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Russell Sherman’s photograph once hung by the fish counters at Whole Foods stores. He was even a bit of a celebrity, getting calls from friends whenever people they knew bought some fish from his 72-foot trawler, the Lady Jane, at the high-end grocery chain.

“I was proud to be [selling in Whole Foods],” says Sherman, who’s been fishing for 30 years and selling to Whole Foods at its Pigeon Cove processing facility in Gloucester for six. “I thought I was elite—Whole Foods consistently paid the best money in town. They only wanted certain boats with high-quality fish and people that were easy to get along with.”

The recent decision of Whole Foods to stop carrying certain legally caught fish has fractured its 16-year relationship with Gloucester fishermen. This spring, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey announced to financial analysts that the chain, in accordance with guidelines issued by the New York-based Blue Ocean Institute and California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium, would stop carrying certain seafood those organizations believe should be avoided because of overfishing or current fishing methods that harm other marine life or habitats.  These species, rated “red” by the two conservation organizations, include New England mainstays such as trawl-caught cod, skate, and grey sole. Now, Sherman and many other Gloucester fishermen are forced to take their catches elsewhere. Adding to the pressure this puts on the local fish industry is the fact that this change was originally scheduled to take place in 2013, but Whole Foods decided to put it in place for Earth Day (April 22) this year, surprising fishermen like Sherman who thought they had time to negotiate different restrictions.

Whole Foods started displaying the red, yellow (indicating a “good alternative”), and green  (meaning “best choice,” according to the ratings system established by Blue Ocean Institute and Seafood Watch) symbols at their fish counter two years ago, with the goal of steering customers toward what it deems more sustainable options. David Pilat, Global Seafood Buyer for Texas-based Whole Foods, says the company spent a lot of time and effort finding new sources to replace those fish and is proud of beating the deadline.

“Ultimately, our goal is stewardship of the oceans,” he says, adding, “Our customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.” While Whole Foods customers may be excited by the move, parties as diverse as Senator Scott Brown and the Environmental Defense Fund are urging the company to rethink their decision. In a letter to Whole Foods Co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb, Senator Brown accused the chain of “greenwashing,” writing, in part, “I’m concerned that your decision has more to do with political correctness than with sound reasoning. Aside from being based on uncertain science, this decision will hurt Massachusetts fishermen and their families at a time when they are already struggling to survive under onerous government regulations.”


Struggling to Make a Living

This setback is just the latest for an industry operating under strict federal oversight to rebuild fisheries while also struggling to make a living, says Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group that works for the long-term health of fishery resources, fishing communities, and the fishing industry throughout the Northeast. Fishermen, who are selling their catches in an extremely volatile market, are also subject to constantly shifting quotas, rolling and permanent closures of certain areas, and new regulations that cause them to work in harvest cooperatives known as groundfish sectors. These new rules also demand copious recordkeeping and even require fishermen to regularly bring observers on their boats to collect scientific data and ensure the fishermen are properly reporting their hauls and amounts of bycatch—creatures that are caught unintentionally and cannot be sold.

All of these obstacles add up to an incredibly difficult environment, Odell says, and one that should be respected. “With the stringent laws United States fishermen have to operate under, they should be getting support from consumers, not having misguided information shared that they are not doing what they need to do to rebuild fish stocks.”

Odell notes that the word “overfishing” is a loaded one—and it doesn’t necessarily mean that fishermen have done anything wrong. Over the past eight years for Gulf of Maine cod alone, the commercial fleet has been consistently—and lawfully—within the allowable catch limits, she explains. “It would be really nice if Whole Foods worked collaboratively to really understand what has been and is being done to rebuild fish stocks and educate these facts to their customers.”

Johanna Thomas, director of the Pacific and New England regions of the Oceans Program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), agrees. “EDF believes good management is fundamental to the recovery and sustainability of fish stocks, and that fishermen operating in well-managed fisheries deserve to be rewarded in the market,” she says. “New England’s groundfishery has taken a big step in the right direction, and we are therefore committed to supporting its local fishermen in whatever way we can.”

New England’s marine habitat is unique, with some 20 different species being fished—some abundant, some in short supply, and all strictly regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries division. By contrast, the pollock fishery in Alaska is fairly homogeneous, for example, so it’s easier to keep track of the population.

“Very few people in the world would argue with the fact that the U.S. is very progressive when it comes to careful management of fish stocks,” says Christine Patrick, public affairs specialist for NOAA fisheries, explaining that under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, every species fished in U.S. federal waters is monitored for sustainability and subject to annual catch limits.

“When a species is overfished, regulations are put in place to reduce how much fishermen can harvest, so that the species can rebuild. Often, a limited harvest is allowed so that the species can rebuild and fishermen and other jobs that depend on the fishing industry can survive,” Patrick says. “To punish fishermen who are following the rules only makes their hardship greater.”

According to NOAA statistics, only 14 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from U.S. waters. A whopping 86 percent is imported, half of which is from aquaculture (farmed fish), mostly out of Asia. But U.S. laws don’t apply to other countries’ fish populations or fishing industries.

“We are very concerned about sustainable jobs, and U.S. fishermen’s jobs can’t be outsourced. So those are the kinds of jobs we want to protect,” Patrick says, adding that when U.S. fish stocks are rebuilt to full levels, the government projects 500,000 more jobs and $32 billion more in the economy.


Imperfect Science

That said, Patrick acknowledges that the science of tracking fish is imperfect. “The debate between fishermen and scientists as to how many fish there actually are in the sea goes back many, many decades, especially in New England,” she says. “Fish are hard to count—they’re moving, they’re hard to see.”

A case in point is the current troubles over cod. In 2008, NOAA statistics showed that the population was faring well and would soon be rebuilt. But last year, researchers found that the population was much smaller than previous believed, and that to rebuild by a mandated 2014 deadline, fishing quotas would need to be cut by 82 percent this year. In an effort to protect both fishermen and fish, catch limits were instead cut by more than 20 percent for 2012, with more drastic cuts planned for 2013.

“It’s almost an impossible situation,” says fisherman Sherman. “The few of us that are left as independent businessmen are very resilient—we’ve had to be…I haven’t been able to make any kind of a business plan for the past 15 years. Not five years. Not 10 years. 15 years. Because the rules and regulations change, sometimes every six months.”

Sustainability is a complex issue, says Jonathan Grabowski, associate professor at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center. “There is no shortage of ways to define what is sustainable,” he says, adding that there are a number of organizations, in addition to those Whole Foods is working with, who put out sometimes conflicting lists of what is good to eat and why.

While Whole Foods’ Pilat wouldn’t say that federal regulations intended to protect the environment are not strict enough for his company, he did say that the company is taking more into account when making its choices. “There are a lot of organizations out there, but we believe we’ve chosen the two foremost,” he says. “One of the core values of Whole Foods is caring for the environment…We’re looking at catch method, we are looking at the environment.”

That may be disingenuous, says Ray Hilborn, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington specializing in natural resource management and conservation. “Probably only five or 10 percent of fish are actually on the [Whole Foods] green list,” he says. “So if consumers were to go by [the] list, where is the food going to come from? It’s coming from more grazing, growing more corn to feed chickens, pigs, and cattle. It doesn’t take much calculation to see that those things, in most cases, have more environmental impact than sustainable fishing.”

Regardless of whether or not Whole Foods buys the fish, as Hilborn and others note, the same number of fish will be caught. “You’re not going to have any impact on the world’s fisheries; all the rest of that stuff is going to be sold somewhere,” he says. “I don’t think those [lists] have any impact on the way the world’s fisheries are managed; they are mostly something that makes you feel good.”

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, disagrees. “There is tremendous value in seafood buyers demanding that their seafood come from sustainable sources,” she says, explaining that the Seafood Watch program defines sustainable seafood as from fished or farmed sources that can maintain or increase production without jeopardizing the structure and function of affected ecosystems. “If Whole Foods’ demand pressures fisheries to improve in that direction,” says Dianto Kemmerly, “we see that as a positive action that helps ensure a healthy seafood supply for the future.”


What about the Fishermen?

Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, says that organizations like Seafood Watch leave out an important part of the fishery equation—the fishermen. “Community-based fishermen are part of the ecosystem, and current regulations don’t take that into account. We need to ensure that the community-based fishermen are part of the marine ecosystem that we are trying to protect,” says Dorry, whose organization is dedicated to rebuilding fisheries while protecting small-scale fishing operations.

Dorry says that fishing is becoming a volume game, as very few buyers are paying the cost of production. “That’s why they are always asking to catch more fish,” she says, adding that it costs the fisherman the same to catch whiting as cod, but the price they get at the dock is very different.

One Gloucester fisherman, who asked not to be named, says that he met with Whole Foods and told them he would be happy to provide them with line-caught cod, which the company has deemed sustainable. Whole Foods buyers balked at his price.

“I told them what I would need to get paid minimum to switch over and try to catch codfish with hooks,” the source said. “[Whole Foods] didn’t want to pay me any more than if I were netting. [Long-lining] is considerably more labor-intensive and costly.”

He is not the only fisherman walking away from Whole Foods.  “I enjoyed working with the folks at Pigeon Cove, but we have enough regulations without being regulated by a buyer,” says James Santapaola, who runs three boats out of Gloucester—a trawl, a gillnet, and a trawl/gillnet. While Santapaola has been selling to Whole Foods since the store arrived in Gloucester in the 1990s, he has now decided to take his catch elsewhere. While the company is willing to purchase some fish, like hake and pollock, caught by trawlers that drag nets across the ocean floor, it is no longer willing to purchase other fish caught by the same method—oftentimes even in the same haul—arguing that the trawling process causes disruption and damage to the sea floor. That leaves fishermen having to track down multiple buyers for a single haul—or more likely, as insiders speculate, abandoning Whole Foods in favor of finding a buyer who will take their entire catch, or else taking their chances at auction.

“Currently, I’ve decided not to sell to Whole Foods because it’s no longer convenient for me to sell some of the fish to them,” Santapaola says. “I’ve since established a relationship with another dealer who is willing to buy my entire catch.”

If others make the same decision, Whole Foods may just become another buyer at auctions – something that Dorry feels is a missed opportunity. “If Whole Foods wanted to reflect the same attitude that they seem to be suggesting they have toward land-based food, highlighting local foods and local farmers,” Dorry says, “then they should be embracing the fish and seafood that is caught in their stores’ regional environment.”

In the meantime, Dorry says, Massachusetts consumers should go out of their way to support local fishermen. “Go back to the basics—don’t let the complexity bog you down,” she says. “Small- and medium-scale operators have a small ecological footprint [and] if you support them, you have a pretty high confidence that you are buying from an operation that has a pretty big social and economic footprint.”