Last week, Greenpeace released its fifth “Carting Away the Oceans” report, and Safeway , North America’s second-largest supermarket chain, was ranked first among food retail chains for its ongoing efforts to source and sell sustainable seafood. Target  and Wegmans , which had topped earlier lists, were tied for second.
In the first incarnation of this report in 2008, the environmental activism group slammed everyone from Walmart to Whole Foods, giving all 20 of the U.S. retailers it surveyed failing grades for their seafood sourcing policies. On a scale of one to 10, Greenpeace has yet to give any retailer a grade of seven or higher, but as the current report notes, “there can be no doubt that over the past four years, this report has tracked a current of progress and innovation emanating throughout the seafood sector.”
Whatever one thinks about Greenpeace or their unforgiving grading curve, it has become more and more evident that sustainable seafood programs are a modern necessity. Overfishing has already depleted several fisheries to the point where some species, such as North Atlantic Cod, have become “commercially extinct” — a term used to describe fish that are no longer economically viable to harvest.
In a 2006 study published in the journal Science, an international group of researchers noted that stocks had collapsed in about one third of fisheries worldwide, and that if nothing was done, all commonly consumed species of fish would be commercially extinct by 2050.
However, during the past five years, the food retailing industry has taken a very proactive stand on this issue, with many companies discontinuing the sale of overfished species such as bluefin tuna and Chilean seabass. Leading retailers such as Safeway, Wegmans, Target and Whole Foods  have begun working with marine conservation groups to overhaul their sourcing policies.
Safeway’s trip to the top of this year’s CATO report began in January 2010, when the company partnered with FishWise to develop a more comprehensive sustainable seafood policy. Sales of grouper, monkfish and red snapper were added to the list of fish that the company would discontinue due to overfishing concerns. And, Safeway implemented a new traceability system to help screen out suppliers that did not conform to its new policies. Greenpeace also praised Safeway for the “marked increase” in information on its seafood policies that the company makes available to shoppers both at the point of sale and online.
“The amount of work necessary to effect such dramatic change in such a sizable retailer cannot be overstated, and Greenpeace congratulates the team at Safeway for putting such effort into this task,” the report reads. Congratulations are certainly in order for Safeway, as well as all of the retailers who have begun developing sourcing policies that address the problems posed by modern commercial fishing.