Whole Foods Market and Sustainable Seafood

Fish 'n Chips

Russ Bowles unloads dogfish that will be sold to make fish and chips from the Serena. The vessel changes the species it fishes for based on quotas set by the National Marine Fisheries Council. As the region's quote for a more valuable species is met, and regulators force fishermen to quit bringing them to market, fishermen pursue the next most-valuable species. Dogfish are low on that list.

Starting this week Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, will no longer sell seafood rated red by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute. The standards take into account not only how many of each species of fish there are in the sea, but also how quickly they reproduce and how damaging the methods of catching them are to their marine habitats and to other species. The chain originally announced that they would no longer carry “red-rated” wild seafood in 2013, but pushed up the start of the moratorium to coincide with this year’s Earth Day. On Sunday the grocer announced in a blog on its website that “From now on, all of the wild-caught seafood we carry will be from fisheries certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or green (best choice) or yellow (good alternative) species rated by Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA).”

That means that Atlantic cod sold by the grocer will have to be caught using hooks or gill nets, not trawlers that drag nets over the bottom of the ocean. Sturgeon, Atlantic halibut, octopus, turbot, tautog, imported wild shrimp, swordfish caught by certain methods, and many species of tuna and rockfish will be no longer appear on the Whole Foods fish counters. The grocery store has already stopped selling certain critically overfished species such as bluefin tuna, orange roughy, shark, and, for the most part, marlin. Even canned tuna sold at Whole Foods will have to be caught with a pole or a line.

While environmentalists embrace Whole Foods’ embargo of overfished species and fish caught by environmentally damaging methods, fisherman, particularly those in New England, where I covered the collapse of fisheries in the 1990s, are outraged. The description of fishermen grousing and complaining also angers anglers, but it’s well-earned, and often justified. The New England Fisheries Management Council makes the regulations fishermen have to navigate as turbulent as the seas they work on. Consumers and retailers pushing sustainability with their purchases make those fishermen’s jobs that much more difficult. It's not unlikely that Whole Foods' move will push a few of them out of business, like New England Fisheries Management Council regulation drove a fisherman named Russ Bowles, who I spent time with in the 90s, from the business.

In the New York Times story on Whole Foods’ ban on selling certain seafood, and New England fishermen’s reaction to it, one Gloucester fisherman commented, “they’re just doing it to make all the green people happy.” I heard similar complaints virtually every time I wrote about or photographed the dwindling New England fish stocks and efforts to restore it.

The complaint of the fisherman is not only true, it’s the way market-based environmentalism is suppose to work. And you don’t need Whole Foods to interpret the ratings for you – on my smartphone I use the Monterey Bay Aquariums Seafood Watch App and another just called Seafood that make purchasing sustainably harvested seafood as easy as reading a grocery list.

Unfortunately, the ratings that Whole Foods is basing its actions on don’t always work. Last week the journal Marine Policy published a study showing that, for fish stocks where enough data is available, nearly a third of those certified as sustainable by the MSC were actually overfished. Juliet Eilperin, an environment writer for the Washington Post and the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, reported Saturday on the credibility of sustainability standards in fisheries and the move of some fisheries to less-stringent certifiers. Last Thursday, Eilperin points out, the MSC certified the long-line swordfishery in eastern Canada that kills hundreds of endangered sea turtles and 35,000 sharks every year. As the MSC has approved more species as sustainable to catch and sell, environmentalists concerned about those fish are backing away from the organization’s certifications.

Whole Foods ban on red-rated species swims in the right direction, and fishermen are likely to have a lot more to complain about when scientists and activists push the other 30 percent of commercially harvested fish species that are currently overfished onto the MSC list, and Whole Foods moratorium, or those stocks start to run out.

In the meantime, those of us who vote with our dollars for conservation should see Whole Foods’ move as a success, but also recognize that it’s just a drop in our terribly troubled oceans.


Russ Bowles, first mate on the Serena, a fishing vessel out of Stonington, CT, works on nets before the ship takes off in the middle of the night for a day of trawling.


The Serena, a trawler our of Stonington, CT, heads into port at dawn after a trip trawling for fluke. 

Early Morning, Long Day

Bowles cleans up after finishing a day and night fishing for skates, then has a smoke after returning to port on one of his last fishing trips. Bowles left the industry because restrictions prevented him from captaining his own vessel and bringing enough fish to market to support his family.

Last Trip

Big Power and a Little Electricity


In a single day last week I saw the stacks of the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant belching steam and coal smoke into the atmosphere above New Mexico, and then met a Navajo family who live below a power line fed below those plants, but have no access to it.



The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources' Energy Country Institute flew with EcoFlight over the coal-fired power plants (San Juan Generating Station is operated by PNM, New Mexico's largest energy provider and the Four Corners plaant is operated by the Arizona Public Service Company) near Farmington, New Mexico. Later that day we met with energy company representatives and environmentalists, and then sought out the Johnson family in the backcountry of New Mexico.



To be fair, Monica Johnson and her husband, Nathan, chose to build their house out in the countryside, far from town and distant from the grid, and they say they wouldn't dream of living anywhere else. They relish their life amid the red, sandstone mesas of the New Mexico highlands, and the connection with nature it provides. That's common in Navajo culture. Since building their house, Monica, Nathan, and their daughters, Maria, 9, and Erika, 6, have visited family to shower and carried water from relatives back to their house, as they didn't have electricity to pump from a well. But recently their situation has improved. The solar panel and single wind turbine they purchased earlier this year now allow them, for the first time, to have a refrigerator and a television. It often takes them more than one sitting to get through a movie, as they often run out of juice before the film ends, but they don't have to worry about their food spoiling anymore. 

In a few months, the Johnsons hope to be connected to the grid, which, for now, passes high above their house in a high-voltage line. But, until then, having just a bit of electricity keeps them a little better fed and bit more tightly connected to the rest of the world.

Following the Sun

The side of our bus is painted with a command to "Follow the Sun," and we tried to heed its instructions. Really, we did. But at midnight, when a dozen of us were pushing the bus through a blizzard up highway 550 in northern New Mexico, it didn't seem like we'd done very well sticking to the plan. As we attempted to "man haul," (and woman haul) our 55-seat bus up the snow slicked highway, I thought of the coming 100-year-anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, Raold Amunsdsen's successful round trip to the pole, and of the tourists who are making their own trips to the bottom of the planet to commemorate the centennial. Despite repeated trips off the bus to chain up, push the vehicle, or throw snowballs, none of the travelers on our expedition ever feared losing their lives during our ordeal, just a few hours of sleep.


 The Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources has brought together 14 journalists for its Energy Country Institute led by Frank and Maggie Allen. We're traveling through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in a bus driven by Dick Sandlin, who's vast knowledge of the turf helps fill in the knowledge gaps of the energy wonks and regional journalists who make up our crew. When he's not busing tour groups through the fickle weather of the southern Rocky Mountains, he leads tours of Spaceport America, but despite his interest in the stars, most of the fellows have come to see as our own polar explorer - something of an Ernest Shackleton of the Greyhound class.

Fellows in the Energy Country Institute are spending eight days visiting sites in New Mexico and southern Colorado to learn how the region will keep the lights on in the coming century. On Sunday we drove from Santa Fe to Colorado's San Luis Valley, a magical and fragile plain sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. The valley is one of Colorado's most important and tradition-bound agricultural areas, but a diminishing and over-allocated water supply, and an abundant solar resource, are bringing change

We first visited the Ranch of George Whitten and Julie Sullivan, who run a small cattle ranch in Sawatch County.
George's family has been ranching in the valley since the late 1800s. Julie was an environmental activist who brought a group of students to visit George's ranch and ended up falling in love with the rancher. Each of them bears the title of "environmentalist" a little differently. George's philosophy is rooted in the land ethic - he raises grass-fed cattle for meat. Julie arrived at the ranch with more progressive ideals, and was a vegetarian, but eats meat now, so long as she "knows the animal's face." So, while they share the same goals and ideals, they don't always agree the methods and approaches to keep a sustainable ranch running. It's provided an interesting system of checks and balances in an increasingly challenging agricultural environment.



Others have been sited on grazing land or on fragile wetlands. We left the valley with an understanding that energy, water, tradition and progress are all part of an increasingly precarious balancing act in the San Luis Valley.  After lunching and touring George and Julie's ranch, we were treated to a reception by county and town officials in Alamosa. 





The following morning we rejoined them along with representatives from Sun Power, a company that recently brought a 17-megawatt plant online, and Iberdrola, the Spanish solar power company that this week will begin testing a 30-megawatt solar facility it just completed installing in the valley. We heard from representatives from the solar-power companies, officials involved in the plan to conserve the valley's water by taking 40,000 acres of agricultural land out of production, the Chairman of the Alamosa County Commissioners, and representatives of environmental organizations concerned with both the water and energy issues affecting the valley. While virtually everyone we've met is excited by the development of solar power in the valley, in an environment where water and energy are tightly linked, utility scale solar projects are also causes for concern. Some types of solar projects, particularly those that involve turning a steam turbine, use a lot of water.


From the San Luis Valley, we planned to head to the Southern Ute Reservation via Wolf Creek Pass, but by the time we left Alamosa, an early-season snowstorm had made that route unsafe. Plan B was to take Route 17 over Cumbres Pass, but the bus lost traction in the heavy snow on the pass, even after stopping to put chains on, leaving us stranded. Two Colorado Department of Transportation snowplows cleared the road so we could turn around, then escorted us back down the pass. We finally took a route back into New Mexico and up Route 550, but even in the foothills of the Four Corners, the bus got mired in the snow, so the fellows piled out of the bus to push it though the steepest section. For at least one of the fellows, freelance writer Lindsey Hoshaw, the announcement of the detours were a shock - she was hoping to get to a hotel room desk to continue working on a story for the Boston Globe. 


She's adapted well to writing on the bus. And, although a trip that was planned at 2 1/2 hours ended up taking more than 12, at least nobody had to eat any dogs on our way to the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio.

Seven Billion Zombies

Walking dead on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO on Halloween, 2011

So what's brought all these walking dead to Colorado?

Last night in Durango, CO, zombies behaved like, well, zombies. The unsanctioned walk of the dead (good zombies always apply for the proper permits) drew 1,500 undead who got into an altercation with police. No officials' brains were eaten, but they were pelted with rocks and bottles. Denver's 6th Annual Zombie Crawl last week drew a world-record crowd, attracting between 14,000 and 16,000 brain-hungry participants.

Perhaps, like Denver's bike-sharing program, which last year's Republican gubenatorial candidate Dan Maes criticized as an effort to make Colorado's capitol city into a "United Nation's community," the increase in undead in Colorado is a U.N. plot - specifically a result of someone at the United Nations Population Fund's head for marketing. The organization estimates that October 31st - Halloween - was the day when the global population reached seven billion. There's no way they can know for sure what day the world will first hold seven billion living people - the hundreds of thousands of births and deaths each day present far too much variability to precisely calculate the world's population to the day, so the selection of Halloween by the UN was as much a symbol as anything. Other organizations, including the U.S. Census Bureau predict world population will reach the seven billion mark in about four months, around the time of another appropriate holiday for the milestone - April Fools Day. But by picking Halloween as the day that we reached the 7Bn number, the U.N. is making statement, intentional or not, that the growing horde is something to fear.

The report shows the world was first inhabited by one billion humans in 1804. From that date, it took 123 years to reach two billion. By contrast, global population hit six billion in 1999, just 12 years ago, and passed the five billion mark 12 years before that, in 1987. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2010 there were, on average, 384,146 births every day, and 155,885 deaths daily, leading to the addition of about 159 people to planet Earth every minute. Models predict another two billion people living on the planet by 2050.

The rapidly increasing population brings a lot of worries, if not outright terrors. Paul Ehrlich, author of  the 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb," President of the Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, was one of seven luminaries who commented on the challenges presented by the 7Bn in an article by James Eng at MSNBC.

"Seven billion is already facing us with horrendous problems, including almost 1 billion people hungry and contributing greatly to the chances of catastrophic climate disruption.  But the next 2 billion people the demographers expect by 2050 will cause much more environmental damage than did the last 2 billion added to our population — a classic nonlinearity.  That is because human beings are smart, and picked the low-hanging fruit first. Thus each added individual, on average, must now be fed from more marginal land, supplied with water from more distant or more polluted sources, obtain the metals required to make the products he or she consumes from poorer ores, etc."

Perhaps that explains some our current obsession with zombies, which have supplanted vampires as the trendiest Halloween costumes and television horror shows. Every imaginary monster plays on a real-world fear. The Alien in James Cameron's movies with Sigourney Weaver played on our fear of cancer -  something growing, hidden inside us that would eventually kill us in a most gruesome way. Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula came at the height of the AIDS epidemic and manipulated the angst that our passions could lead to an infection in our blood that would rot not only our bodies, but our values. Godzilla was spawned by our tinkering with nukes. Most of the creatures and phantoms that inhabit our popular culture - vampires, werewolves, Godzilla, the Halloween films' Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason are unique individuals or part of small minorites, often hidden from the majority they terrorize.

But zombies are different. Zombies are the majority, threatening to devour us or turn us into one of them. They are terribly obvious, making no effort to hide. You can see them coming from a mile away and with their complete lack of cunning, they are exceedingly easy to kill. But it doesn't matter. There are so many of them, you can't possible stop them all. Eventually one or a hundred of them are gnawing on you. Our terror of the undead is based in our fear of hordes. In fact, the zombie has changed to match our fears. Originally, zombies were a few cadavers brought back to life by a voodoo master to serve his evil plans. It wasn't until George Romero's night of the living dead that zombies were presented as hordes of corpses serving only their own mindless need to eat flesh or brains.

Since then "zombie" has become one of the most popular slurs of political parties, social movements, or classes of workers. You can kill Tea Party Zombies in an online game. Occupy Wall Street protesters dressed as "corporate zombies," in Zuccotti Park a few weeks before Halloween. The Occupy protesters themselves haven't been immune to necrotic namecalling. We've got conservative zombies, liberal zombies, communist, socialist, and libertarian zombies. In the coming Presidential election, virtually every Republican candidate has been marked as the walking dead, while President Obama has literally hundreds of images depicting him as a flesh eating monster. A few years ago Paul Waldman argued in the American Prospect that, while the zombie narrative might initially appeal to the libertarian streak in American politics due to its requirement of lots of firearms to defeat the throngs of flesh eating undead, in the end, it's a liberal storyline - when society breaks down, survival requires "the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action."  

The science fiction wesite io9, which is produced by the real science program NOVA, has a chart showing that the number of zombie films released - the site's definition is rather broad, including both the Frankenstein monster and the mummy - increase markedly in times of war and social upheaval.

The population boom is certain to bring social upheaval and war - with seven billion people and counting competing for food, water, energy and every other resource on the planet. That competition is made easier when we can categorize a few billion of our competitors as sub-human - the undead.

As for Colorado's zombies, the ones I encountered on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder were friendly and funny. I was happy to be out and among them, and many of the other spectacular costumes, on Halloween night.