Can Trader Joe's Dive Into Sustainable Seafood Make a Difference?

Overfishing and other issues have depleted many of the world's waterways. Trader Joe's announces it will buy all of its seafood from sustainable sources by 2012.
Overfishing and other issues have depleted many of the world's waterways. Trader Joe's announces it will buy all of its seafood from sustainable sources by 2012.

As I've moved toward more sustainable food shopping, it has become painful to shop at Trader Joe's, a privately held chain of grocery stores. The heavy packaging, in spite of all the cute branding with names like Trader Jose's, Trader Giotto's and Trader Jacques's, is a turnoff. But news this week that the company wants to buy all of its seafood from "sustainable sources" by Dec. 31, 2012, reminded me what the chain does right.

The company has long been working to offer far more organic, local, sustainable options and forgo more wasteful choices. It has led the pack in many of its merchandising decisions, such as by offering a range of shampoos and soaps free of paraben and synthetic materials long before mainstream grocery stores began to stock them.

Years ago, when I first began looking for local and sustainable meat, I found that the Trader Joe's near me in Portland, Ore., already carried Northwest-grown free-range whole chickens, switching between a few farms and sometimes offering soy-free and organic meats. And in the past several months, I've noticed from its packaging that Trader Joe's organic milk comes from nearby farms, its artisan bread is also baked locally, and it's offering a growing number of Northwest wines, complete with special little pink labels, as well as organic and biodynamic wine and beer options.

But is this latest move, like those others, a harbinger of a change that will soon creep into mainstream American and European grocery stores? Or is it, as some have suggested, a last desperate cry to heal an industry that is fast using up all its resources?

Trader Joe's new goal has attracted some skepticism from quarters that might surprise those less informed about the global seafood trade. "Is it too cynical of me to wonder how much seafood will be left by 2012?" Tara Austen Weaver, a food writer and fellow Northwest resident tweeted in response to the news. My answer, at least, is no.

A Murky Future

It's clear that far more must be done to protect our waterways. A 2009 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization described the majority -- 52% -- of the world's fish stocks as fully exploited in 2007, meaning that catch levels were at or near maximum sustainable limits. And it described an additional 28% of stocks as overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. That means 80% of the world's fish stocks are declining too quickly, even under the U.N.'s somewhat permissive limits. Worse, the methods international organizations are using to limit these declines are tenuous – and sometimes nonexistent.

Despite concerted efforts by environmental organizations, the health of many of our rivers is miserable, and the health of fish populations is worse. A Department of Environmental Quality study last October found that the biological health of more than 80% of the streams in the Willamette River basin is severely compromised, for example, and other examples abound.

If you study any sort of fish deeply, you'll find a web of confusion and disagreements that nearly always comes down to the conclusion that too many fish are being caught, with too much collateral damage. Weaver, the food writer, reported one visible sign: In British Columbia, eagles have taken to eating chickens and cats because of a shortage of salmon in rivers once so thick with them that bears had only to hold their mouths open midstream in spawning season to get all they could gulp down.

And farmed seafood is no better, often destroying habitats to create underwater farms, polluting nearby waters with chemicals, low-quality feed and the occasional escaped fish that intermingle with wild ones, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

Education and Individual Action Needed

The least we can do, I suppose, is educate. Trader Joe's is attempting to do that with its new target. In its statement, the company says it's "working with third-party, science-based organizations to establish definitions and parameters" toward the goal of 100% sustainable seafood, with the intent to address customer concerns such as the issues of overfishing and destructive catch or production methods.

In addition to the current required labeling as to seafood's country of origin and whether it is wild or farm-raised, Trader Joe's is "in the process of enhancing our package labeling for all seafood items to include information on species' Latin names, origin and catch or production method" so that customers will have far more information than they do in mainstream grocery retailers.

The policy will encompass every sort of seafood the company sells, including fresh, frozen and canned. Trader Joe's aims "to use our purchasing power to leverage change within the seafood supply community," according to its statement. While it may be the very least a company should do, it may also be all that Trader Joe's can do.

Nothing Cute About Extinction

It's still the task of much smaller organizations to provide consumers with even greater variety and sustainability. It may be up to consumers to decide to take themselves out of the seafood industry altogether -- something many people I know have done recently, based on fear that our oceans will be bare in two, or 20, years.

Trader Joe's is clearly taking a brave stance. And so far, it has avoided stamping the initiative with its usual cute names for things -- no "Trader Ming's" sea bass or "Trader Giotto's Buono" olive-cured anchovies. I think that's the right decision because this isn't a cute topic. People interested in sustainability are curious to find out how many of its current products survive on the store's shelves.

Originally published