Whole Foods Market Guides Consumers to Sustainable Seafood with New Ratings System

By Betsy Keller, MS, RD

This article is the first in a series on seafood.

Have you noticed certain types of fish once available at the supermarket seafood counter are now rarely offered?  Why is it suddenly difficult to find Chilean Sea Bass, Orange Roughy and Atlantic Cod? Unfortunately, the lack of variety and sky high seafood prices at the counter are an alarming reflection of declining fish populations in our oceans.  Larger, slow-growing fish that reproduce late in life, such as orange roughy, are quite vulnerable to overfishing. Seafood species that grow quickly and breed early, such as anchovies and sardines have a better chance of surviving.

Unfortunately, the ocean’s ability to produce fish to meet our insatiable demand for seafood has diminished. According to the United Nations, an overwhelming 80 percent of fisheries are fully exploited, overfished, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Restoring wild fisheries can add to the supply, but scientists agree that regulated fish farming, or aquaculture, is one of the few alternatives in which we can increase seafood production.

What is a seafood lover to do?

swatchThanks to organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Blue Ocean Institute, there has been a dedicated effort to educate consumers about overfishing and the environmental effects of certain fishing methods.   They are inspiring us to purchase sustainable seafood from either marine fisheries or responsibly managed farm sources that can maintain or increase fish populations, all while not harming wildlife, fish ecosystems and water quality.

Whole Foods Markets to the Rescue


This September, the sustainable seafood movement gained momentum when Whole Foods Markets – 300 markets nationwide – launched their Sustainable Seafood Rating program.  According to Michael Sinatra, Whole Foods North East Public Affairs Manager, the unique program has a two pronged approach – educate shoppers at the fish counter (who will eventually learn about and buy less of the overfished species) and build a more sustainable seafood supply chain by putting pressure on fish suppliers to source fish caught by less harmful fishing methods.

seafoodchoicesBased on a simple stoplight visual, seafood is given a green, yellow or red rating (see image above). A green rating indicates that the species is abundant and is caught in environmentally friendly ways. Yellow cautions us to become aware there are concerns about the status of the species or the methods by which it was caught. A red rating signifies the species is being dramatically overfished, or the methods used are harming other marine life or ecosystems. According to Michael, the red fish will eventually be phased out and unavailable. For now, they would like to raise a red flag and have us take notice – a teachable moment at the fish counter.


The program is in addition to its wild-caught rating program with the Marine Stewardship Council and compliments Whole Foods Market’s own high standards to prohibit selling farmed seafood raised with the use of antibiotics, added growth hormones, added preservatives, genetically-modified seafood, and land animal by-products in feed.

Betsy Keller, MS, RD is a public relations professional specializing in nutrition education who works to ensure a more sustainable food future.

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