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Whole Foods Seafood Report Card

June 9th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Posted in Blog, Sustainability

Seafood counter at Whole Foods

Seafood counter at Whole Foods

Some weeks ago I asked my local Whole Foods here in the District of Columbia why they weren’t selling two varieties of fish widely touted as “sustainable,” farmed barramundi and Alaskan black cod, also known as sablefish. If what seafood lovers need is more selection of “sustainable” varieties, I figured Whole Foods would be the most likely place to find it. So why not barramundi or sablefish, which are both rated “best choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program?

Well, it took a few weeks to get an answer. In fact, I never did receive a reply to my initial e-mail to the local Whole Foods. And it took a written note to the seafood manager plus some follow-up prodding with the store manager before I finally got a response. Then an e-mail from seafood manager Donnell Owens arrived informing me that barramundi normally is available in June and July. Sablefish, however, would have to be special-ordered.

I replied to Donnell asking why farmed barramundi is only available in June and July, and why Alaskan black cod (sablefish) has to be special-ordered when other Alaska fish, such as halibut and salmon, are not only “sustainable” but readily available. That was May 29. I have not heard back.

The last time I was at the Whole Foods seafood counter inquiring about barramundi and sablefish, I made a note of the fish that were on display and checked them against the ratings published by Seafood Watch. As you can see, very few of the fish at Whole Foods (only four) earn a “best choice” rating from Seafood Watch. A surprising number of Whole Foods’ offerings in fact are listed as “avoid,” while others merit only “good alternative,” meaning they’re okay, but have issues.

Conspicuously absent from the Whole Foods offerings are some fish that are not only abundant, but extremely healthy because they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as sardines and mackerel. I see them there only rarely.

Here’s the complete list of what I saw at Whole Foods on this particular day. As always, sorting through finfish listings can be mind-boggling. Ratings often hinge on very particular species and sub-species, exactly where on the planet they were caught and by which of several fishing methods. Whole Foods does a fair job of identifying where fish come from and sometimes how they are caught. Usually, the clerk selling you the fish will have no clue beyond the most basic information.

Clearly a growing number of consumers want to do their part to protect the oceans. But what’s a home cook to do when information is so difficult to come by, and when so many of the fish said to be the best choices–barramundi, sablefish, sardines, mackerel–are rarely if ever made available at the seafood counter?

Atlantic Cod: “Avoid.” Massively overfished. “Scientists agree that we are now fishing the last 10 percent of this population.”

Atlantic Salmon (farmed): “Avoid.” Pollution and escape problems from open-ocean farming operations.

Bay scallops (Mexican): Farmed bay scallops are a “best choice.”  The Mexican bay scallops at our Whole Foods are advertised as “wild caught.” Neither Seafood Watch nor Blue Ocean Institute publish ratings for “wild caught” scallops, but some varieties are severely depleted and dredging for them can damage ocean habitat. 

Bluefish (Atlantic wild-caught): “Good Alternative.” Overfished.

Chilean Seabass (Patagonian Toothfish): “Avoid,” with one exception. Overfished, methods environmentally unsound. Pirating abounds. However, one fishery has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Look for the MSC label. (This is the one Whole Foods carries.)

Coho Salmon (Alaska wild-caught): “Best Choice.” The fisheries in Alaska are among the best-managed in the world.

Grouper:  “Avoid” grouper from the Atlantic. Grouper from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is listed as a “good alternative.” However, grouper from the Main Hawaiian Islands is listed as “avoid.”

Haddock: “Avoid” haddock caught by trawl. Haddock caught with hook and line is listed as “good alternative.”

Hake: “Avoid” white hake. Silver, Red and Offshore Hake, also known as Whiting, Ling Hake and Squirrel Hake, are listed as “good alternative.”

Halibut (Alaskan): “Best Choice.” Extremely well-managed fishery.

Mahi-Mahi (also known as Dorado): “Avoid” imported mahi-mahi caught by longline. Atlantic mahi-mahi caught by troll or pole is an “best choice.” Other types of mahi-mahi are listed as “good alternative.”

Monkfish: “Avoid.” Seafood Watch says, “Monkfish populations are thought to be recovering, but concerns remain due to the types of gear used to catch this fish.”

Red Snapper: Overfished and listed as “avoid,” unless it is the wild-caught variety from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, in which case it is considered a “good alternative.”

Shrimp (Thai): “Avoid” imported shrimp. The only shrimp that rate a “best choice” rating are pink shrimp from Oregon and spot Prawn from British Columbia. Shrimp caught wild in U.S. waters, or farmed in the U.S., are listed as “good alternative.” 

Swordfish: Swordfish caught by harpoon or hand line is a “best choice,” but U.S. swordfish caught by drift gillnet or longline rates only “good alternative.” You should “avoid” imported swordfish caught by longline. In addition, swordfish can contain elevated levels of mercury.

Turbot: Otherwise known as Greenland halibut, caught in U.S. Pacific waters, is listed as “good alternative,” but concerns over bycatch and bottom trawling persist.

Yellowfin tuna: Also known as ahi, caught in the U.S. Atlantic with the troll/pole method, is a “best choice.” Most other kinds of yellowfin rate only “good alternative.” You should avoid imported yellowfin caught using longline because of bycatch abuse. In addition, tuna may contain elevated levels of mercury.

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  • Amelia

    Wow, thanks for this detailed run-down. Maybe I’ll have some halibut soon. And that’s great to know about the Chilean sea bass, which I’ve never tasted because I assumed was a universal no-no. Good to know about the MSC label. Too bad about not having sardines available, though.

  • Ed Bruske

    Amelia, I went back to Whole Foods this morning to buy stock up on canned sardines (I snack on them) and saw that they had sardines from Portugal for sale at the seafood counter. I asked whether this was a response to the Wash Post’s food article last Wednesday on sardines and the clerk said, no. And he hadn’t noticed any uptick in demand for sardines, either. Whole Foods was not mentioned in the Post as a source for sardines. Wonder why. They were selling for $10.99 a pound. The price on halibut was so good (relatively), down from the usual $21 a pound to $13.99 that I bought a piece. Now would be the time to buy your halibut–and some sardines. They only had 10 pounds on hand.

  • melissarenee

    Great information — I appreciate it. You’re right, the fish situation is confusing and no one at the Whole Foods I occasionally frequent here in Colorado seems to have convincing answers either. The environmental and species problems related to farmed fish are many — it’s very sad. No easy answers, that’s for sure.

    Pass the canned sardines, please.

  • recette tiramisu

    thak’s a lot for this great post