Much has been written about Whole Foods Market's decision to stop selling "red-rated" seafood. And the opposition of many New England fishermen to this decision has been widely reported. But the problem is not Whole Foods' decision to sell sustainable seafood, which is commendable. The problem is that Whole Foods is buying fish based on the on often-biased and frequently out-of-date rankings from Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. That ignores information from credible universities and institutions, as well as the latest government statistics.
By law, all American-caught seafood must be managed so that it is sustainable. We have the most stringent laws in the world. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that all American fisheries must be returned to a state of "not overfished," where "overfishing is not occurring." At the same time, we import 85 percent of our seafood, including product from nations with less-stringent regulations. We have seen product imported under unsanitary conditions. And, as the Boston Globe reported in its award-winning series, mislabeling remains a widespread problem among some imports.
Since the United States has the most stringent fishing laws in the world, those who support sustainability should encourage the purchase and consumption of American product. A correctly implemented plan would achieve that end. But Whole Foods has chosen to use the rankings of just one organization; an organization that purports to uphold high standards of accuracy, but often doesn't.
For example, thanks to years of cooperation between the industry, scientists and regulators, the Atlantic sea scallop has recovered and is widely regarded as the poster child for sustainability. A well-designed rating system would reflect that. But the Blue Ocean Institute rates Atlantic sea scallops as "yellow," the mid-range of their rating system. They rate farmed Chinese and Mexican scallops as "green," their highest rating. However, the information they use to determine this rating is not comprehensive, and ignores important facts.
Blue Ocean gives scallops the lowest rating for fishing gear impacts because they say ,"The main adverse environmental effects from dredging and trawling are degradation of the seafloor, sediment suspension, change in chemical makeup of sediments and overlying water, and alteration of benthic communities." But they ignore how quickly the habitats recover. A study by the UMass School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford (Stokesbury et al., 2004) found the highest concentrations of scallops on sea floors made up of sand and granule pebbles. These habitats routinely endure a great deal of natural disturbance from currents and storms, and naturally recover quickly.