A Closer Look at Greenpeaces Misguided Seafood Sustainability Report

Greenpeaces non-science based seafood sustainability diatribe designed to pressure American supermarkets into removing almost half of all seafood from sale is a deeply flawed campaign complete with misleading, erroneous, and alarmist rhetoric that undermines its own efforts.

Its report starts with an erroneous claim that the worlds commercial fisheries could collapse within the next 40 years and that 90 percent of stocks of large predatory fish have already been lostthats on page 1 of the printed version (p5 of 75 in the PDF.) This alarming statistic is comically out of date and has been challenged by a number of independent researchers who describe the study that promoted the statistics as, flawed and full of errors. Including Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle whose research into the study lead him to say, “this particular prediction has zero credibility within the scientific community.” After Hilborns analysis the author of the original study himself explained that his research was not in fact predicting world wide fish stock collapse at all but merely examining trends. Later in Greenpeaces own report it apparently recalculates said statistic and comes up with a new claim that, global fisheries could collapse in the next 50 yearsthats on page 68 of the printed version (p72 of 75 in the PDF.) So, which erroneous claim is it 40 years or 50 years?

Greenpeace also insists that supermarkets will not have empty shelves if they move toward sustainability. In fact, by creating sustainable seafood policies, supermarkets will be ensuring that consumers have plentiful, sustainable seafood choices in the future. What they dont mention in this sentence is that they have already demanded that grocery stores remove almost half of all commonly eaten seafood from saleplentiful, with half of all seafood missing most of which has already been determined to be scientifically sustainable? The contradictions abound.

Further along on p.3 of the printed version (7 of 75 in the PDF) the Greenpeace report discusses its misguided ranking system, writing those with the highest scores are doing the most work toward seafood sustainability by developing comprehensive, transparent policies to produce sustainable seafood. What? Greenpeace uses a 67 page report to announce that all of the grocery stores it has surveyed failed to meet its standards for seafood sustainability but describes those at the top of the list as developing comprehensive, transparent policies to produce sustainable seafood.

On page p.5 of the printed version (9 of 75 in the PDF) Greenpeace launches into a typical distortion of the facts by misleading the public about what fully exploited means. The report highlights the fact that 52% of the worlds fish stocks are fully exploited. Real sustainability is based on real science and a desire to see seafood resources properly and fully exploited. To be sure- a curious term but one that accurately reflects the goal of well-managed fisheries. An under exploited or moderately exploited stock can be a wasteful use of resource, while overexploited or depleted stocks can cause concerns about the future. Fully hits the sweet spot where sustainability and semantics converge. Greenpeace fails to explain this terminology, leaving readers with a misimpression about the true state of sustainability.

Still on p.5 of the printed version (9 of 75 in the PDF) Greenpeace assails U.S. grocery stores claiming that the report shows, most U.S. supermarkets continue to purchase seafood with little consideration for the health of fish stocks they sell and even less concern for how seafood was caught, or for the effects on the wider marine environment. This type of incendiary rhetoric is completely off base and ignores the fact that many of the stores in Greenpeaces own report work with the Marine Stewardship Council, the New England Aquarium, or participate in the Food Marketing Institutes sustainability initiative, while others work directly with their suppliers to ensure they are complying with sustainability practices. Just because a retail outlet isnt working directly with Greenpeace (an extremist group known for vandalizing grocery stores in Europe) doesnt mean they purchase seafood with little consideration for the health of fish stocks.

Steering away from rhetorical assaults on grocery stores for a moment Greenpeace makes a misinformed attempt to paint aquaculture in a disparaging light. Known as fish farming, aquaculture is actually a successful component of sustainability that acts in concert with fisheries to give the wild stocks a release valve. Regardless, on p. 8 of the printed version (12 of 75 in the PDF) Greenpeace examines the supposed ills of, among other things, salmon farming. An analysis that Salmon of the Americas, Inc. takes issue with: Greenpeace has ignored that the ratios of wild fisheries used in the production of fishmeal have decreased over the last few years. The farmed salmon industry continues to research feed alternatives to increase the industrys independence from fisheries. Whats more, These extremists also fail to point out that salmon farming sites occupy a tiny portion of the coastal zone areas in which they are located. Many environmental considerations are taken into account when these sites are selected and they are also monitored by strict governmental regulations during their operation.

In its assault on fish farming Greenpeace never mentions that the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) even exists. GAA is a non profit organization set up to further environmentally responsible aquaculture and develop standardsthat encourage the use of aquaculture system designs, installations and operationssensitive to and compatible with environmental and community needs. The Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC) implements GAA’s Best Aquaculture Practices through process of certification for shrimp and fish production and processing. ACC also oversees an online traceability system that allows program users to track product through the seafood value chain. Not quite the Wild West Greenpeace would have its readers believe.

Not that the Greenpeace hasn’t been acomplete mess so far, but on page p. 14 of the printed version (18 of 75 in the PDF) it really goes off the tracks and exposes Greenpeaces report as one that is clearly not a science-based document but a ideologically driven manifesto. Here we find Greenpeaces Red List Seafoods rather than go into the sustainability story of each specie I will highlight one from each row and examine how misguided the selection is:

Row 1- Hoki: Greenpeace says it is one of the highest priority species for removal from stores. What they dont say is The New Zealand Government recently reduced the catch levels for hoki, based on scientific estimates of its status. This action is the kind of scientifically based decision-making that good fishery managers use– when stocks go up, more fishing can be allowed and when stocks go down, good government managers reduce the fishing. Marine Stewardship Council principles recognize these fluctuations in stock and reward fisheries that have such good management systems in place. Greenpeaces failure to recognize this important aspect of sustainable management exposes a real weakness in their own sustainability efforts.

Row 2- Alaska Pollock: Apparently Greenpeace is truly in the dark about this fishery. The fact is, Alaska Pollock is considered by many NGOs, government fisheries experts, and industry to be a model of fisheries management and meets all of the requirements of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries developed by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Alaska pollock stock is plentiful and the fishery is sustainably managed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts it this way, Alaska pollock population levels are high, and no overfishing is occurring. Its pretty straightforward.

Row 3- Tropical Shrimp: Shrimp is Americas favorite seafood. About 92% of the shrimp consumed by Americans is imported, and of that, about 86% is farmed. About one third (32% and growing) of the imported, farmed shrimp comes from processing plants that are certified by the Aquaculture Certification Council for implementation of their Best Aquaculture Practices. The ACC is currently concentrating on efforts to increase the number of farms participating in the certification program.

So, there you have three rows and three species whose sustainability stories are clearly and scientifically in conflict with Greenpeaces unreasonable demands. Quite frankly it is difficult to take a report seriously that is so at odds with independent science and simply stated facts.

While the report is peppered with inaccuracies and dripping with the commonly heard activist hysteria it’s p. 17 of the printed version (21 of 75 in the PDF) where Greenpeaces sanctimony reaches a crescendo as they foist their already discredited red list on retailers and then rank them according to which one they think is doing the best job on seafood sustainability.

Long story shortevery single American retailer failed and failed miserably with the highest score being a 36.5 out of 100. Thats right. According to Greenpeace not a single American retailer is doing enough to promote seafood sustainability– a ludicrous conclusion to an equally ludicrous survey.

But wait theres more. Almost half of all the retailers featured on the scorecard didnt even respond to Greenpeaces survey questions in the first place. So, its safe to assume that they ended up at the bottom of the list- right? Wrong. Some stores that didnt even bother to respond to Greenpeace were ranked higher than stores that did.

The absurdity of these rankings are evident throughout the narrative that describes why stores received the rankings they did. For instance, one retailer that failed along with all the others is implementing a 10-point Sustainable Seafood Policy and works with the New England Aquarium, the World Wildlife Fund and the Marine Stewardship Council on seafood sustainability issues. To recapa grocery store chain that is committed to an extensive sustainability policy and is working with no less than three NGOs on this issue gets an F for sustainability according to Greenpeace. Perhaps this retail outlet would have faired better had they put in place a policy that instructed seafood counter employees to get up in the morning with their own rod and reel and personally catch the fish they intended to sell that day. Hey, its just something to consider.

Making use of a hilarious and original fishing pun Greenpeace spokesman John Hocevar is quoted in Seafood Source as saying “NFI is missing the boat. What we’re saying is what the scientists are saying – that fish stocks are in serious trouble. After reading this report I must ask the questionwhich scientists are those? Are they the ones who are telling Greenpeace that stocks of Alaska Pollock, have not recovered from overfishing? Despite the fact that for more than 30 years, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has managed the Alaska pollock fishery on a precautionary basis, resulting in annual harvests averaging 2.5 billion pounds all on a sustainable basis. And the fishery is recognized by management experts and independent environmental organizations as one of the most sustainably managed fisheries in the world. Or perhaps its the scientists who are telling Greenpeace that the odds of hoki population recovering are low despite the fact that the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries describes the eastern hoki stock as, in a healthy sate, well above target biomass levels and the western stock as just below target biomass. Perhaps, as evidenced by their lack of understanding when it comes to the term fully exploited Greenpeace is just not aware of what such a stock assessment means. Regardless, the fact remains Greenpeaces sustainability campaign is not based on sound science.

So, whats next? Well, if their European model is a bellwether Greenpeace will turn from writing reports to vandalizing storessure, a natural progression when your stated goal is to provide a roadmap for both consumers and supermarkets to make sustainable choices when purchasing seafood. Also an understandable next step when your organization has signed an Accountability Charter that promises its agents will not be involved in illegal or unethical practices. A campaigner for Greenpeace recently wrote to Intra Fish to say Greenpeaces direct action tactics were a key instrument for change and part of an orchestra that plays together with WWF, Oceana, MSC, and others. To be honest, after a whos who of environmental activists signed on to a Common Vision for Environmentally Sustainable Seafood and notably absent for the list was Greenpeace… it sounds like their singin’ solo on this one.