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

Diving In


Alicia Christopoulos dives from a sailboat into the Aegean Sea.


In any new endeavor, there is a point of no-turning-back. It's the moment when we commit to trying to fly, or we fall. Regardless of the outcome, at that second, we no longer have the option of keeping our feet on the familiar ground where moments before we stood, stable and secure. For me, that moment of commitment - in my career, in my sports, in my relationships - has always been the most difficult. In the past three years I've left the job I held for 21 years, moved out of the community I was in for 25, sold my home of 12 years, and started a new stage of my work as a writer and photographer - one in which I have all the freedom and fear of being my own boss. I struggled to commit to each of those changes, and continue to find running my own show a daily challenge of uncertainty and hesitation.

January 1st, with it's resolutions, year-end-lists, and personal, professional and government deadlines, leads most of us to challenge our resistance to commitment. For a few days we dedicate ourselves to new diets, financial plans, adventures, and relationships. But, while I have plenty of big goals and dreams that I need to throw myself at, last weekend I found myself thinking of the dozens of small moments each day when I fail to commit to everything from workouts, to typing words onto my laptop screen. And I remembered a photo I have of Alicia Christopoulos.

For a week during the summer of 2010, Carolyn and I sailed through Greece's Aegean Sea with several friends, Alicia and her husband, Thanos, the captain of our sailboat. Every morning I watched Alicia, who is originally from Poland, leave the boat, sometimes with a dive, sometimes just stepping out onto a dock. She would return with a fish - I remember one particularly delicious barracuda - and the rest of the makings for our lunch. Alicia's meals were so consistently delicious and her management of the vessel so fluid and natural, I assumed that she had grown up sailing. But over drinks with the couple, I learned that she had neither sailed nor cooked before answering a help-wanted ad that Thanos placed looking for a cook on his sailboat just a few years ago. Today's she's married to the captain.

After our lunches all the boat's passengers would take a dip in the sea that was luxuriously warm and as blue as any we had ever seen. Alicia would start our swims with a dive that was as delicious as her cooking. Most of us would wait to get into the water ourselves until we had watched her graceful entrance, and eventually I made a series of photographers of her dive.

As is often the case with writing and photography, the editing was a challenge. I narrowed the sequence down to two favorite but very different frames. One showed Alicia in a perfect airborn arc - full of grace and expectation of the splash and submersion in the luscious water. But I found I kept coming back to a frame taken a split second earlier. That picture showed Alicia with her arms outstretched like a bird, her legs coiled like thunderbolts, but her toes still on the boat's railing. That photo doesn't show expectation of hitting the water, but of flying through the air. It's the moment of commitment to the change inherent in the dive - of embracing the airborn second of transition between standing dry on something solid and familiar, and being wet and in over her head in an alien and dangerous place.

For the first few days of the trip, after watching Alicia dive in, the rest of us would test the water with our toes and slowly lower ourselves into the sea. But you can't make a splash like that. By the end of the trip, most of us were making our own, far less elegant leaps into the sea. And I remember the water always feeling better when I was completely airborn the second before I was in it.

This year I hope we can all find the courage to dive into our lives and embrace those heart-in-our-throats seconds when we're airborn, about to splash into the adventures of our future.


Greece--05-13-2010--Fresh-caught barracuda and potatoes by Alicia Christopoulos.


Greece--05-13-2010--Feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers crostini.