A future without fish?

Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Disney aim to protect the seas. Fortune's Marc Gunther navigates the choppy waters.

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Remember The Marvellettes' song, "Too Many Fish in the Sea?" Well, there aren't.

Off New England, a centuries-old tradition of cod fishing is pretty much over. Blue fin tuna are severely overfished, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

Worse - a study published last fall in the journal, Science, warned of a "global collapse" of all wild seafood by mid-century if fishing continues at its current pace.

No wonder I couldn't decide what to order when pondering the menu at M&S Grill, a seafood restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C.

Fortunately, my companions - Michael Boots and Stephanie Faison of the Seafood Choices Alliance - were available to provide guidance. They work with companies including retailers Wal-Mart (Charts) and Whole Foods Market (Charts), theme park operator Walt Disney (Charts) and distributor Sysco (Charts), as well as fishermen and fish farmers, to promote seafood consumption in ways that will protect catch for the future.

"We're trying to build a market for a greener seafood industry," Boots said.

More about that in a moment, but first there's lunch.

Shrimp? "We don't know if that's domestic U.S. shrimp or if it's being farmed somewhere where it's harming the environment," said Faison. Farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia can pollute the seas.

Atlantic salmon? "It's farmed because there's no wild Atlantic salmon left," Boots said. "And it's generally farmed in open net pens, and there are a bunch of issues with that."

Swordfish? Not if they're caught by unregulated foreign fleets, and we won't even get into the health issues raised by mercury contamination.

Joked Boots: "Order the chicken, that's what we do."

Catfish and tilapia are good choices, he said. They're vegetarian fish, and they're farmed in closed ponds that don't pollute the ocean. Bay scallops, farmed or wild, are said to be a sustainable resource. Wild salmon from Alaska come from a well-managed fishery.

The issue, obviously, is complicated. Some people see fish farming as a solution; others call it an environmental menace. A British supermarket chain owned by Wal-Mart just stopped selling monkfish because of destructive catching methods, but it's still on the menu in many restaurants.

As a trade association that brings together green groups and business, Seafood Choices Alliance would like consumers to make what they call "the ocean-plate connection" - that is, to be aware that their choices have environmental consequences. The group also targets chefs and restaurants because, according to Boots, more fish in the U.S. is eaten in restaurants than prepared at home.

Increasingly, business is grappling with the issue. At a convention last week, Seafood Choices gave an award to Peter Redmond, who is coordinating Wal-Mart's effort to buy and promote seafood caught from fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC. Unilever and the World Wildlife Federation started the MSC to set a global standard for well-managed fisheries. Less than 10 percent of the world's catch is currently certified as sustainable.

Whole Foods promotes MSC-certified fish in its fresh fish department. Disney woke up to the issue when its plans to serve shark fin soup at a Hong Kong theme park set off an environmental firestorm. It appeased critics by taking the dish off its menus.

Companies have good reason to worry about the oceans. No one wants to be targeted by NGOs. A small number of consumers have shown a preference for fish that can be certified as sustainable. And, in the long run, retailers and restaurants want to assure a plentiful and affordable supply of fish.

As Wal-Mart's Redmond told me: "We have very altruistic goals and we have some very keen business goals as well."

Historically, commercial fisherman and ecologists fought over fishing regulations, but they now frequently cooperate. The Nature Conservancy, best known for acquiring land to save it from development, recently purchased trawling permits from fisherman in central California, to protect the habitat of Moro Bay. Several years ago, McDonald's (Charts) brought in Conservation International, a nonprofit committed to protecting biodiversity, to assess fishing practices in its supply chain.

As for lunch, the scallops were tasty - and guilt-free, too.


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