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12/01/2011

Fish Story

Spurred by consumer concerns, more grocers and suppliers are committing to sustainable seafood programs.

Sustainable seafood is no flash in the frying pan. All across the United States, supermarket operators and the companies that supply them are rolling out stringent programs to ensure that the product they offer green-minded consumers is as eco-friendly as possible.

Aiding the retailers in their fishy endeavors are several well-regarded nonprofit certification organizations that work with trading partners to encourage sustainable fishing and sourcing practices.

Minneapolis-based Target Corp. made big waves in October when it pledged to sell only sustainable, traceable fresh and frozen seafood products by 2015 as a result of a partnership with Santa Cruz, Calif-based FishWise.

Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y also recently adopted the Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) chain of custody certification for its fresh seafood counters. The London-based council's distinctive blue ecolabel now appears in the retailer's fresh seafood cases to help customers identify MSC-certified wild-caught product.

Initially, the regional grocer is offering customers MSC-certified wild salmon, cod, halibut and haddock. Big Y sources almost all of its fresh seafood from New Bedford, Mass.-based North Coast Seafood.

At fellow New England supermarket operator Shaw's, a Super-valu-owned banner based in West Bridgewater, Mass., the MSC also certifies fresh case product. Additionally, the chain carries fresh items verified through the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), a nonprofit marine science center in Portland. Shaw's was the first New England-based retailer to carry fresh product certified by the MSC.

The grocer worked closely with both organizations, as well as North Coast Seafood, the chain's exclusive seafood supplier, to develop the program, which debuted in September. Among Shaw's inaugural MSC-certified product offerings are wild sockeye salmon, wild king salmon, wild Coho salmon, wild Alaskan halibut, Pacific frozen-at-sea cod, Canadian frozen-at-sea flounder, Icelandic fresh haddock and Canadian fresh haddock. Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested products include lobster, northern shrimp, cod, haddock, sea scallops and pollock. Further fresh seafood items will be offered as the program expands over time.

Keeping up the Good Work

Among those grocers that are building on their already established sustainable seafood efforts are Kroger and Safeway.

According to an October progress update from Cincinnati-based Kroger, the grocer is on track to meet its sustainable seafood goals within the next three years. “Today's seafood supplies are not unlimited, so Kroger is taking steps to require our suppliers to follow sustainable practices,” says Mark Van Buskirk, Kroger VP for meat and seafood.

Kroger has teamed with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading Washington-based conservation organization, to develop the company's strategy for responsibly sourced seafood. The company is committed to sourcing 100 percent of the top 20 wild-caught species from fisheries that are MSC-certified, in MSC full assessment or engaged in a WWF fishery improvement project by the year 2015. Today, 65 percent of Kroger's top 20 wild-caught fresh and frozen species are sourced from fisheries meeting these standards.

Further, the grocery chain has set a goal to source 75 percent of the top 20 species by volume from MSC-certified fisheries by 2015. Currently, about 50 percent of its top 20 species by volume are sourced from MSC-certified fisheries.

Kroger also works with the Best Aquaculture Practices program of the St. Louis-based Global Aquaculture Alliance to ensure that the farmed seafood its stores sell meets strict sustainability standards.

Since the beginning of 2011, Kroger has discontinued the sourcing and sales of shark, bluefin tuna, marlin, and — as of October — skates and rays, because of mounting sustainability concerns regarding these species.

Also in October, the grocer introduced a campaign to educate customers and associates about the importance of sustainable seafood practices, corresponding with National Seafood Month. The campaign included in-store stanchion and countertop signs and brochures, and an updated sustainable seafood section of the company's sustainability website, http://sustainability.kroger.com.

Product Partners

Part of a sustainable seafood commitment is offering new items that generate excitement and live up to exacting environmental imperatives. Products carried by Wegmans Food Markets and online grocer FreshDirect are doing just that.

Mediterranean fish species bronzini and orata are brought to Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans within 24 hours of harvest, as a result of a partnership the grocery chain formed with Local Ocean. The New York-based company has pioneered environmentally sensitive ways to raise premium fish while conserving water, minimizing waste and reducing fuel dependence. Available year-round, the two types of fish offer sweet, semi-firm white meat with a flavor similar to that of red snapper.

Local Ocean's bronzini and orata are raised in buildings on farmland near Albany, N.Y. Within is a completely enclosed ecosystem, where pure saltwater circulates constantly through filters that trap waste. Beneficial bacteria in the filters and hydroponically grown plants consume the waste, so there's none to dispose of.

“It's a big win for our customers and for the environment, every way you look at it,” says Carl Salamone, VP of seafood at Wegmans. “We can harvest [these fish] without depleting ocean fish populations, and the indoor ecosystem in which they grow is a model of environmental sustainability. And because they're raised … within a few hours from most Wegmans stores, less fuel is needed to bring the fish to market than when ordering from overseas.”

And in late September, Verlasso, which bills itself as “the world's first provider of harmoniously raised fish,” launched its premium salmon with Long Island City, N.Y.-based online grocer FreshDirect, the first U.S. retailer to offer the product.

“Salmon, like people, get their omega-3s from their diets,” notes Scott Nichols, director of Miami-based Verlasso, a brand and trademark of AquaChile. “Currently, these omega-3s come from fish oils provided by wild-caught feeder fish. Our most significant farming innovation is that we use 75 percent fewer feeder fish to produce healthy salmon rich in omega-3s.”

Growth hormone-free Verlasso salmon are raised in the waters of southern Patagonia, away from industrial development, which ensures a healthier product, and swim freely in spacious pens, resulting in leaner fish than traditionally farmed salmon.