference to the production of long-term maximum yield. It doesn’t imply declining and it doesn’t imply threat of extinction.

SP: And even if it falls into this latter category that you just described it should be safe for consumers to eat?

RH: So long as it’s in a management system like the U.S. where when stocks get to low abundance we dramatically reduce catches, and the evidence is they then rebuild. Then yes, those stocks are perfectly sustainable.

SP: What about this issue of bycatch?

RH: OK, so the NGOs will say, “Oh this stock is not sustainable because there is bycatch of sharks.” Well the stock is sustainable. Every form of food production has negative impacts on other species. And that’s where there’s an enormous double standard applied to fish.

For instance, I guarantee you there’s a big environmental impact of buying soybeans that come from cutting down rainforest. There’s a much higher standard applied to fisheries than almost anything else we eat.

SP: What goes into creating a sustainable fishery?

RH: The first thing is you have to monitor the trend in the stock. You have to have a  system based in good science, that says this stock is going down. Then your management actions have to respond to the trend.

SP: What about foreign fish? Which ones can we eat?

RH: Much of the fish of the world do not qualify as sustainable because we just don’t know what’s happening in other countries like Africa or Asia. Now, very few fish from those markets makes their way to the U.S. market. But some of the Atlantic cod populations in Europe are still fished much too hard. But the big propulsions in Europe are actually quite sustainable. Much of the cod that make it to the U.S. are coming from Iceland or Norway where the stocks are in good shape.

SP: But how do you tell the difference if it’s cod coming from an overfished area?

RH: Well, that is a major problem. But if it’s Marine Stewardship Council certified you can be pretty sure that it’s what it claims to be. Personally, I tend to buy a pretty narrow range of fish that come from my region, like salmon, halibut, and black cod. And pretty much all of those are MSC certified.

SP: You mention that the boycott on sustainably caught fish does nothing for conservation.

RH: You can boycott this all you want, it’s not going to affect what’s caught. Because for these overfished stocks enormous effort is being taken to catch as little as possible and it’s not the consumer market that drives the amount of catch. Those fish are going to be caught and they’re going to be sold because there are a lot of markets in the world that don’t care about classification and red lists, essentially all of Asia, which is the world’s biggest seafood consuming market.

The places that consumer boycotts might have an effect is for fish like bluefin tuna or swordfish.

SP: Well if boycotting makes no difference, is there a negative side to boycotting?

RH: My real target is to tell retailers and the NGOs, “Look, let’s get more reasonable about what we mean by sustainability.”

SP: And we need to get more reasonable about the definition of “sustainability” because there are real economic dangers to the fishing industry? Or is it because of something else?

RH: Yes, that’s certainly one of the issues. Let’s not punish these fishermen who have paid a very high price to rebuild these stocks. Let’s let them sell what they’re currently catching.

SP: So it seems the word “overfished” is also more nuanced?

RH: Well I think Congress had this very naïve view that somehow you could manage every stock separately and if cod is depleted, at low abundance well we stop fishing it, but they don’t appreciate the cost of all the other species that we could not catch because we can’t catch those species without also catching some cod as bycatch.

Now, there’s a lot of work going on to try to solve that problem. But I it’s important to convince people that we will always have some overfished stocks. And if we continue with our current U.S. statement that ‘no stock shall be overfished’ we’re going to have to give up a lot of food production. We’re certainly doing that now.

SP: You’ve also argued that fish is a food we need?

RH: If we don’t catch certain fish with trawl nets, and let’s say it’s twenty million tons, then that food is going to be made up some other way. And what’s the environmental cost of the other ways of producing the food? My initial calculations suggest that it is quite a bit higher. We should always be saying, “Well if we don’t eat this, where else is the food going to come from, and what’s the environmental cost of that?”

SP: So you ultimately feel that the marketing of these red lists has gotten to the point where it’s lost rational sense?

RH: Yes. I’m pretty convinced that seafood production is more sustainable than growing corn in Iowa or wheat in Kansas. Because growing corn in Iowa forces us to lose topsoil every year. In another 200 years the topsoil will be be largely gone. Is that sustainable?

SP: So your feeling is that disappearing fish from the store shelves is going to force us to lose food and presumably money?

RH: Yes, and to eat more livestock or chicken now.

Check out the article on the SmartPlanet blog.

May 28 2012

Whole Foods Is Wrong Says Industry, Environmentalists, Scientists, Congress and Government Data

Note: The article below is a companion piece that compliments Ray Hilborn’s article, Eat Your Hake and Have It, Too. Although the focus of this article is on east coast species, there are also a few species on the west coast that have received less than favorable ratings on the Seafood Watch Card.


“I haven’t been judged by this many people since I forgot my canvas bags at Whole Foods.” 
– Character of Mitchell Pritchett, ABC’s “Modern Family”

by Bob Vanasse and John Cooke |  Saving Seafood Staff

WASHINGTON – For some time, Whole Foods Market has used green issues as part of its marketing effort, appealing to the legitimate concerns of its customers for environmental protection and sustainability.  On a recent episode of ABC’s hit series “Modern Family”, the character of Mitchell Pritchett, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, delivered a punch line about shopping-bag sanctimony in the store’s check out lines.  On Earth Day of this year, Whole Foods extended the sanctimony to their fish counters, announcing they would no longer allow their customers to buy fish rated “red” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute.

Since that policy was introduced on Earth Day, industry leaders, environmental advocates, fisheries scientists, and lawmakers have gone on record either directly opposing – or presenting information raising serious questions and doubts about – the “red” sustainability ratings.  In addition, information made public by the federal government, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), directly contradicts many of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean assertions.

Michael Conathan of the Center for American Progress wrote, “Whole Foods’ decision to cast its sustainability lot with national organizations that fail to account for the localized impacts of their policy pronouncements also speaks directly to the broader problem of the consolidation of our food-purchasing decisions. Policies set at a corporate level will inherently be made in the best interests of the company. Environmental health or animal cruelty issues may play a role, but at the end of the day the decision will come down to what’s best for the company’s bottom line.”

Ray Hilborn, professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington and author, along with his wife Ulrike Hilborn, of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know, published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, is highly critical of the science behind Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute’s ratings. In an op-ed in the New York Times, the Hilborns write that the ratings “are based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes a sustainable fishery. The fact is that we can harvest a certain fraction of a fish population that has been overfished, if we allow for the natural processes of birth and growth to replace what we take from the ocean and to rebuild the stock.”

They go on to write that American fisheries are some of the best managed in the world, and that in the last 11 years NOAA has declared 27 species rebuilt to healthy levels. They note that even species that are considered overfished are governed by catch limits to ensure sustainability, and “there were no apparent conservation benefits from the refusal of consumers to buy those overfished species.”

The Hiborns’ claims are backed up by data from NOAA’s Fish Watch, a program by NOAA Fisheries to provide seafood consumers with the most up-to-date information on seafood sustainability. According to NOAA, several of the red-rated (“avoid”) seafood species on Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute’s seafood list are not as threatened as their ratings would suggest. Rather, these species are heavily regulated to ensure their conservation and rebuilding.

Read the full article on SavingSeaFood.

May 26 2012

Eat Your Hake and Have It, Too

Eat Your Hake and Have It, Too

 By Ray Hilborn and Ulrike Hilborn


WHOLE FOODS recently stopped selling fish that are on the “red lists” of seafood to avoid, issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. Other major food retailers are considering similar measures, under the assumption that because a species is overfished, it is not sustainable.

Those decisions are based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes a sustainable fishery. The fact is that we can harvest a certain fraction of a fish population that has been overfished, if we allow for the natural processes of birth and growth to replace what we take from the ocean and to rebuild the stock. Instead of calling on consumers to abstain from all overfished species, we should direct our attention at fisheries that consistently take more fish than can be naturally replaced.

Bluefin tuna is a classic example of a species that has been consistently harvested too hard and should be avoided by consumers. But at the same time, the United States has made remarkable progress in rebuilding overfished stocks. Wild populations of 27 species have been rebuilt to “healthy” levels in the last 11 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Earlier this month, the agency announced that six formerly overfished stocks had been rebuilt, including Bering Sea snow crab, Atlantic Coast summer flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock.

But even as those stocks were being rebuilt, there were no apparent conservation benefits from the refusal of consumers to buy those overfished species. The catch was limited by rules set by regional fisheries councils based on quotas determined by fisheries scientists and enforced by the oceanic agency and by the Coast Guard. Any boycott punished American fishermen, who got a lower price when the catch was sold abroad.

Elsewhere in the world, many fisheries have become unsustainable because of fishing pressures. Most of Asia and Africa do not have management systems that regulate those pressures. And while Europe does have a management system, the quotas are often based on politics rather than science. Many European stocks are fished too hard — some cod stock, for example — and should be avoided by consumers.

If we are to fully harvest the potential sustainable yield of fish from the ocean, we cannot follow the utopian dictum that no stocks may be overfished. After all, even in sustainably managed fisheries, some stocks will almost always be classified as overfished because of natural fluctuations in their populations.

At the same time, we should recognize that seafood-labeling systems hold seafood to much higher standards than other forms of agriculture. The same stores that won’t sell an overfished species are selling other foods whose production affects the environment far more.

During a recent visit to a Whole Foods store in Seattle, we saw no evaluation of the environmental impact of the meat being sold. Free-range chickens were labeled, but there were no labels telling us if pesticide and fertilizer runoff from growing the corn used to feed the beef caused dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, or if the soybeans came from land clear-cut out of the Brazilian rain forest.

Truly informative seafood labels must distinguish between the abundance of a fish stock and its sustainability. Some fish will be disappearing from supermarket shelves over the next few years even though they are being sustainably managed. Consumers should tell retailers and environmental groups not to “red list” fish stocks that may be overfished but are being replenished.

Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, and Ulrike Hilborn, a retired organic farmer, are the authors of “Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know.”


Read the article online via the The New York Times.