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Guide to troubled waters

June 17, 2008 |  1:21 pm

Codinafishmarketcodis There may be no tougher puzzle for the conscientious consumer than trying to figure out where to buy sustainably caught fish. The environmental group Greenpeace is trying to make it a little easier with a website that ranks leading retailers according to the eco-friendliness of their seafood offerings. Searchable by state, the site ranks the stores in four categories and then comes up with a final score and a rating. Generally, the situation is quite gloomy.

In California, 17 chains are assessed; perhaps predictably, Whole Foods and its corporate sibling Wild Oats come out on top, though their ratings are hardly sparkling. Not so predictably, the third- and fourth-rated chains are Wal-Mart and partner Sam's Club. Some very highly thought-of markets, such as Bristol Farms and Trader Joe's, fare worse.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you find that the rankings, though admirable in intent, have some drawbacks. For example, among the criteria markets are judged on is whether they have established a seafood sustainability code. But is it fair to assume that the absence of a code is the same as endorsing bad practices?

Even more problematic is the emphasis on Greenpeace's "Seafood Red List" of fish that should be avoided. The catch is that the list paints with a very broad brush, and in the confusing world of seafood that can lead to some serious oversimplifications.

This is particularly noticeable when you compare it with the list produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which is generally acknowledged to be the gold standard. For example, Greenpeace red-lists albacore tuna (an obvious problem for grocery stores, because it makes up most of the canned tuna). But the Seafood Watch list specifies that albacore should be avoided only if it is long-line caught outside of the United States; in fact, domestically caught trolled or hand-lined albacore makes the tough "Best Choice" list. There are similar confusions with other seafood, including sea scallops, swordfish and yellowfin tuna.

Consider the Greenpeace list a good start, but one that still needs some refining.

-- Russ Parsons

Photo credit: Greenpeace.com