The future of seafood and the responsibility of supermarkets

Publication - April 1, 2008
Oceans contain the planet's most diverse ecosystems. It is estimated that they are home to 90% of the Earth's living organisms, including a million distinct species, many of which are essential to human survival. According to the UN, fish is the main source of protein for close to one billion people.

But oceans are in danger. The global seafood industry is constantly stretching the limits to feed the growing global demand for fish. Today, destructive fishing methods and overfishing are the main threats to the survival of marine ecosystems. According to the UN, almost three-quarters of global fish stocks are depleted or overexploited. There has been a 90% decline in global stocks of large predatory fish, particularly tuna, swordfish, shark, and cod. The disappearance of these large predators has left more room for small, fast-growing fish and invertebrates—a process which leads to fishing down the food chain. If the situation does not change, current practices could lead to oceans filled with jellyfish, as is the case in the Black Sea, where this species now accounts for 90% of aquatic wildlife.

The consequences of industrial fishing

Over the past fifty years, new technologies and the depletion of coastal stocks have prompted industrial fishing boats to go into deeper, unexplored and unregulated waters.

As well as depleting fish stocks, industrial fishing leads to the destruction of marine habitats. Bottom trawling, the most destructive method of fishing, is widespread in many regions of the world. Huge nets, kept open by metallic doors, scrape the ocean floor, removing everything in their way, including fragile ecosystems of coral and sea sponges. In Canada, bottom trawling is one of the most common methods of fishing (26%).

Another disturbing consequence of commercial fishing is bycatch, the non-targeted species caught or killed during fishing operations. Each year, 300 000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises, 100 million sharks and skates, thousands of tonnes of coral, and millions of tonnes of other fish species are caught or killed for no valid reason.

The industry's miracle solution to this situation is aquaculture . Globally, this sector is growing at a very fast pace, supplying almost half (43%) of all fish consumed by humans. This method, however, can have disastrous consequences on ecosystems, such as a decrease in biodiversity and contamination of wild fish.

Market campaign

The British example

Over the course of the past two years, Greenpeace UK has been conducting a campaign aiming to convince major retailers in the country to take their share of the responsibility to protect oceans by changing their seafood procurement policies. Greenpeace decided to focus on supermarkets; it considers that because of their purchasing power, they are in the best position to convince suppliers to ban certain destructive fishing practices and to help clients make informed choices. Following the publication in October 2005 of a chart ranking supermarkets by their procurement policies and as a result of ongoing consultations, most of the UK's retailers have adopted sustainable seafood procurement policies. Supermarkets such as Marks and Spencer as well as Waitrose have published their new purchasing policies and hired fisheries scientists to help manage procurement. The retailers also have close ties with their suppliers and inform them of the growing client demand for sustainable seafood products. Supermarkets have eliminated certain products from their shelves, notably sole, swordfish, and skate. Retailers now label the country of origin of their products and are providing more information on fishing methods used.

In Canada

Greenpeace is launching a campaign across Canada so that supermarkets, which are at the heart of the problem, get involved in the protection of oceans. Supermarkets must realize that their responsibility is twofold: pressuring suppliers to change their fishing practices and helping consumers make responsible choices by supplying them with sufficient information. The Canadian food market is one of the most concentrated in the world, with the three biggest players accounting for more than 75% of the market.


  • Loblaw is Canada's largest food distributor.
  • It owns 672 corporate, 405 franchised, and 451 associated stores, and its sales for 2007 were $29 407 billion CAN.
  • To our knowledge, Loblaw has no sustainable seafood procurement policy and provides no labelling to allow consumers to make informed choices.
  • In May 2008, Loblaw announced a commitment to offer Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified seafood.
  • RED LIST: Loblaw sells all species on the Greenpeace red list.


  • Sobeys (Empire Company Limited) is the second-largest food retailer in Canada after Loblaw.
  • It operates more than 1300 food and drug stores across Canada, and its sales for 2007 were $13 408 billion CAN.
  • To our knowledge, Sobeys has no wild seafood procurement policy and provides no labelling to allow consumers to make informed choices.
  • However, Thrifty Foods (a division of Sobeys) states that it provides clients with sufficient information about the origin and nature of aquaculture products. They have also stopped selling most types of farmed salmon.
  • RED LIST: Sobeys sells all species on the Greenpeace red list.


  • Metro is Quebec's largest food retailer and Canada's third.
  • In 2007, it had 655 stores in Quebec and Ontario, and its sales were $10 673 billion CAN.
  • To our knowledge, Metro has no sustainable seafood procurement policy and provides no labelling to allow consumers to make informed choices.
  • RED LIST: Metro sells all species on the Greenpeace red list, with the exception of Hoki and hard shell clams (Arctic Surfclams).

The red list

Sourcing sustainable seafood can prove to be a complicated process requiring careful attention to all of the negative impacts brought on by fishing and fish farming practices. For this reason, Greenpeace has developed a red list of seafood from the fish stocks or farming practices which are in need of immediate attention and are frequently sold in the Canadian retail market. The red list consists of “what not to eat” and “what not to sell”—species that we are asking consumers to avoid and urging supermarkets to remove from their shelves.

Information about seafood

According to a national survey conducted by Leger Marketing and commissioned by Greenpeace last May, nearly 7 out of 10 Canadians believe they are not sufficiently informed by their supermarkets about capture methods for the fish and seafood they buy. Three-quarters of those surveyed said that they would buy seafood from sustainable fisheries if they were properly informed.

Currently, the process for consumers wishing to buy sustainable seafood products is a complex one. While the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has set guidelines for the eco-labelling of wild-caught seafood, by their own definition these standards only set out minimum substantive requirements and criteria for assessing whether an eco-label may be awarded to a fishery. Current certification systems for fisheries and aquaculture vary greatly from one organization to another, and there is no set standard to identify the types of fisheries or specific products that can “eco-certified.” Furthermore, these standards are voluntary, and there is no process for evaluating compliance.

Given the absence of fully credible certification schemes and the small percentage of seafood that is currently certified, consumers must develop a relatively detailed understanding of fishing and aquaculture issues in order to make sustainable seafood choices. But even with this knowledge in hand, consumers are hampered by the fact that the current labelling practices rarely provide the species name, the exact catch area, or the fishing method used. Unlike those of the European Union and the United States, Canada's seafood labelling regulations require only the common name of the fish and the country of production for processed items.

Greenpeace's demands

Supermarkets have a twofold responsibility: they can both help consumers make responsible choices and pressure suppliers to change their fishing practices.

Supermarkets must:

  • Stop selling red-listed species. Lack of commercial demand will reduce pressure on these species and allow them to rebuild and recover.
  • Adopt and implement a sustainable seafood procurement policy.
  • Inform suppliers of sustainability requirements.
  • Label products so that clients can make informed choices. This involves providing the common and scientific names of the species, the catch area, fish stock status, type of aquaculture used, fishing method used, and date of catch.