BOSTON -- Whether consumers buy seafood only if it's sustainably harvested remains an open question, according to a panel of experts.
No matter, since many companies actively try to sell only -- or mostly -- sustainable seafood products.
"We have made it part of our seafood buyers' evaluations," said Chuck Anderson, vice president of purchasing for Ahold USA, which owns six retail chains in the United States. "Their raises next year depend on what they're doing."
Under Ahold's Ecosound program, buyers consult with collaborators at the New England Aquarium. "They make recommendations," said Anderson, "and we make policy [about which species to buy]."
Of course, the decision takes consumer preferences into consideration. Ahold and other retailers have not joined in the boycotts of certain species, such as Chilean sea bass and swordfish, organized by chefs in recent years.
"We have 20 million customers in our stores every week. We're there to give them what they want," Anderson said.
If Ahold officials determines a species is at risk, "we won't advertise it, and we sell a lot less of it," Anderson said. "We were making environmental decisions before we said a word to our customers. There's a lot of passion on both sides, so we can't say too much. If we say we won't sell cod, the cod guys will bang us.
"When I was at Giant Foods more than 15 years ago, and I saw wild fish stocks going down, it was pretty easy to figure out this wasn't sustainable. So I was looking for farmed fish," said Anderson. "Giant is now one of the biggest sellers of farmed fish."
Consumers expect the industry to make environmentally responsible decisions, noted a seafood restaurant chain official.
"It's up to us as an industry to know what's going on," said Bill Holler, vice president of seafood operations for Legal Seafoods, a Boston-based restaurant chain.
"There wasn't a lot of information about sustainability until 10 years ago. But now, it's changing how all buyers buy. You have to do your homework. Buying decisions should be science-based, community-based and methodology-based. We require vendors to be very serious and provide us with information [about the sustainability of products] as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Eco-labeling also "has a long way to go" to solve sustainability problems, said Barry Costa-Pierce, professor of fisheries at the University of Rhode Island. He is an adviser to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which publishes a Seafood Watch Chart to help consumers avoid buying fish they believe to be threatened.