Costco Adopts New Sustainable Seafood Policy

February 26, 2011 – By Nick Engelfried

Thanks to pressure from its customers and from environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, one of the biggest store chains in the United States will no longer sell twelve highly threatened types of fish on its shelves.  Supermarket giant Costco’s new sustainable seafood policy is designed to alleviate pressure on fish that could disappear from the oceans forever without swift action that lets their populations recover.

Environmental activists spent eight months pressuring Costco to adopt a sustainable seafood policy, after discovering twelve species and groups of related species on Greenpeace’s “red list” of threatened marine life.  Red listed species previously sold by Costco stores which will no longer be purchased by the company include swordfish, bluefin tuna, sharks, rays, and Chilean sea bass.  Costco says it will not go back to stocking the shelves with these fish unless it can find populations that are harvested using sustainable methods certified by a third-party source.  The move will help decrease pressure on some of the ocean’s biggest, strangest, and most fascinating marine life.

To persuade Costco to stop selling red listed species, more than 100,000 Greenpeace supporters sent email messages to the company’s CEO, asking the supermarket chain to help protect the oceans.  Volunteers surveyed Costco stores to gather information about which threatened species were being sold there, and handed out leaflets to customers explaining how Costco purchases were hurting fish populations.  At one point Greenpeace even flew the airship A. E. Bates over Costco headquarters in the state of Washington.  A banner hanging from the side of the airship read “Costco: Wholesale Ocean Destruction.”

In the past Greenpeace had successfully used similar tactics to persuade companies like Trader Joes and Target to adopt sustainable seafood policies.  However Costco, as one of the world’s largest store chains, presented a new level of challenge.  “This is a huge win for the oceans,” said Greenpeace campaigner Casson Trenor, announcing the Costco victory to supporters in an email.  “Costco is one of the largest seafood retailers in the US and they’ll no longer be selling twelve red list species.”

Threatened marine life isn’t off the hook yet, as many stores still sell species at risk of extinction.  Greenpeace is now gearing up to challenge Wal-Mart and SUPERVALU, two of the biggest retail chains in the country, to follow in Costco’s footsteps.  Greenpeace will also be watching what Costco does closely, to ensure the company follows through on its new commitments to sea life protection.

Declining fish stocks are a global problem, as technologically advanced methods of harvesting marine life have allowed fishing fleets to take more out of the oceans than ever before.  Slightly over half the world’s fish stocks have been fully exploited, meaning their populations are under all the pressure they can sustainably take.  Another 16% are over-exploited, and 7% are depleting—meaning the species is at risk of irreversible population declines.  In addition to true fish species like sharks, tuna, and swordfish, marine invertebrates like the Atlantic sea scallop and ocean quahog are being unsustainably harvested as well.

Over-fishing harms not only the species immediately targeted, but also the surrounding marine ecosystem.  Many fish sold for food in supermarkets are large predators that play an important role in ocean food chains.  Removing predators like sharks and tuna can have unpredictable ripple effects on the marine environment, just as elimination of wolves and big cats alters terrestrial ecosystems.  In addition destructive fishing methods can damage species other than the intended targets—for example trawling the sea floor for bottom-dwelling fish destroys fragile corals and threatens many non-target fish species swept up in the nets.

Ideally world governments would work together to bring an end to over-fishing.  However this is a daunting challenge, partly because it is difficult to regulate and monitor fishing boats that go far out to sea.  Given this reality one of the most effective ways to relieve pressure on fish stocks is for store chains to stop buying threatened species.  Costco’s newly-unveiled sustainable seafood policy is a step in this direction.

Photo credit: Jon Connell

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