Love Fish Hate Seafood
Fish is hard. It’s really really hard to wrap your head around this subject. Some farmed fish is very very bad. Other farmed fish is very very good. Salmon has good fatty acids, but the vast majority of it is unsustainably farmed. Some fish you can eat with reckless abandon, and other things like bluefish isn’t advised at all for women and children because of all the pollutants it has absorbed in our dying oceans. Sometimes fish caught from trawling are great, other times the trawling lines tear up sensitive habitats.
How is a fish lover supposed to enjoy seafood when it takes so much work to find stuff that is actually good?
Well, last week Hannaford came out with a new policy on seafood sustainability that was being implemented across 100% of its stores. And not just in the seafood counter, but throughout the store. I was invited to talk with George Parmenter and Jen Levin. He’s the Sustainability Manager for Hannaford Supermarkets and she’s the Sustainable Seafood Program Manager from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Eric Blom the External Communications Manager from Hannaford Supermarkets was also there.
What follows is a very very lightly edited transcription of our conversation.
It’s a bit long. And I may come off a bit like an a-hole. But fundamentally, I support what Hannaford is doing, and think it’s a good first step. Really, I could probably spend a solid week just on this policy. Maybe a month. But we’ve got other fish to fry.
Me: Can you tell me a bit about the new seafood policy?
Him: About three years ago Hannaford committed to act in response to issues with global fisheries to create a sustainable seafood sourcing policy that would ensure a supply of seafood now and for the future, working in partnership with Gulf of Maine Research Institute a non-profit ocean stewardship education and science based research organization to implement this policy. So the work we have been doing over the past three years really has been working with our suppliers, to understand which products in the store have seafood in them as a primary ingredient and literally assessing them. Where in the world’s oceans or seafood farms are these products harvested. Our policy requires that if it’s wild, it comes from a managed fishery, which there is a credible, enforceable, science-based plan in place. And if it’s a farmed product, that it’s certified, and we’ve reviewed it to insure that it comes from sources that don’t harm workers, the environment, and human health. So everything in the store, whether it’s in the fresh seafood case or center store or frozen food aisle 2,500 products from 150 or so suppliers are covered.
Me: So are you removing things from the shelf?
Him: Yes, we are taking things off the shelf. Certain items that we either couldn’t verify or just couldn’t get the information from suppliers, and by default had to be removed. Or just from fisheries that we viewed as problematic.
Me: Are you prepared to talk about specifics, because farmed Atlantic salmon is a big issue. It’s a real hot button topic and I’ve written about a lot. There are some who think it can’t be done sustainably at all, but some say a few are actually doing it.
Him: So, for farmed products we require BAP certification (Best Aquaculture Practice Certification) which is through the global aquaculture alliance. They only just recently released their salmon standards, so a lot of our suppliers are working toward certification. And I think we would say that it [sustainably produced farmed Atlantic salmon] can be done with some oversight by a third party in a way that is environmentally okay. Is it perfect? I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. But honestly we’re looking for improvement–continuous improvement–it’s part of what we’re after.
Me: So what about something with the virus outbreak in British Columbia.
Him: I’m not familiar with British Columbia. I know that Chile had some issues. You know aquaculture is a fairly recent industry. Thirty years ago aquaculture didn’t exist. Part of the reason for our work is aside from the problems with global wild fisheries is that the aquaculture industry was growing so fast, that there needed to be some oversight and certification and that we are very much behind what folks like Global Aquaculture Alliance and ASC and others are doing to improve those fisheries. It’s a fact, that with 9B people soon to be arriving on this planet there isn’t enough aquatic protein, it doesn’t exits today. But if it’s going to exist, it’s got to come from farmed sources. The wild fisheries peaked 20 years ago. And we’re just not harvesting any more wild fish so in order for there to be aquatic protein, what’s more environmentally friendly? Land based protein or farm protein from sea farms or ocean farms? Aquatic farms are a lot more environmentally friendly.
Me: So it’s a challenge some are fed smaller fish and some are fed grains, many of which may be GMO crops. How does that fit into your definition of sustainable farms.
Her: That’s a great question. I can speak to the topic generally, but maybe not to the farm specific.
Him: I’d have to get back to you on specifics. I don’t want to give you wrong information, I thought I read that GMOs are not allowed, but I want to verify that with the standards, so I’ll have to take that offline.
Her: I would echo that. I’m not totally familiar with the specific standards.
Me: But in terms of the broader idea of sustainability?
Her: Some of the really interesting things I’ve seen about feed and where it’s coming from is 20 years ago 80% of the feed was fish based for salmon for example and 20% was land based or soy based. Today that’s flipped. It’s 80% soy based and 20% fish based. And what’s interesting about that is some of that has come from the pressure of not taking foraged fish out of the ecosystem to feed farm raised fish. At the same time…
[I interrupt]… because you are just trading fish for fish
Her: Well, you are, but it’s also fish that nobody wants to eat [laughs], for fish that somebody actually wants to eat.
Me: Well, one might argue that people should be eating more smelt.
Her: Yeah, and actually as a total different project, we’re trying to get more people to eat Mackerel. So with that transition to soy based or land based feed, you also end up with a higher green house gas emission issue. I’ve seen some really interesting lifecycle assessment work on what that transition means. I think the point is that all food production has impact, and it’s being able to identify what that impact is, and continuously try to decrease the environment impact of food production. There are some really innovative things going on with wild harvested fisheries and in farm raised fisheries. I don’t know if you have heard about integrated multi-tropic aquaculture.
Her: So some of the stuff in Canada is doing research on growing salmon with seaweed and with mussels. It’s almost like a self-circulating self-cleaning feeding system, so not only is it better for the environment but it also produces a greater diversity of seafood products for us to eat. It’s good for business, good for the environment. So there are some really really positive and innovative things going on. And at Hannaford with its sourcing policy and the sophisticated approach it’s taking is rewarding those kinds of activities. Knowing exactly where their stuff is coming from, and rewarding those continuous improvements.
Me: Because if things are going to get better, the people who are doing it right need to be rewarded.
Her: And that’s exactly what they are doing.
Me: That’s fantastic. So how is your organization different than the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program?
Her: The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is a research institute. We’re science based, objective entity. We’re actually a non-advocacy organization. And so our role with Hannaford has been to help inform the development of their policy and work with them and their suppliers to inform the implementation of it. So we’re gathering information on fisheries where things are coming from and understanding whether it meets the criteria. So again, we’re non advocacy. So we don’t come out and say you should or shouldn’t eat something. And really the implementer has been Hannaford, which has been helping to inform that decision.
Me: And are the decisions also informed by other contaminants that are in wild fish like mercury, lead, PCBs?
Him: Well I think it’s not specifically something we addressed in our policy. Really we’re looking at how wild fisheries were managed. So I can’t say that’s something we looked at.
Me: So that’s still something for the consumer to make their own decision?
Him: Yeah, absolutely.
Her: Similarly, GMRI we don’t study the health of seafood, but experts and researchers who do are unanimous on this front: That eating seafood is better for you than not eating seafood. And even from a mercury perspective, that selenium in things like tuna far outweigh the risks from mercury in the tuna. And that’s from a consortium of experts, that are concerned that people are not eating seafood, because they are concerned about the health risks [aside: “when they are eating everything else” – laughs and looks around at some of the junk in the center store – apologizes to Hannaford guy]
Me: The same cannot be said about bluefish though. Bluefish is one of those ones that the numbers are just atrocious. [Changing the subject] So… China? Seafood and shrimp from China specifically?
Him: If it’s certified and meets the policy criteria, than yes. We would make the same case that there are good players and good participants there, as well as maybe some bad actors, so we definitely want to reward the people that are doing the right thing: seeking certification and working to improve.
[I checked in about time – I wanted to be respectful of other people’s time, but if I had them for longer, I planned to keep on going]
Me: Fish is a huge topic, it’s been something that’s been really problematic. One of the problems recently has been this idea of fish and fraud. That markets don’t know what stuff it is they’ve been getting. How do you guys manage that.
Him: Everything in the store is fully traceable. We have an online traceability database. As suppliers move product into our supply chain, they’re documenting that on an online database. We are creating an audit protocol to validate that. But we’ve got good data coming in and a way to screen. And in our case, we’re a big buyer. For someone to create false data, there’s too much at risk for them to do that, we think. We are validating it, so I think we’ve got a good method for keeping everybody honest, and keeping the process tight.
Me: So you think that it’s the smaller operators that have problems with the misidentification of fish?
[Corporate communication guy interjects]: We don’t really want to talk about other people.
Me: Farmed salmon has a role. It’s still here. Chinese fish does too.
Him: If they are certified.
Me: Is it hard to find certified Chinese shrimp? I’ll talk about the other people so you don’t have to. I know that Price Chopper recently came out with a big thing about their shrimp and it sounded like really great news, but they were a little bit cagey about the issue of shrimp coming from China, and I think it was really because consumers have this visceral reaction that they may not trust a product that comes from there.
Him: [checks shrimp in the case looking for country of origin] Off the top of my head, I think Thailand, possibly Vietnam. But all that aside, we’re relying on the certification schemes that in place. We’ve looked at those, and we’ve looked at them hard. And we feel comfortable that they’ve done their due diligence when they certify a farm. Our buyers have visited those farms and had very favorable things to say. Our policy is online. We’re very transparent about the fact of how we went about doing the work we went about doing. We think that we’re doing more than any other retailer in the U.S.
Me: So what were some of the fish that ended up coming off?
Him: It’s a variety of items, primarily specific fisheries that didn’t meet our criteria, so we discontinued some mahi, some grouper, some snapper. But not all grouper, mahi and snapper. So if they were for instance engaged with improvement activities, that’s credible and passes the straight-face test, we can confirm it, a third party is involved, then we would continue to carry from that specific source.
Her: And I just want to say that gets to the sophistication of Hannaford’s approach with this stuff, because rather than naming a whole species they will no longer sell, they really went down to the fishery, to the farm, and that way they are using their purchasing power to reward positive behavior and hopefully motivate positive behavior in more fisheries that want access to this market.
Him: And to drive sources to those positive practices.
Me: How much buying power does the seafood at Hannaford represent?
[corporate pr guy]: It’s substantial. We really don’t talk about dollars and cents for proprietary reasons. We’re a large regional supermarket chain. So it’s substantial.
Him: For scope we sold 6.5 million cans of tuna fish last year
Me: Speaking of tuna, do things like dolphin safe play a role in the definition of sustainable? And fishing with nets versus other methods of catching fish?
Him: The dolphin safe is a piece of it, but that’s not the whole story. Really we’re looking for supplier that will partner with ISSF and are actively working on improvements to that fishery.
Me: So for instance, fish that have been caught through things like trawling through sensitive habitats wouldn’t be things that would be in the fresh case?
Her: We, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute does research on gear actually, and developing opportunities to make it more selective and decrease the impact on the habitat. So we work directly with fishermen on these things, and it’s interesting because a lot of people have a very negative connotation associated with trawling for example, and in fact trawling can be one of the most selective and least invasive types of gear.
Me: I think if the answer is that versus nets and the nets go out and trap by-catch, that’s not good either.
Her: Exactly. So another part to the sophistication of this approach is that it hasn’t been like, we’re not going to sell trawled cod or we’re not going to sell this. Actually, it’s consistent with the food and ag organization’s code of conduct for responsible fisheries which is an international standard that the Marine Stewardship Council modeled its system after and the only gear that they’ve banned for harvest are poison and dynamite. Which might be extreme to the low end. But with tuna suppliers for example, looking at the gear types and making sure the hooks are selective, and using circle hooks like they do in the swordfish fishery in the North Atlantic. So yes, there has been some look at gear. But mostly it’s: Is it a managed fishery? Do they monitor the harvest? Is there science to inform the harvest rates? Do they enforce the rules? Those are the primary criteria that Hannaford looks for.
Me: The fish that are being sold, are they labeled for consumers with country of origin and how they were caught?
Him:In the fresh case, everything has a country of origin. It does not have, how it was caught. But we are inviting customers to ask if they have specific questions, we can tell them.
[corporate pr guy] on the website we’ve got an ask the seafood expert.
Me: One of the reasons why I ask is that I’m more familiar with Seafood Watch, and it’s really hard for a consumer who wants to buy sustainable seafood and are keeping track of these things. And say, this one’s okay, but this one causes habitat damage if it’s caught like this. [Changing the subject once again] So what about the Patagonian Toothy-fish aka the Chilean sea bass?
Him: We’ve been very careful not to say, “We won’t sell (fill in the species here)” because if someone can demonstrate that it meets the policy criteria, then it meets the policy criteria. So we’ve been very careful about saying, we’ll never sell that.
Her: MSC certified a Patagonian Toothy-fish fishery, so that would qualify.
Him: But we don’t carry it at the moment.
Me: It’s one of those things that I think is sometimes like flag. People will have concerns about this, whether or not there are a few sustainable sources.
Her: One of the things too is to educate consumers about the realities of what is going on. It’s easy for people to say I won’t eat swordfish, or I’m not going to eat bluefin tuna. But it’s much more difficult to look more specifically at the actual fishery and understand actually what’s going on. And there isn’t a way everyman can do that while being in the store because they might not have access to that information. Which is why Hannaford’s approach I think is really great, because it makes it easy for those of us who shop here to say, “You know what? I know at least everything here meets these criteria that they’ve outlined in their policy.” But when you eliminate whole items then that takes away any reward for positive behaviors going on in the industry. So it’s a shame. I always hate it when I hear someone say, “I won’t eat swordfish” or “I won’t eat tuna.” But there’s some really good stuff going on out there that you can feel good about.