Backers respond that they are helping transform many of the globe’s wild-caught fisheries, giving them a financial incentive to include environmental safeguards, while giving consumers a sense of what they can eat with a clear conscience.
To add to the confusion, there are a variety of certification labels and guides, prompting retailers to adopt a hybrid approach, relying on multiple seafood rating systems or establishing their own criteria and screening products that way.
As of Sunday, for example, Whole Foods stopped selling seafood listed as “red” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute — including octopus, gray sole and Atlantic halibut — because these species are overfished or caught in a way that harms ocean habitat or other species. The move has sparked criticism from New England fishermen, who are now barred from selling to the upscale chain. Whole Foods also sells only pole- or line-caught canned tuna, which harms fewer species than conventional tuna-fishing methods.
Target no longer sells farmed salmon — which has come under fire for consuming a disproportionate amount of forage fish and creating several other problems — and has pledged that by 2015 it will sell only fresh and frozen fish that are “sustainable and traceable.” Wegmans said it will not obtain seafood from the Ross Sea in the Antarctic, which many environmentalists say should be off-limits to fishing, and this fall it will start selling oysters from plots it has leased in the Chesapeake Bay as part of a fishery restoration project. Beginning in June, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest seafood retailer, will require all of its fresh and frozen wild-caught and farmed seafood to be certified by a third party as sustainable or have a plan in place for suppliers to be certified. At this point, 76 percent of its suppliers are certified.
Blue Ocean Institute President Carl Safina, a scientist who published the first sustainability rankings for commonly eaten fish in 1998, said that a decade ago, eating a piece of fish was akin to eating a piece of bread.
“You just picked it up and ate it. It wasn’t subject to any discussion or inquiry,” he said. “Now it’s a broad discussion about where it came from, about whether it’s sustainable. This is enormous progress compared to the change we’ve made to any other form of food production in the same amount of time.”
The most stringent and commonly used certification is that of the Marine Stewardship Council, which has certified 148 wild-caught fisheries, or between 6 and 7 percent of the global supply. It uses independent reviewers to determine whether a fishery earns an MSC-certified label and can be classified as sustainable — meaning that the fish is relatively abundant, the fishery is well managed, and catching it does not harm other species or ocean habitats.