Environmental Advocacy: We Can’t Just Kick the Can Down the Road on Bering Sea Canyons. We Must Protect Them Now.

As a leading provider of commercial seafood in the United States, Hy-Vee is taking a progressive approach on several key environmental advocacy initiatives that we expect will have a positive effect on the health of the oceans and the species that live and swim in them.

We have made a strong commitment to building a market for Responsible Choice seafood. This makes us an important stakeholder in discussions about how to best protect the health of ecosystems that harbor and nurture that seafood.

Here’s a recent example of how we’re using our sway:

Hy-Vee appealed to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to approve protections for the Zhemchung and Pribilof canyons, which are carved into the Bering Sea shelf break, a unique ecoregion known as the Green Belt due to its extraordinary productivity.

The canyons contain abundant and diverse corals and sponges that provide valuable habitat for commercially important fish and other marine species. In many parts of the canyons, the deep sea corals can be over 1,000 years old. If stripped from the ocean floor or crushed by fishing gear, the corals are unlikely to will recover, creating a habitat deficit that is difficult if not impossible to regenerate.

Numerous fish and crab species depend upon canyon terrain for spawning and nursery areas, making these habitats important for sustaining species’ populations. Commercially important species that utilize the canyons for essential fish habitat include rockfish, Pacific cod, halibut, pollock and several species of crab.

Based on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assessment that said the geography, if not the habitat, of the canyons is unique and continuous study was warranted, the council decided on further study – the equivalent of kicking the can down the road.

Hy-Vee and a coalition of environmental groups and other stakeholders have taken the position that additional study isn’t the right tack. Protecting the canyons now is the equivalent of providing stakeholders with an insurance policy that can help preserve biodiversity as well as ensure the sustainability of fisheries and seafood supply.

Our leadership in advocacy on this issue may surprise some people. It’s as simple as this: we want to be able to offer our customers the species most impacted by non-sustainable management practices well into the future. If the experts we rely on urge more protection, we’re going to side with these approaches.

We can’t just protect one species at a time. We’ve made a commitment to other sea life and habitat, and one of the ways to accomplish this is to make sure all the species thrive.

Additional Resources

What’s the Catch? Key Issues Affecting Seafood Sustainability

Four primary issues affect the sustainability of seafood, and Hy-Vee is paying close attention as part of the company’s efforts to responsibly source its fresh and private label frozen seafood products by the end of 2015.

One is no more important than another. If one of the issues gets out of balance, it can affect another.

1. Impacts on target stock – is the species being overfished? One example of a species that is being overfished is Bluefin tuna, which is called “toro” in fancy sushi restaurants. Hy-Vee doesn’t carry Bluefin tuna because of the many environmental issues associated with this fishery.

These days, the United States does a good job managing its fisheries and products from domestic fisheries usually meet Hy-Vee’s definition of responsible sourcing. But there have been problems in the past – with Atlantic cod, for example – and when fisheries are depleted, recovery takes a very long time because the fish are long-lived and don’t reproduce quickly. That means a long period where certain species are unavailable from the time the overfishing stops and the population rebounds.

One issue we’re seeing now is that as domestic stocks are recovering, international fisheries are being depleted.

2. Impacts on other species (bycatch) – how much bycatch is occurring and what non-target species are being caught accidentally? Some gear types like huge longlines indiscriminately catch endangered species like sea birds, sharks, and sea turtles, while some gear types are more selective and only catch one fish at a time.

In the conservation world, the incidental catch of large marine mammals like dolphins helped inspire people and catalyze a movement toward more awareness of the serious issues with fishing. That problem is less severe now, but bycatch is still a problem and we’re seeing issues with other species.

3. Habitat and ecosystem impacts – is the fishing gear affecting the surrounding habitat? Is the fishery removing all the top predators from the ecosystem and changing the dynamics of the marine community? Some gear types like trawl nets that drag along the seafloor can have a significant impact on ancient coral communities – some of them 1,000 years old or more – while some gear types like pole-and-line never come into contact with the bottom.

We have to be mindful that when we take away too many predators, the ecosystem can get out of balance and that can affect the habitat sea life needs to survive.

An example of this is found in kelp forests, where sea otters were hunted for their furs. With the predators gone, that allowed the sea urchins to invade and eat the kelp. The effects were felt throughout the ecosystem, as the kelp is important habitat not only for marine mammals like sea otters, sea lions, seals and grey whales, but also for many types of rockfish.

4. Management – are the rules regulating the fishery working? Most fisheries in the US are very well managed but some international fisheries have lax regulations, or no regulations at all. Illegal fishing can be a major problem in fisheries with poor management. Illegal fishing harms honest fishermen, weakens coastal communities, is associated with crime such as narcotraffic and human rights abuses, and undermines companies like Hy-Vee that are trying to do the right thing.

Assessing these four criteria gives FishWise an understanding of the wild fisheries supplying Hy-Vee’s seafood products, and whether those products qualify for one of Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice labels. When Hy-Vee’s customers see the Responsible Choice label, they can be confident that the seafood they’re buying is not contributing to unhealthy oceans.

The Ross Sea Pledge isn’t Just Words on Paper for Hy-Vee

As part of our efforts to responsibly source Hy-Vee seafood and fish, we’re involved in some behind-the-scenes environmental efforts intended to prevent some problems before they occur.

One of those efforts is the Ross Sea Pledge. The Ross Sea teems with species of large predatory fish and small krill, tiny crustaceans that are a giant link in the aquatic food chain and help sustain the whales, seals, penguins and other aquatic mammals that live in this pristine, unaltered ecosystem. It’s a magnificent “living laboratory” for scientists to study marine life and is known as “the last ocean” because of its relatively untouched state.

Unfortunately, the Ross Sea is vulnerable. By signing the Ross Sea Pledge, Hy-Vee has given its word that it won’t be part of that developing problem and is, in fact, part of the solution. By signing the pledge, Hy-Vee supports creation of a Marine Protected Area to protect the area against commercial fishing and pollution. This initiative is broadly supported by governments, scientists, NGOs and the fishing industry.

Hy-Vee is proud to be part of that group. What it means to customers is that we will not procure Antarctic toothfish (known as Chilean sea bass) from the Ross Sea. By taking a hands-off approach to that species from the Southern Ocean, we join others in working to reduce the level of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Southern Ocean. Chilean sea bass is a notorious species for IUU fishing.

We’re not the only retailer supporting the initiative, but we are one of the few who are taking these aggressive steps to ensure that we’re procuring seafood for our customers in a way that not only protects the supply of seafood for generations to come but also the health of the oceans.

By the end of 2015, all fresh and Hy-Vee brand seafood will be responsibly sourced.

We’ve staked our corporate word on that, something we don’t do lightly. It’s not just lip service; we’re taking the actions to back it up.

More detailed information about the Ross Sea can be found here.

Hy-Vee is Working Behind the Scenes on Marine Conservation Programs That Make Every Day Earth Day

Authored by Kathleen Mullen-Ley & Nate Stewart

How Hy-Vee’s Responsible Seafood Program relates to the larger picture of marine conservation.

Earth Day is Tuesday, April 22, but Hy-Vee is making environmentally responsible choices every day. One of the most visible is the Responsible Choice initiative – Hy-Vee’s pledge to customers to responsibly source all fresh and frozen Hy-Vee brand fish by the end of 2015.

Less visible but no less important are three major marine conservation initiatives.
These are huge efforts that are not necessary to meeting Hy-Vee’s seafood goals, but are important to Hy-Vee in establishing itself as an industry leader in marine conservation issues.

Retailer participation in advocacy issues and reform is becoming increasingly important to customers as public awareness of threats to marine ecosystems grows. Hy-Vee supports the following three initiatives to help protect the oceans.

  1. Ross Sea Pledge
    The Ross Sea in Antarctica is the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth, supporting exceptional abundances of krill, penguins, fishes, and marine mammals, and it offers important scientific research opportunities only available in this unique place. To support the creation of a marine protected area in one of the world’s most isolated and pristine ecosystems, Hy-Vee publicly pledged that it will not procure Antarctic toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass) from the Ross Sea.
  2. Genetically Engineered Seafood Pledge
    Hy-Vee extended its commitment to not sell genetically engineered (GE) salmon to include all GE seafood. There currently is no GE seafood on the market, but Hy-Vee is taking this proactive step in part because a technology company has petitioned the FDA for approval of an Atlantic salmon that contains genes from several other species that allow it to grow faster.This is a concern not only for the 93 percent of Americans who favor GMO labeling, but also from an environmental standpoint. Because they are modified to grow faster, there are valid concerns that these farm-raised GE salmon could escape and out-compete wild salmon populations, leading to the decline of wild salmon stocks. Anyone who values biological diversity does not want to go in that direction.
  3. Protection for the Bering Sea Canyons
    On Jan. 28, 2014, Hy-Vee sent a letter to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) in support of the establishment of a Fishery Ecosystem Management Plan for the Bering Sea, including protections for the Zhemchung and Pribilof canyons.A protected zone over these canyons is important because these areas have deep sea coral and sponge habitat that provide a very rare nursery for fish. Healthy coral and sponge habitat leads to healthy stocks of many commercially important fish, including Alaska pollock, Pacific cod, and numerous species of rockfish.

All three of these initiatives are ongoing, and Hy-Vee is committed to remaining engaged.

There’s No Reason to Avoid Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice Farm-Raised Fish and Seafood

The reputation of farm-raised fish and seafood is improving to the point that you’re probably eating more farm-raised seafood than you know. Anytime you’re ordering it off the menu, it’s probably farm-raised unless it’s specifically labeled as wild caught.

The problem with farm-raised fish in the past was that it was penned too tightly. One of the problems with that is the same as putting too many people in a pressurized cabin on an airplane. If several people have colds, there’s a good chance many people will catch it. In the oceans, if disease gets to the native fish it can cause a kill.

Large pens of farmed fish also creates waste and uneaten feed that goes to the sea floor, causing negative impacts on crustaceans and other sea life.

But that’s the past. Hy-Vee’s commitment to responsibly choice its seafood by the end of 2015 means our customers won’t have to worry about those practices.

Modern aquaculture practices bear no resemblance to those Old World practices where shrimp was raised in the mud, tilapia in the water and poultry occupied cages resting above the water, creating a not so appetizing circle of life that might have seemed efficient. Today, fish aren’t packed in as tightly in the big enclosed systems used to raise tilapia and trout, and fresh water is filtered and recirculated.

One species where we’ve seen the biggest gains is in tilapia, a fish that has exploded over the last 10 years and is farm-raised all over the world.

We don’t have to go far down the road here in Iowa to see how it’s raised. The Waterfront Drive store in Iowa City, where I work, is one of the few places around that live tilapia can be found. It’s raised by Kingfisher Farms in Long Grove, Iowa, just north of Davenport, in an enclosed tank system. It’s a local, organic operation and you can’t beat it for freshness. Due to the environmentally friendly way that it’s farmed, Kingfisher Farms’ tilapia is a Hy-Vee Responsible Choice.

The system there is very similar. Tilapia are vegetarians, so farmers are able to avoid one of the biggest issues that gives farm-raised fish a bad reputation: in too many farm operations, it takes too many pounds of fish to grow a pound of fish.

One of most exciting developments in aquaculture comes from Chile, where Hy-Vee procures its Responsible Choice Verlasso salmon. Chile is one of the countries where most fish farms still need a lot of work, because fish are packed in too tightly. Verlasso salmon is different.

What Verlasso has done is huge. Not only are fewer fish raised in a pen, the company has developed a feed that has achieved a 1:1.34 ratio in that the fish meal they’ve developed uses slightly over one pound of wild fish to create one pound of salmon. That’s the reason most salmon isn’t Responsible Choice; it uses too much wild fish in the meal.

Verlasso has changed the feed without changing the flavor, which is one of the biggest issues people have had with farm-raised salmon. It still contains those essential Omega-3 fatty acids people want, and it still has the same texture people want.

Salmon is a very popular fish, and wild-caught salmon can only supply about 10 percent of the demand for the salmon, so Responsible Choice options like Verlasso are very important.

Farm-raised mussels are also Responsible Choice. They filter and help clean the water, so they’re actually helping the environment rather than harming it. They grown and multiply quickly and they don’t have to be fed. So we haven’t seen huge changes in those practices, because the fisheries have been doing the right thing for a long time.

We’re watching a shrimp out of Belize very closely. The shrimp industry has been slow to change, but it is beginning to adopt better practices. Hy-Vee has picked up fully traceable shrimp from Belize Aquaculture Ltd., which last year earned a three-star rating from the Global Aquaculture Alliance. It’s the best farm-raised shrimp out there, and we’re glad we can offer it to our customers.

Key Takeaway from Seafood Expo in Boston: Sustainability is Expected, No Longer a Hot, In-Your-Face Topic

One of the greatest opportunities at the Seafood Expo North America (formerly the Boston Seafood Show) was found in the chance to talk face-to-face with the approximately 19,000 suppliers, processors and other professionals from around the world who attend this event.

Establishing that rapport makes the follow-up conversations much easier and more congenial.

For me, the key takeaway from the event in Boston is that sustainability isn’t the in-your-face, hot topic that it used to be. Everyone may not quite meet the same high standards that Hy-Vee and PDI have set with the Responsible Choice initiative, but everyone takes for granted that companies care about sustainability and are doing something about it. This is driven some by consumer demand, but primarily it’s due to competition for business between companies.

It was great to meet those domestic suppliers, the folks with boats on the water and processing plants, who are working directly with PDI and Hy-Vee to provide Alaskan King crab, wild salmon, because promotions around those species have been successful at bringing customers’ attention to Responsible Choice seafood.

At FishWise, we work with some of the better-acting companies and they are doing a great deal to advance conservation. These seafood suppliers from Alaska, who are leading the world in setting the standards for sustainability, appreciate that Hy-Vee is very direct about what its environmental standards are what companies need to provide for them.

They love that Hy-Vee does so much to draw attention to the way they do things. They know Hy-Vee appreciates quality. It’s kind of a mutual admiration society, which is rare.

At the expo, I also met with leaders of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a certifying organization like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), to connect them with Hy-Vee and other distributors and help them better understand where the other is coming from. It’s a tough topic, because so many people are under the impression that farmed fish is not sustainable in any way, and we need to work to overcome that stereotype. The folks at GAA are very open to dialogue, and that will help to move it along.

Another prominent event during the Seafood Show was a panel discussion focused on improvement projects that companies like Hy-Vee and its vendors are supporting, like wild gulf shrimp. The shrimping industry can be dirty and have a lot of issues, yet customers want shrimp. Hy-Vee is doing the right thing by supporting practices that reduce turtle bycatch. The vendor Hy-Vee works with is making sure there’s a smaller amount of turtle bycatch in its fisheries.

What was That Fish? Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice Initiative Means New Varieties are Showing Up in the Seafood Case

As Hy-Vee moves toward its self-imposed deadline to responsibly source all of its fresh and Hy-Vee brand frozen seafood by the end of 2015, customers will begin seeing some new varieties in the seafood case.

One variety our customers may not be familiar with is sablefish. Fisheries in Alaska have been harvesting this tasty, buttery fish since the 1800s, and new management practices have eliminated some of the problems that nearly depleted sablefish populations in the 1970s.

Before practices changed to trawl-and-pot, the fisheries used longline methods. The whales really love it because it’s very tasty, and they would eat the fish right off the lines, decimating the fisheries’ catch – a whale’s going to do what a whale’s going to do.

You’ll love it, too. Sablefish, which some people know as black cod, is one of best fish out there to eat, but one of the reasons people haven’t heard much about sablefish is that large quantities are shipped overseas to Japan, where there’s a high reverence for it.

Sablefish, like halibut, has a relatively short season, but it’s in season now, so we’ll be able to get it fresh in our stores.

Hy-Vee is also getting a farm-raised salmon that has earned the go-ahead from Monterey Bay and bears our Responsible Choice seal of approval. There are myriad issues related to farm-raised salmon, so it often gets all lumped together. But Verlasso, an Atlantic farm-raised salmon raised in Chile away from development is an exception.

Two big issues with farm-raised salmon are that the fish are grown in high densities, creating a high risk of the transmission of diseases to native salmon populations, and also that the feed contains an unsustainably high amount of wild fish, making it a lose-lose proposition. But Verlasso salmon is penned with 50 percent less fish, and the fish meal has been replaced with a meal that is rich in Omega-3, but has 75 percent less fish in the meal. They’re switching out the protein, but the fish still has the same texture and is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. And there’s no net loss to the environment.

Verlasso salmon should be available in our stores by April 1.

We’ve also added Idaho Rainbow Trout from Clear Springs Foods, which I’ve previously blogged about. Clear Springs is the only trout supplier we’re featuring now. We had some others that weren’t as environmentally friendly, so this is a big change that comes with Hy-Vee’s commitment to responsibly source our seafood.

Currently, there is no farm-raised shrimp that meet Responsible Choice standards, but because shrimp is such a popular item, we’re eager to provide one for our customers. We’re getting in a cooked shrimp from Belize that is farmed in a closed system that pumps in fresh water, and the shrimp aren’t packed in as densely as at some other farms. It hasn’t hit the rating system yet.

It’s hard to read the crystal ball to determine when Monterey Bay will evaluate a species, but one thing customers can feel confident about is that, overall, we’re getting better items, even if we can’t immediately label them as Responsible Choice. The fisheries know the bar has been raised.

We’re also getting in Responsible Choice swai, which is like catfish, coming out of Vietnam. Protectionist legislation by U.S. catfish farmers means this mild white fish must be marketed under another name, so you may have seen it marketed as basa, though that’s an entirely different fish, or even under the shortened version of its scientific name, Pangasius hypophthalmus.

Another best choice-rated fish is Arctic Char, a cross between salmon and trout. It’s very tasty and has many of the characteristics of both species. It’s farm-raised in the deep, cold waters of glacial lakes, and you’ll occasionally find that in our case.

We’ve also switched to a Responsible Choice mahi mahi, a very good fish for grilling. That’s Yellow rated, as is the grouper, flounder and sole we will be getting in.

We expect to see many more new items coming in that may introduce our customers to fish they’ve never had before. It’s a process. The warehouse can’t just turn on a dime, because they have to get the assurances and checks and balances in place to make sure the fish is what the suppliers say it is.

This shows that we’re following the Responsible Choice initiative letter by letter. We’re not taking shortcuts or just assuming it’s right. Hy-Vee’s commitment is more than just words.

Responsible Choice Seafood from Alaska, a World Model for Sustainability, Sells Itself

All of our Responsible Choice products meet high standards and Hy-Vee’s commitment to bring customers the freshest, best-quality fish and seafood available today, but seafood from Alaska is in a league of its own.

Throw the name “Alaska” in front of a species of fish and it sells itself and stands for a high quality that is unmatched. Customers feel confident purchasing fish they know is from Alaska, whether it’s Alaskan king crab, salmon, Pacific halibut or black cod.

Customers know where it comes from – some of the cleanest, purest waters anywhere – and they know it’s not only safe to eat, but has superior flavor and texture as well. The flavor is a result of the fish feeding on a natural diet of marine organisms and the texture comes from their annual migrations in the cold waters of the North Pacific.

Alaska’s seafood industry, the state’s largest private-sector employer, is a world model of seafood sustainability and fisheries management – and has been for 50 years. Continuing that livelihood – and a healthy supply of fish and healthy oceans for generations to come – is so important that the Alaska Constitution mandates that fish are “utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle.”

The quota system is well managed and the fisheries live and die by it. Once their quota is met, they’re done. As a result of these practices, no species of Alaska seafood has ever been red-listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Pacific halibut and black cod (sablefish) harvest season just opened, and limits have been set at 16.8 million pounds before the season ends in November. Alaska has more than 95 percent of the Pacific halibut and catches are closely monitored. In the last few years, they’ve cut back on the amount of halibut to ensure the availability of this favorite – the largest of the flatfish, known for its mild flavor and firm texture.

Salmon is one of the most popular seafoods in the world. People live for it. King salmon is in season year-round, but the seasons for sockeye, coho, keta and pink salmon generally run May-September. The fisheries take great care to manage the populations during spawning season, allowing significant numbers to escape so they can make it up river to spawn.

As a result of these time-tested management practices, the fisheries have been able to make abundant salmon harvests for more than three decades.

When Hy-Vee launched its Responsible Choice initiative – our pledge that by the end of 2015, all of our high-quality fresh and Hy-Vee brand frozen seafood will be responsibly caught – it was no big deal for the three vendors we work with in Alaska.

Alaska knows they are doing it right. They get it.

Measuring the Impact: Two Views on the Effect Hy-Vee’s Switch to Responsible Choice Seafood is Having on the Oceans

Kenan here:

By taking a proactive stand and role with our Responsible Choice seafood program, Hy-Vee is having a positive impact on the environment and ecosystem, step by step.

We are very committed to this. An important first step in that commitment involves educating our employees, so they can educate our customers, who have been clear that they want to know where their food comes from and how it’s being handled and raised.

We’re able to tell them that we’ve already made a difference in educating our suppliers and helping them to think differently about how fish is caught and raised. They’ve listened, and any time people become more aware, change occurs. This is also about the livelihoods of fishermen, because making changes ensures they will have a market for their catches in the future.

Changes won’t occur overnight, but any time you make improvements, you are helping. And any time you think about it, you are helping. I truly believe that any time you think about it as a retailer sourcing fish or as a consumer buying their catch, you’re having an impact. We make changes with our purchasing power.

We are looking at every species and how we can make improvements. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “What can we do better?”

We’re committed, but it’s a journey. We won’t get there overnight, but we will get there.

Kathleen here:

Kenan is absolutely right.

Hy-Vee’s purchasing power is making some changes on the water with more responsible sourcing. It’s already reducing bycatch and preventing overfishing to ensure seafood will be available for future generations to enjoy.

Because this is a brand new initiative, the changes are somewhat theoretical. But Hy-Vee is definitely leading the way and if all grocery chains in the United States had similar programs, the results would be more immediately quantifiable.

Some of the changes are showing up in the Hy-Vee seafood cases. They’ve dropped some notoriously overfished species, such as Atlantic cod, whose populations have been all but depleted by unsustainable practices. Also gone are some species of rock fish, which are long living and slow to mature. Allowing them to reach maturity means their populations will have a chance to recover.

Changes in harvesting is also minimizing damage to the ecosystem in other ways. Certain fishing methods are relatively unselective and practices are changing. Hy-Vee’s tuna supplier, for example, eliminated long lines with a thousand hooks and replaced them with poles with a single hook, which means fewer sea birds, sea turtles, juvenile tuna and other incidental species are being caught.

We’re also seeing a switch from bottom trawling, or the use of a heavy net to catch species such as shrimp, cod, sole and flounder that reside on the sea floor. The net scoops up everything in its path, from fish to corals, and tears up the habitat young fish need to survive.

These may seem like small steps, but they are important steps. Cumulatively, they are making a difference.