Much is at stake. Overfishing jeopardizes the dietary essentials of the billion people who rely on fish as their primary source of nonvegetable protein, and it threatens the health of the oceans themselves.
Despite plummeting fish stocks, overfishing is accelerating around the globe, encouraged in part by $30 billion in annual subsidies for fishing boats, fuel and other assistance.
Asian and European nations provide the heftiest subsidies in efforts to keep a beleaguered industry afloat.
Subsidies and government inaction undermine efforts to give a rest to areas of the ocean so fish have a chance to replenish their populations.
S. Robson "Rob" Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, was on a scuba-diving trip at Cocos Island off Costa Rica when one of the nation's leading conservationists persuaded him to join the sustainability movement.
Peter Seligmann, co-founder of Conservation International, had arranged the dive trip. During previous outdoor adventures, a friendship had evolved and with it $21 million in donations from the Walton Family Foundation for Conservation International's ocean programs.
After diving with schooling sharks and boating amid spinner dolphins, Seligmann told Walton that even a billionaire's generosity wasn't enough to prevent the impoverishment of the oceans.
"I was very clear with Rob," Seligmann said. "I said, 'I respect that you are dealing with philanthropy and your personal interest. We need to have a discussion with Wal-Mart. It is important for us to discuss with the world's largest retailer the issue of supply chain and the impact it has positively and negatively on the resources of the world.' "
Walton, who is a major Wal-Mart shareholder and chairman of its board of directors, agreed to introduce Seligmann to Wal-Mart Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. A series of discussions led to a meeting in February at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
There, company officials announced to a gathering of conservationists and seafood suppliers that Wal-Mart would switch to wild-caught seafood certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
It also pledged to push for improvements in the way farm-raised shrimp and salmon, its two most popular items, are grown. Shrimp and salmon farms often spread pollution and disease to surrounding waters and contribute to the overfishing of wild fish, which are used to feed farm-raised stocks.
"We are the largest seafood retailer in the U.S.," said Peter Redmond, Wal-Mart's vice president for seafood and deli. "We have a pretty large footprint in everything we do. We have the kind of volume that could help a fishery make the move to sustainability."
McDonald's recently began taking similar steps after collapsing fisheries prompted it to look for ways to ensure a long-term supply for its 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries.
"We have seen fisheries dry up," said Bob Langert, McDonald's vice president for corporate social responsibility. "We want to make sure that we take actions within our supply chain to secure fish for the future. We want to have fish on our menu 10, 20 and 30 years from now."
Today, McDonald's has begun to shift away from rapidly dwindling stocks of Russian pollack to more sustainable sources, including the council-certified Alaskan pollack and New Zealand hoki.
Kellie McElhaney, a UC Berkeley business professor who studies corporate social responsibility, said a reform movement often gained stature when big companies decide to join.
"It ain't a church if you don't invite the sinners," she said.
For reforms to last, she said, corporations must see them as part of a business opportunity, such as gaining market share, customer loyalty or securing long-term supplies — as is the case with McDonald's.