Seeking sustainable seafood and sushi: Greenpeace goes to grocery stores

Sushi, Whole Foods, Casson Trenor
Sushi, Whole Foods, Casson Trenor
KPCC/Molly Peterson

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A new survey from the environmental group Greenpeace looks at seafood sold at US grocery stores. It examines whether it’s “sustainable” seafood – or the product of overfishing. KPCC’s Molly Peterson went inside supermarkets and sushi restaurants with one of Greenpeace’s top sustainability experts to find out how the Southland sells seafood.

A girl's off tune voice sings: "Stop destroying the oceans, take responsibility..."

Activists organized by Greenpeace last year started calling Trader Joe’s “TRAITOR Joe’s.” They left voicemail messages for the grocery chain, set up a Twitter account, and made a website.

The song continues: "You sell endangered species like Atlantic salmon and cod. Oh in one, two three years from now they will be all gone!"

It worked. Last month, Trader Joe’s promised to improve how it labels and stocks fish.

Casson Trenor is Greenpeace’s point man on grocery stores. He said Trader Joe’s long offered overfished species in its freezer section: red snapper, and fish labeled as Chilean sea bass and orange roughy. "But also it was HOW they sold it. Their labeling was so opaque it was so difficult to decide what you’re actually buying," he says.

Now Joe’s is going to print the names of fish on its packaging, and work with outside experts to certify sustainable practices. Trenor says that’s a good first step. He sees a groundswell lately: Target pulled wild salmon from its shelves in January. And over the last 10 years, Whole Foods has become a market leader for sustainable seafood. "They’ve developed standards for their aquaculture," Trenor says. "They’re not perfect but they’re a lot better than a lot of other stores. When a store gets to a point where they’re talking to a scientist and we’re going to let scientists help us figure this out, that’s an enormous step forward."

But shoppers still have to watch out. Say you’re inside a Whole Foods, grabbing takeout. Like a lot of other Southland supermarkets, Whole Foods contracts with an independent company for packaged sushi in the plastic trays. "A lot of this farmed shrimp? Whole Foods has put a lot of work into making sure they only buy shrimp from farms that meet certain standards. That’s in their seafood section. Their sushi section doesn’t have to follow those rules," he says.

Trenor says consumer campaigns and some new regulations have left a complicated landscape for consumers. Even in Los Angeles, where the US got its taste for sushi almost 50 years ago, sustainability in restaurants is still an emerging concept.

In Japantown, a server politely steps up to our table. "You guys have any questions or are you ready to order?"
I think we have some questions. "Do you know where your kampachi is from?" The server shakes her head. "Uh, I dunno. Let me check."

For a guy who worries about how supermarkets sell fish, Casson Trenor sure loves to eat it - especially sushi. He wrote a book that uses the same “red-yellow-green” rankings you see on little cards in restaurants. But since Greenpeace’s Casson Trenor is always looking for the simplest way to communicate sustainability, when we ate sushi, we ordered by what he calls the “Rule of Four S’s." Straightforward, he says: "small, seasonal, silver, shellfish."

Small fish like sardines and mackerel accumulate lower levels of pollutants like mercury over their shorter lives. About seasonal fish, he advises "ditch the menu whenever you can and order off the white board. What’s on the white board is usually fresher anyway."

“Silver” means small fish served with their silver skins still on. Sardines, sanma, sayori, kohara. Things like this. They’re a great way to get your omega 3’s. And fourth: clams, oysters, mussels, goeduck. Great for protein!

Some fish are out of the question, Trenor says. Bluefin tuna, eel, and octopus top that list now, and aren’t leaving it any time soon. Trenor admits he checks this stuff all day, every day, HOURS a day. What even experts know about a catch or a region changes constantly. "It’s incredibly difficult to decipher," he says. "So we, the ones that benefit the most financially from having a healthy ocean, we should be tasked with making the ocean stay healthy. It shouldn’t be up to the customers. It should be up to the chefs."

And, says Trenor, up to supermarkets - and in a perfect world, international scientific authorities. Until then, Greenpeace’s Casson Trenor sides with activists who believe sustainability scorecards can help consumers make sustainable choices.