GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 14, 2010

Whole Foods agrees to halt 'red' fish sales

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Whole Foods Market, a leading green supermarket chain with a major buying presence on the Gloucester waterfront, has announced a commitment to stop selling seafood that does not carry the seal of approval by one of two rating services that are enemies of trawling — the primary fishing method of the New England fleet.

The publicly traded company announced an "in-store color coded sustainability rating system" in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute, with a commitment to stop selling "red rated species by Earth Day 2013."

The Whole Foods' deadline for ending its commerce in seafoods burdened with the "red "label is more than two years off — Earth Day is in April. But based on current ratings of the two services, Whole Foods would no longer carry fresh cod, monkfish, hake and most haddock — the basis of the groundfishing industry, which is gasping for survival under unprecedented government catch limits, and hemorrhaging jobs.

A nascent proposal for a boycott of the chain was floated across commercial fishing's blogosphere Monday night after news of the agreement of Whole Foods to adhere to Monterey and Blue Ocean ratings.

"Here's a company that needs a dose of reality," wrote Jim Kendall, a leading seafood consultant in New Bedford. "They have been so very willing to swallow any bait that the ENGOs (environmental non-government organizations put out there, that it is nothing but a slap in the faces of fishermen everywhere."

Kendall ended his e-mail to a core of industry activists who organized a national protest demonstration at the U.S. Capitol by about 5,000 last February with the suggestion:

"How about we label 'Whole Foods' as 'red' and therefore to be avoided at all costs," he wrote. "After all, we have our own environment to protect."

In a telephone interview, James Hughes, Whole Foods vice president for the North Atlantic Region, said the long lead time to Earth Day 2013 was set to give the company and the fishing industry time to solve gear and other problems.

But Hughes said Whole Foods would not be surprised if its commitment to "sustainability" and "animal compassion" might come "at a cost" to the company.

Whole Foods buys directly from the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction and maintains a processing and distribution operation at the Jodrey State Fish Pier. Gov. Deval Patrick toured the plant over the summer during a visit to Gloucester to forge strategies with the fleet aimed at reversing federal policies that officials acknowledge will eliminate fishing boats and jobs while consolidating fishing industry control into fewer, often more corporate hands.

Based in Austin, Texas, Whole Food has more than 250 stores in the U.S., including 10 in Greater Boston.

Although monkfish and haddock are fully rebuilt and the rebuilding of Gulf of Maine Cod is nearly complete, according to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other studies, the Seafood Watch program at the California aquarium puts the red light on those fish in part because of the method of fishing — trawling, which has become a cause celebre in many so-called "green" and "blue" circles.

"The main fishing method for Atlantic cod is bottom trawling, which causes substantial damage to bottom habitats," is the judgment of the Blue Ocean Institute, a platform for Carl Safina, a New York-based writer and influential environmentalist.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, built on the location of John Steinbeck's Cannary Row, is largely supported by philanthropy from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and maintains close ties to Jane Lubchenco, President Obama's choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She has proved a lightning rod, alienating not only much of the fishing industry, but longtime supporters such as U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

Whole Foods said it would allow the aquarium and Safina's institute to rate only seafood that is unrated by the Marine Stewardship Council, an original in the seafood rating service industry, but one that's been attacked by newer groups for its commercial roots that include Unilever, the British food conglomerate.

Attacks on MSC have grown more frequent in recent weeks. None of the key stocks of the New England groundfishery are approved by the MSC.

Whole Foods Market describes itself as the world's leading natural and organic foods supermarket, and America's first national "Certified Organic" grocer.

"Our company mission is to promote the vitality and well-being of all individuals by supplying the highest quality, most wholesome foods available," according to the chain's annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Since the purity of our food and the health of our bodies are directly related to the purity and health of our environment, our core mission is devoted to the promotion of organically grown foods, food safety concerns, and the sustainability of our entire ecosystem.

"Through our growth, we have had a significant and positive impact on the natural and organic foods movement throughout the United States, helping lead the industry to nationwide acceptance over the last 29 years," the profile adds.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. is a Texas corporation incorporated in 1980.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.