The specialized market for sustainable seafood has gone mainstream. Even Wal-Mart is promoting its environmental credentials in the seafood aisle.
More supermarket shoppers are demanding to know they are buying from operations that don't threaten fragile fish and seafood populations, or damage habitats with nets and other commercial gear. And supermarkets are meeting the demand.
While brands such as Whole Foods Market are known for being environmentally minded, traditional grocers are increasingly promoting seafood that's labeled sustainable. Safeway says it's nearing its goal of selling only "responsibly caught or farmed" fresh and frozen seafood by next year. At Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, more than 90 percent of fresh, frozen, farmed and wild seafood is certified as sustainable.
"Consumers are more and more aware of the food that they eat and how it's grown and how it's raised and how it's caught, and we hear from customers it's important to them," said Gregory A. Ten Eyck, a spokesman for Safeway's Eastern division, adding that sourcing sustainable seafood has become a bigger focus for the company.
"We don't want consumers who care deeply about the environment or organics to feel they have to go to another retailer to get those products," he said. "We want to be on the forefront of this."
Safeway, Target, Harris Teeter and Ahold USA, owner of Giant Food, ranked in the top 10 of Greenpeace's annual seafood sustainability score card for 2014, joining the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Wal-Mart ranked 12th on the list.
Supermarket chains have increasingly embraced the sustainability movement, prompted not only by consumer demand but by the growing realization that supply could be in jeopardy, experts said. All but three of the top 20 grocery retailers in North America now work with nongovernmental organizations that advocate for sustainable seafood, according to the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions.
"Some are leaders and others were pulled along, but the sentiment within the environmental community is that these companies are working hard to reduce their environmental impact in seafood. Most of the major retailers are engaged in the issue," said Tobias Aguirre, executive director of FishWise, a nonprofit sustainable-seafood consultant that helps retailers and suppliers put sustainability programs in place.
"For those in the industry the longest, they've seen changes where they're not able to get certain products or the prices are going up," Aguirre said. "They know these changes are occurring and are starting to think about the long-term viability of their business."
Public awareness of overfishing and other practices threatening species such as swordfish and Chilean sea bass has stoked the sustainability movement. Even as Greenpeace noted progress among grocers, the group warned that problems persist.
"Our oceans continue to suffer from overfishing, destructive fishing and illegal fishing," the group said in its report ranking seafood sustainability in U.S. supermarkets.
Some estimates indicate that a quarter of the seafood sold to U.S. consumers comes from illegal sources, Aguirre said. It's a challenge for supermarkets to ensure all their sustainable seafood comes from legal sources.
Safeway began overhauling its seafood sourcing in 2009. Now the chain, the second-largest Baltimore-area grocer, no longer sells grouper, red snapper, orange roughy or shark, and two years ago it launched a store brand of responsibly caught canned tuna.
Meanwhile, Ten Eyck said, the retailer is seeing strong growth in sales of organic and natural product lines, including packaged and fresh food made mostly without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or added growth hormones, and meat from animals raised without antibiotics or added hormones.
While retailers such as Whole Foods helped set the all-natural trend, "it didn't catch on until the prices started dropping," said retail consultant Jeremy Diamond, a director of the Diamond Marketing Group.
"A lot of the mainstream grocery chains have expanded their natural food offerings as shoppers have asked for more natural and organic products," Diamond said. "The larger mainstream grocers have been doing a better job of lowering prices on natural products."
A number of different groups set standards for seafood to be labeled sustainable, assessing fishing methods of suppliers, the health of fish populations, and whether fishing alters a habitat or harms nontargeted fish species.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is considered by environmental groups the leading rating system in North America. It rates seafood products as "Best Choice" or "Good Alternative," and flags items consumers should avoid.
Giant has been working since 2000 with the New England Aquarium to ensure the sustainable seafood it sells meets "strict" criteria. "Our customers and the public are very sensitive to overfishing of the ocean, so we do our best to act in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for the chain.
The grocer sells the "Sustainable Choice" seafood identified by seafood buyers working with the aquarium, including farm-raised tilapia and wild-caught Alaska pollock as well as Alaska sockeye salmon and Pacific cod caught using fishing gear that doesn't damage the ocean floor.
The chain also has increased lines of natural and organic products, "based on increasing demand from our customers," Miller said, and most stores now have dedicated sections for those products.
At Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, seafood is certified either by Marine Stewardship Certification or Best Aquaculture Practices, or has been raised in a fishery improvement project. The retail giant has extended those practices to stores in Africa, Brazil, Canada and Chile.
The discounter has leveraged its size and scale "to make a difference on sustainability and other issues that matter to our customers," the company said in an emailed statement. "We believe our customers shouldn't have to choose between products that are sustainable and products they can afford."
Wal-Mart is more of an industry leader in sustainability than many consumers realize, said Phil Lempert, editor of supermarketguru.com and contributing editor of Supermarket News.
"Wal-Mart has been leading the way and forced everyone else to follow," taking steps such as working with farmers to help them get the best deals on environmentally sensitive equipment, Lempert said.
The Greenpeace report noted that Wegmans became the fourth grocery store to earn the top "good" ranking, and four of the five top supermarkets for sustainable seafood have launched or plan to offer private label sustainable canned tuna. Wal-Mart also has private label sustainable tuna, the report said.
Harvesting of tuna, the most popular wild-caught seafood in the U.S., often relies on destructive methods that inadvertently catch and kill other species of fish, Greenpeace says.
In its current report, the group also worried that industry buyouts could hurt retailers' overall performance. Kroger, ranked 21st, acquired Harris Teeter, which ranked sixth, in January, while 20th-ranked Albertsons merged with No. 2 Safeway. And Kroger continues to sell the most "red-listed" species, or those that environmentalists say should not be sold, the report said.
Kroger, which released an annual sustainability report this month, counters that it has expects to source 20 top-selling, wild-caught species from fisheries that are certified or assessed by the Marine Stewardship Council or are working on a fishery improvement project.
Lempert said he expects to see supermarkets and others in the food supply chain boost sustainability efforts and expects consumers to continue to respond.
"We are now starting to see every supermarket chain look at the sustainability of seafood, and we will see it up and down the line. When buyers are looking at new products, they are asking hard questions about sustainability of the products, the packaging, the facilities," Lempert said. "Every step of the food chain is now being questioned and investigated when it comes to sustainability."