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All the Fish in the Sea

The fish display at Wegmans on Amherst Street (photo by Christina Shaw)

As fisheries are depleted, how can one tell what's sustainable and what's not?

The seafood display cases at the Wegmans on Amherst Street shine with the wealth of the sea. ¶ They hold the story of our oceans. ¶ New York State scallops, $12.99 a pound, rest like delicate pillows—pink and white and juicy—on a bed of cheesecloth. Fillets of silver-skinned rainbow trout glimmer alongside rounded steaks of swordfish from Canada. Other delights include crab legs from Russia, cuts of ice-white cod from Iceland, and dense, red wedges of tuna from the Philippines. ¶ The selection is a spectacle, the choices diverse. ¶ What to buy?

We might not think about it much, but the future of the world’s seas rests on our answer. The question is one that Carl Salamone, a round man with silver in his dark hair, has been asking since the day he became Wegmans’ first corporate seafood manager in 1974.

That was the year after the Rochester-based grocery chain opened its first seafood case in Pittsford, N.Y.

Back then, the company carried maybe five types of fish, Salamone said. Expansion was the objective: Bring more varieties of seafood to more customers. The oceans were huge, and their harvest seemed limitless.

Then, everything changed.

In many places, fishermen began to notice that the prey they were netting were becoming smaller and younger as larger, more mature fish grew scarce. A major cod fishery in Canada collapsed. Reports accumulated of dwindling aquatic populations around the world.

In 2003, research published in the science journal Nature concluded that stocks of big, predatory species such as swordfish and tuna had shrunk by 90 percent in a matter of decades.

Today, Greenpeace and fellow advocacy groups have placed species including Atlantic cod, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, monkfish, and orange roughy on “red lists” of seafoods to avoid due to concerns about sustainability.

The extent of the damage we’ve done is up for debate, but one thing seems clear: Man’s ability to pull fish from the ocean far outmatches nature’s ability to replenish them.

In this new world, Salamone’s job is more complicated than it once was. Wegmans now has 77 stores in five states, and every location carries seafood.

Which varieties of fish the retailer sells—and refuses to sell—hinges largely on the judgment of Salamone and his team. The devotion they have shown toward making the right decision has impressed conservation groups including Greenpeace, which gave Wegmans a No. 2 ranking this year on a supermarket seafood sustainability scorecard.

From their Rochester office, a shoebox of a building with fluorescent lights, Salamone and his colleagues pore over research, deliberate. The line between right and wrong is rarely clear.

“It’s a complex subject, okay? And I want to say it’s complex because there are very many folks out there or organizations saying what’s sustainable and what isn’t,” Salamone said. “So when the National Marine Fisheries Service says, ‘All right, the scallop, we cannot fish that anymore,’ and the fishermen say, ‘That’s not true,’ it’s kind of like a shell game.”

OCEANS cover about 71 percent of the planet’s surface. Their deepest trenches extend more than five miles down into the belly of the Earth.

For much of modern human history, these expanses of blue have signified adventure, the unknown. From the Viking flotillas of the ninth century to the Chinese treasure fleets of the 15th, generations of traders, raiders, and wanderers set sail on a seemingly endless sea, not knowing quite what they’d find.

Today, we have circumnavigated the globe and mapped isolated islands. But the oceans have retained their ancient mystique.

Stingrays for dinner?

The cownose ray, a stingray with a wingspan of two or three feet long, might seem like a strange thing to eat. With a square snout and smooth brown or olive skin, the creature could pass for an alien.

Nevertheless, the ray could soon land on our dinner plates, a victim of its own appetite.

Wegmans rolled out the species in stores in Maryland and Virginia this summer after learning that the predators were ruining efforts to restore oyster fisheries in Chesapeake Bay. The rays dine on shellfish, and each year, they descend on the bay’s warm waters to summer, breed and antagonize fishermen by hunting oysters and clams.

When agricultural officials in Maryland and Virginia suggested that one way to reduce the ray’s numbers would be to eat them, Wegmans went to work.

The rose-hued meat, not too fishy, has the consistency of veal. The company’s chefs experimented with recipes—cownose ray with white wine and capers, cownose ray with marinated honey—and determined that the seafood was, indeed, something customers might like.

With taste tests complete, Wegmans introduced the species to customers at $7.99 a pound.

For now, ray season is over down south. But next year, Western New Yorkers might have a chance to sample the fish, with Wegmans planning to bring it to seafood counters closer to home.

But while rays may seem like a novelty item now, Greenpeace seafood campaigner Casson Trenor warns that a strong and effective fishery management plan is the only way to ensure they don’t become endangered, too. Scientists have attributed the ray’s population boom to severe overfishing of the animals’ natural predators, sharks.

“There are a lot of rays in the Chesapeake today, but there’s no such thing as limitless abundance,” Trenor wrote in an e-mail. “You’d think we’d have picked up on that by now.”

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We have yet to fully explore their depths, and it’s sometimes surprising how much we don’t know. Researchers have only begun in the past few years, for instance, to trace the epic migrations of some eel and tuna that swim thousands of miles to feed and breed.

Shrouded in a cloak of blue, life in these underwater kingdoms unfolds, for the most part, in a world we can’t see. Maybe that’s why we’ve allowed fisheries to deteriorate to the point of crisis.

When it comes to conservation, “The ocean has always been different because the effect of what we do there is so much out of sight,” said Ken Peterson, communications director for California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose Seafood Watch program compiles research on seafood sustainability and distributes a popular pocket guide offering direction on what kinds of fish are okay to eat.

“There was this long-time perspective: ‘Oh, the oceans, they’re endless bounty. We can take as much as we want, and they’re too big for us to harm,’” Peterson continued. “We’ve learned, time and time again, that it’s not the case.”

ONE of the first portents of trouble came in 1992, when boat crews reported that cod had nearly disappeared from the cold waters off Newfoundland.

Local fishermen had noticed declining shoals years before, coinciding with the arrival of industrial fishing. Still, the speed and extent of the crash was stunning. Those fishing grounds, called the Grand Banks, had been thick with cod for centuries. Canada closed the fishery.

Salamone, vice president of Wegmans’ seafood department, was among industry observers who took note. The collapse of the Newfoundland stocks, along with growing evidence that other fisheries were also nearing depletion, convinced him that Wegmans should re-evaluate its aquatic inventory.

“We overfished the cod in the Northeast United States. We overfished the perch,” Salamone said, referring to the seafood industry. “And it became evident, again, that we couldn’t fish the tons we had in the past.”

In the early years of the new millennium, Salamone and his staff began to collect information on one species in particular: the bluefin tuna, a specialty fish at Wegmans.

In the kitchen, sushi chefs and home gourmets prized the bluefin for the flesh of its silver belly—a firm, red meat marbled with thin layers of white fat. Raw or grilled, the fish was a staple of high cuisine. In the wild, it was a giant, a creature that could grow to more than 1,000 pounds and swim at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour.

When Wegmans’ buyers found a good deal, “We would bring in a 600-pound bluefin tuna, put it in one of our stores, and sell a lot of tuna,” Salamone said.

But Salamone also knew that scientists and conservationists were calling for an end to catching bluefin. To learn about the animal’s plight, he and his colleagues made calls to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

Upon concluding the research, Salamone met with Wegmans’ CEO and president to present his team’s findings. Soon after—about three years ago—the company discontinued bluefin sales.

Since then, the species has become a poster fish for what is wrong with the seafood industry.

Aerial spotters and sonar systems track schools of tuna in the open ocean. Hunting methods include longlining, in which fishermen string multiple baited hooks along a long line parallel to the water’s surface, and purse seining, in which boats encircle schools of fish with a wall of netting and pull the bottom closed, like you would a drawstring purse. Both techniques trap by-catch that can include sea turtles and other fish, which are dumped, dead or alive, back into the ocean.

The tuna are no match for our technology, and their migratory paths, which cross international boundaries, complicate efforts to govern and limit catches.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, the Atlantic bluefin population has declined by nearly 90 percent since the 1970s.

“By some estimates, there may be only 9,000 of the most ecologically vital megabreeders left in the fish’s North American stock, enough for the entire population of New York to have a final bite (or two) of high-grade otoro sushi,” wrote Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, in a June cover story for the New York Times magazine. The title of the article was “Tuna’s End.”

IT BEGAN with bluefin tuna and continued from there. In response to environmental concerns, Wegmans has stopped selling all varieties of shark and marlin. The orange roughy, a slow-growing fish known as the “slimehead” or “deep sea perch,” is also off the menu. Sales of the Atlantic halibut, another late-maturing species, have ended.

“These are fish that we’ve been selling for an awful long time,” Salamone said.

Each time Wegmans yanks a seafood, Salamone’s crew educates store associates about which fish to recommend as alternatives. Customers might ask questions at first, but most react positively once employees explain sustainability concerns, Salamone said.

Still, the decision to discontinue a species is difficult. One reason why: The consequences extend far beyond home.

Wegmans has about 20 seafood suppliers, some of whom have worked with the family-owned company for decades. The suppliers, in turn, maintain relationships with fishing communities around the world—from Alaska and Iceland to Nicaragua and Singapore—that rely on the sea for a living.

“You have to keep in mind,” Salamone said, “that if you close a fishery down, there could be 100 families, 1,000 families that are dependent on that.”

Complicating matters, counting fish in the ocean is an imprecise task, and fishermen, marine biologists, government bodies, and conservation groups often clash over what constitutes sustainable fishing.

Consider the Patagonian toothfish, a deepwater denizen commonly marketed under its more pleasing alias, “Chilean sea bass.”

Heavily muscled with white tissue that powers bursts of speed, the toothfish emerged as a restaurant favorite in the 1990s, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Consumer appetites fueled ferocious overfishing, much of it illegal, and populations of the species could not keep pace with the jump in popularity. The fish, which can grow to six feet long, may take a decade to reach sexual maturity.

Statistics from the US National Marine Fisheries Service show that between 1998 and 2009, imports of Patagonian toothfish and the closely related Antarctic toothfish more than tripled, rising from just over 12 million pounds to nearly 42 million.

This year, in its “Carting Away the Oceans” report on supermarkets, Greenpeace lauded Wegmans as a leader in sustainability but slammed the chain for carrying more than a dozen red list species—including Chilean sea bass, which live in waters around Antarctica.

“If there is an area of its seafood operation in which Wegmans needs to make significant improvement, it is this: The company has stalled out in curtailing the unsustainable products that it offers, often times citing MSC certification as an excuse to continue the sale of red list species,” the Greenpeace publication stated.

The “MSC” the report cited is the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies fisheries that adhere to three principles: Maintaining sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact, and keeping effective management.

Wegmans sources its Chilean sea bass from a small MSC-approved fishery in the South Atlantic that abides by catch quotas and operates a full-time patrol vessel to prevent illegal fishing. To limit the accidental hooking and drowning of birds including endangered albatross, fishermen use thawed bait that sinks quickly and only fish at night in the winter, when birds are less likely to be out.

Salamone says buying from MSC-certified fisheries is a way to support progressive operations. He is not alone in treating the MSC standard as an authority.

In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund welcomed the certification of the toothfish fishery as “positive news” for industry and consumers. While the Seafood Watch pocket guide lists Chilean sea bass as a species to avoid, more in-depth recommendations online single out the MSC-certified fishery as a more sustainable source.

Greenpeace seafood campaigner Casson Trenor counters that the MSC approval process ignores critical problems. He argues that the toothfish, with its long life cycle, cannot withstand the pressures of industrial fishing.

In the absence of a coordinated, regional management effort, isolating better practices within a single fishery will do little good, Trenor said. The ocean has no retaining walls, and the Chilean sea bass that swim through the waters of a certified fishery may also feed and breed in other grounds—places where poaching is common.

For Trenor, the fact that we are even chasing fish at the bottom of cold waters near Antarctica is an indication that something is wrong: To sate our appetites, we are fishing deeper and faster, following our prey to the literal ends of the Earth.

“We’re going to run out of ocean,” he said, “if we do it this way.”

WHAT to sell?

The Ross Sea, a stretch of the Southern Ocean, is a wilderness at the end of the world. Sheets of pancake ice, white like fresh snow, collect on dark, blue waters. Whales, seals, fish and penguins thrive.

These waters off Antarctica are one of the planet’s last pristine environments. Here, Wegmans draws a hard line: The company will not source seafood from the Ross Sea.

Elsewhere, the grocery chain has chosen more of a boutique approach, scrutinizing the practices of individual suppliers instead of relying on a single red list for guidance on what to carry.

Coho, king and sockeye salmon come from MSC-certified fisheries around Alaska. So do pollock, Pacific cod and Pacific halibut. Other wild-caught seafoods, including flatfish, bay scallops and live Maine lobster, derive from fishing grounds that, while uncertified, adhere to quotas established through years of fishing. The Iceland Responsible Fisheries provide haddock and additional cod.

When no good options exist, Wegmans sometimes works with suppliers and fishermen to improve their practices.

A shrimp farm in Belize (photo courtesy Wegmans)
Wegmans fish buyer Carl Salamone, center, inspects shrimp at the farm. (photo courtesy Wegmans)

One example: In 2007, the company announced a new line of shrimp from an aquafarm in Belize. The owners—a father-and-son team—had agreed to meet sustainability goals Wegmans had developed with Environmental Defense Fund, a leading advocacy group.

Though the farm’s first shrimp came from the sea, today’s all descend from farmed parents. The feed they consume is primarily vegetarian. Antibiotics, pesticides or other chemicals are not in use. Heavy, black plastic liners warm seawater ponds with sunlight and keep the brine from leeching into the ground. A system for treating wastewater is in place.

“What we’ve done in Belize has become the benchmark for all of our shrimp operations around the world,” Salamone said.

In Thailand, Wegmans expects shrimp farmers to plant three acres of coastal mangroves for every acre they destroy when building canals, pipelines and other infrastructure to link wetland aquaculture facilities to the sea.

While boycotting red list products can encourage better behavior, Wegmans has delivered results by partnering with imperfect fisheries and rewarding them for changes, said Teresa Ish, a consultant who advises businesses and nongovernmental organizations on buying, selling and promoting sustainable seafood.

“These days, that approach is not as novel as it once was. But when they first started this, they were really a leader, and they were really stepping out in front,” said Ish, who helped Wegmans create the Belize shrimp standards in her previous incarnation as a seafood specialist for Environmental Defense Fund.

Today, to track how farmed fish are raised, processed and shipped, Wegmans requires suppliers to employ the services of Trace Register, a company that helps businesses verify the chain of custody of edible merchandise.

Wegmans can trace every aquaculture product back to its source, to the pond and day of harvest. To add another level of detail, the retailer is working with Trace Register to identify the origins of feed used in farming. The next step will be to document the supply chain for wild-caught seafoods, connecting each item to a specific fishing vessel and date of capture.

Making improvements can be expensive at first, but a solid record on the environment can help attract new customers, said Davy Lam, whose family-owned company, Tai Foong USA, has supplied Wegmans with seafood for more than 20 years.

Fishermen and fish farmers are usually willing to modify their operations once they discover that sustainability can be good for business, Lam said.

The other motivation for conservation is more obvious: What would fishermen do without fish?

Centuries on the sea have laced the lives of men and fish together, and the story of tuna, marlin, and cod is also our story.

The collapse of the Grand Banks fishery in 1992 reportedly forced tens of thousands of people out of work. In our long, shared history with the oceans, such cataclysms may be a turning point, or, if we don’t change, some dark omen of things to come.

What happens next is up to us.

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