Buying sustainably sourced seafood can seem like an endless search. The intricacies of which fish, from which area, caught by which method can be mind-boggling. But there’s good news for Southern California shoppers – according to Greenpeace, we can choose among three of the top four major supermarket chains when it comes to selling sustainable seafood.
In the 2014 edition of the ocean organization’s Seafood Retailer Scorecard, Whole Foods, Safeway (Vons and Pavilions in Southern California) and Trader Joe’s were ranked among the best nationally. Five other retailers – Target, Walmart, Costco, Albertsons and Kroger (Ralphs and Food 4 Less in Southern California) – received passing grades.
The survey only covered major chains. Smaller regional chains such as Bristol Farms and 99 Ranch were not included.
Greenpeace rated the chains, which account for roughly half of all supermarket sales in the country, on four major criteria – whether they have a sustainable seafood policy, whether they support seafood sustainability initiatives, how clearly fish are labeled as to sourcing, and how many “red list” troubled species of fish they sell.
“What we’re trying to do is take care of a lot of the work for the consumer,” says Greenpeace senior seafood campaigner James Mitchell. “It’s hard to keep track of everything you need to know to buy sustainable fish, but chances are that if you walk into one of the supermarkets that are ranked higher on this list, you’re likely to do better than if you’re going into one that is at the bottom.
“For consumers who don’t walk around with a Seafood Watch card in their pocket, we’ve done a lot of the work for them, helping them to be able to do the right thing.”
Progress has been remarkable. The survey started in 2008, and according to Mitchell, the first year every one of the 20 chains graded failed. This year, using the same criteria, only four did – none of them represented in Southern California.
“The supermarkets are undoubtedly paying attention to this survey,” Mitchell says. “And it’s been great to see the top retailers doing even better than they had in previous years.”
While most of the scrutiny in sustainable seafood is focused on fresh fish, Mitchell says that one of the real bright spots over the last several years has come in canned tuna, second only to shrimp on Americans' seafood hit parade, and the most popular wild-caught seafood we eat (most shrimp is farmed).
The methods used for catching all of this tuna have a profound effect on other species. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s both offer store brands of line-caught skipjack and Whole Foods offers line-caught albacore as well.
“This is huge," Mitchell says. “Four out of the top 5 supermarkets in our report have their own brand of sustainable canned tuna now. That is a huge part of the marketplace. And the really great part is [with these house brands] we’re finally at a situation where we can have sustainable and affordable tuna at the same time.”
All the news is not good, though. The three biggest sellers of canned tuna – Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea – continue to use problematic fishing methods (despite “dolphin-safe” labels).
And closer to home, though no local chains failed the survey, Albertsons and Kroger (which includes Ralphs and Food 4 Less) barely passed, ranking Nos. 20 and 21. And since Albertsons recently merged with Safeway, it remains to be seen which group’s seafood program will prevail.