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Fishing For Details

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Photo: Amy West

KUSP Report by Amy West

Standing at the seafood counter can trigger many questions: Is the fish local, free of mercury, on sale, farmed, or rated green, yellow, or red? Buying the right fish is not always easy for the consumer or the grocer. But if you are posing those seafood questions, they might help change what lands on the menus, and in the seafood cases.

“We no longer sell any red-rated seafood in our seafood cases,” said Carrie Brownstein, seafood coordinator for Whole Foods. “Those are the fish from populations that are either highly overfished or caught in ways that catch other marine life or harm habitat.”

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Seafood on display at Whole Foods. Photo: Amy West

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Trawlers net Alaskan pollock (rated yellow by Seafood Watch), a whitefish commonly used in imitation crab meat and in McDonald's fish fillets. Photo: Amy West

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Seafood on display at New Leaf. Photo: Amy West

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Yellow and green-rated fish at New Leaf. Photo: Amy West

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Fishing practices such as trawling can scoop up unwanted fish, or bycatch- like these dogfish. The amount of bycatch will influence a seafood's ranking. Photo: Amy West

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New Leaf labeling also includes fish low in mercury. Photo: Amy West

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From boats to your plate: Alaskan black cod (green rating) and Alaskan turbot (yellow rating) caught on a longline. Photo: Amy West

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Fishwise labeling indicates how the fish was caught, such as handline or contained aquaculture. Photo: Amy West

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Sustainable shrimp was one of the hardest to source for New Leaf. Photo: Amy West

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Whole Food's Branzini, a farm-raised European sea bass. Photo: Amy West

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Price differences between local and farm-raised salmon at Whole Foods. Photo: Amy West

The nationwide grocer is the first to remove their red wild-caught fish, such as California rockfish, from every store. Other large retailers like Safeway and Target are committed to do the same for both farmed and wild. Individual Whole Foods stores choose to follow seafood guidelines from either the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. These recommendations are color coded like a stop light, and rank a seafood type according to their environmental concerns. A green-rated fish rises above all of them.

“In the ‘buy/don’t buy’ realm, we do support people buying yellow, Good Alternative, and green, Best Choices,” said Sheila Bowman, the outreach manager for Seafood Watch. “The only thing we think people should steer clear of is the stuff that is on the red list.”

Though yellow-rated fish come with some concerns, wild fisheries are dynamic, and some, Bowman said, may actually move around on the list.

Some fish, like tuna, can be all three colors.

“When you are buying seafood, you do have to know more than just the type of seafood, so you definitely have to ask questions,” said Bowman.

You have to fish a little deeper if you want a green-rated tuna, and ask how it’s caught, or what region it comes from. Those questions can be effective in tracing the path of your fish.

“It’s the customers who ask the questions, and then the chef is like ‘Wow I don’t know that answer myself’, so he turns and asks his distributor who might then in turn ask the producer,” said Bowman.

In addition, misnomers like sea bass, also found on the green, yellow and red list make it difficult to determine what you are actually getting. According to Bowman it’s like calling a menu item, ‘meat.’

“Is it a hamburger or is it prime rib?” she said. “You’d want to have a little more information to make the choice and sea bass is a perfect example of one of those very generic terms that sometimes isn’t even used to describe an actual bass.”

In fact, grouper, Patagonia toothfish, and perch may be referred to as sea bass. New Leaf Community Markets sells an Atlantic sea bass, rated green through their partnership with FishWise. Two UCSC students started FishWise in 2002. Using Seafood Watch criteria they educate grocery staff and help them source sustainable seafood. Store case labeling gives customers extra details about their fish, which eventually led them to ask why New Leaf even sold red-rated seafood at all. So six years ago New Leaf removed them.

Chris Farotte, New Leaf’s seafood and meat coordinator, said, “When we eliminated the red, our seafood sales actually went up. The customer’s confidence that everything in the case was sustainable actually drove seafood sales to be higher than they were previously.”

Partnering with New Leaf propelled FishWise into bigger markets like Safeway and Target, which are transitioning to sell only sustainable seafood guided by Seafood Watch criteria. This includes fresh and frozen fish, both wild-caught and farmed.

Seafood such as shrimp can be raised in ponds or caught in the wild, so knowing more about the containment systems when seafood is farmed is critical.

“Shrimp was the toughest one to source- finding a sustainable shrimp,” said Farotte. “Some shrimp farms are farther along than others.”

Whole Foods developed their own farmed standards.

“They are the strongest standards out there in industry without a question,” said Brownstein. “They cover every issue that one could be concerned about with aquaculture.”

Some of their requirements, she said, include an annual third party audit for each farm, traceability and prohibiting antibiotics. Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute do not evaluate individual farms or certify a fishery, but give a recommendation based on all the ways a seafood type is caught. A study by Seafood Watch will show which certifiers set standards that match to at least a yellow rating. Trusting a labeling system is crucial to consumers and retailers.

“I don’t look at the labels, because, buying from New Leaf you pretty much assume that everything is part of the FishWise program,” said Ann Smith, a New Leaf customer. “I just look at what’s fresh and what looks good.”

But those who aren’t local, like Sean Lovett of Sonoma have never heard of FishWise, or bringing sustainability into seafood.

“If I was shopping more… unfortunately my wife does most of the shopping,” said Lovett.

His concerns revolved around contaminants in fish, but agreed a labeling program would help consumers like him make decisions.

So even if you don’t get to do the shopping, asking question could eventually reel in important details about the fish you are eating.

“Sometimes you can’t get the exact answer today, but by asking the question- you are priming the pump to make sure that information is there in the future,” said Bowman.

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