GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 5, 2012

Whole Foods fish stand seen with limited local impact

By Nancy Gaines
Correspondent

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a corrected version of this story. The initial version had listed an incorrect value for the fish sold to Whole Foods by local boats.

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Regardless of tough regulations in New England to prevent fishing that might harm the habitat — and with even tougher limits on the way — Whole Foods Market, the Texas-based grocery chain that specializes in organic and natural foods, said it will cease to sell fish, such as cod, caught by trawlers.

The move is likely to have little impact on the local economy, because the boats "will take their catch elsewhere," rather than to the Whole Foods processing plant on Parker Street, suggested Monte Rome, owner of Intershell Seafood, a worldwide dealer on Commercial Street.

Rome said he knew of one boat that sold about 250,000 pounds of cod to Whole Foods last year — worth about $700,000. He estimated there are three or four other boats that haul the same, for a total of up to $2.8 milliion overall.

Whole Foods is known for paying good price for catch, said fishing experts, but because of the forthcoming decrease in the allowable catch of cod — mandated by a controversial government stock assessment — the price for the fish at auction and for consumers is apt to go up anyway.

The grocer firm announced last week it will no longer sell fish caught "from depleted waters or through ecologically damaging methods," determinations based solely on a measure by private advocacy groups.

"We hope to source the same amount of net- and line-caught Atlantic cod that we previously sourced on trawl," said David Pilat, global seafood coordinator for Whole Foods. A company spokeswoman said she did not know how much fish that entailed.

Starting April 22, the high-end grocer said it will no longer carry seafood that is "red rated," referring to a rating from the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Both are closely tied to the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pew Environmental Group, two of the corporately-backed nonprofit organizations that have been extensively involved in fisheries. EDF was the primary creator of the controversial catch share management system that has been in effect in New England for the last two years.

Among the seafood disappearing from Whole Foods shelves will be octopus, gray sole, skate, Atlantic halibut and Atlantic cod caught by trawls, the company indicated. It will stock replacements such as cod caught on lines and halibut from the Pacific.

"This is just a gimmick," said David Goethel, a three-term member of the New England Fisheries Management Council, which advises the government on policy and regulations.

"Whole Foods sets itself up as an alternative to the traditional supermarket, so it has to have a PR ploy that says 'we do more.'"

Trawl fishing in certain areas, such as those with coral growths, can harm the sea bottom, agree experts — including Goethel, who is vice chairman of the advisory board's habitat committee.

"In New England, you can't do that," he said.

There is some thought, yet unproved, that trawling — or dragging, as it is known within the fishing community — on sandy or gravelly bottoms can upset new life in the habitat.

Goethel's committee is readying to release a re-evaluation, "based on science," he said, that might restrict even more areas to further protect the environment.

"New England," he said, "has been quite pro-active."

Correspondent Nancy Gaines is a veteran reporter and editor of national and Boston publications.