If we're going to have anything approaching a sustainable seafood system, we need to combine personal adherence to seafood lists with moves up the supply chain to the big buyers, the wholesalers, and supermarkets that sell the bulk of the seafood. Whereas wholesalers primarily work in the background, their presence made known only by logo'd trucks and subdued packaging in restaurant storerooms, the big chain supermarkets are everywhere, fighting the daily battle for new customers and to keep their current ones. And so they care about their public image, which makes campaigns like Best/Worst lists, Pass/Fail lists, or targeting specific chains important tactics, as recommended by a paper in Oryx that I reviewed here. Exhibit A: the "Traitor Joe" campaign that likely influenced in Trader Joe's recent seafood shift.
For several years, as part of a project called Carting Away the Oceans (PDF), Greenpeace has been grading supermarkets' seafood practices. A few weeks ago the group released the 2010 update. Progress has been impressive: in 2008, not a single chain received a passing grade; in 2010, half of the 20 chains surveyed passed. Target took the top rating, followed by Wegman's, Whole Foods, and the Safeway conglomerate (Safeway, Von's, Dominick's, Genuardi's, Pavilions, and Randall's). Thanks to its new seafood policy, Trader Joe's improved from a failing grade to a passing one. The worst rated were Publix, Winn Dixie, Meijer, and H.E. Butt (operator of H.E.B. and Central Market).
Greenpeace grades the chains on four criteria (using methods that aren't fully explained in the report), with the final result being "good," "pass," or "fail":
To illustrate some of the logic behind the rankings, I'll explain how the chain with the second-highest rating and the three chains with the worst ratings performed on each of the four criteria. First, Wegman's, the second-best-ranked chain:
The bottom three chains – Winn-Dixie, Meijer, and H.E. Butt – all failed to respond to Greenpeace's inquiries. Their situations are basically identical:
One shortcoming of the Greenpeace study is that all of the chains are essentially equivalent on the report card even though they represent a diversity of geography, revenue, and clientele. For example, while Target and Whole Foods have great ratings, seafood sales at the lower-ranked chains might be much higher in volume, which somewhat diminishes the good grade and heightens the bad grade as far as the fish are concerned. However, actually creating such a weighting is probably impossible, as seafood sales figures for each grocery chain are not made public.
Still, the Carting Away the Oceans is a tool that can amplify personal seafood guides like Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guide by helping shoppers move up the supply chain and vote with their dollars — or perhaps start their own campaign to improve seafood sustainability at their local grocery store.