NEW YORK -- Opening a new door for retailers and restaurateurs who want to demonstrate a commitment to environmental issues, a group of operators has joined a program that encourages them to buy only sustainable species of seafood from certified fisheries.
Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass.; Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas; and the Allston, Mass.-based restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods announced that they were joining the initiative.
The Marine Stewardship Council, based in London, is spearheading the program, and will soon open an office in Seattle as part of the U.S. campaign. It has already signed up a number of European retailers, including Great Britain's J. Sainsbury, which owns Shaw's.
"It's going to give retailers a way to say that the items they're selling are from sustainable sources," said Jane Earley, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council. "It's going to give them a way to let their customers make choices about what they want to buy."
According to Bernie Rogan, director of public relations for Shaw's, the chain signed on in part because it realizes that supermarket operators must reflect the concerns that customers have.
"As a company we recognize that the fish population has reached a critical stage," said Rogan. "[The MSC] is raising the level of awareness within our own industry."
Rogan said that most of Shaw's customers are concerned about these types of issues; in turn, Shaw's is constantly looking for ways to address them.
"We see this as an opportunity to convey to them our policies," he said. "It's a matter of being able to affix them directly, with the help of the MSC, at the point of sale."
The MSC was formed through a partnership between Worldwide Fund for Nature, headquartered in Switzerland, and Unilever, which has also announced its participation in the council's plan. In the United States, Unilever manufactures Gorton's-brand frozen-fish products.
According to Earley, the organization will use routine inspections to certify that marine fisheries closely follow marine-friendly harvesting practices. Those that are found to be in compliance will be permitted use of a special logo that will appear on all seafood products, authenticating that the seafood was sourced from self-replenishing stock. The logo will also be used at store level.
"When we certify a fishery, we also have to certify the whole chain that fish passes through," said Earley, regarding the process, which will initially focus on marine fishes and invertebrates, including shellfish, crustaceans and cephalopods. Aquaculture, freshwater fishes and other harvested species will be exempt at this stage of the program.
Presently, the MSC is focusing on test pilot programs started in three critical fishing arenas: the Western Rock Lobster Fishery on the West Coast of Australia, the Galapagos Lobster Artisanal Fishery and the Alaskan Salmon fishing industry.
Roger Berkowitz, president and chief executive officer of Legal Sea Foods, said the MSC's program will bring the industry together in an effort to save the seafood supply. "Realistically, we want to be in business 20, 30 years down the road," said Berkowitz. He said that the future of Legal Sea Foods' entire operation depends on a sustainable seafood supply. Currently, the company operates 19 restaurants and a mail-order catalog business, and distributes products like chowders and dips to retail chains including Star Markets Co., Cambridge, Mass.; Costco, Issaquah, Wash.; and Quincy, Mass-based Stop & Shop.
The MSC estimates that approximately 60% of the world's commercially important marine fish stocks are either fully fished, overexploited, depleted or slowly recovering.
Therefore, the fate of the seafood industry rests on the actions taken now by retailers and restaurants as part of the MSC, noted Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of governmental and public affairs for Whole Foods.
"I think it's very important for everyone to work together towards this idea of achieving sustainability within the oceans and in our rivers," said Wittenberg.
She said that Whole Foods plans to begin implementing the program by the end of this year, but expects it to be a slow process at the beginning.