GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Standing on the deck of his rusted steel trawler, Naz Sanfilippo fumed about the latest bad news for New England fishermen: a decision by Whole Foods to stop selling any seafood it does not consider sustainable.
Starting Sunday, gray sole and skate, common catches in the region, will no longer appear in the grocery chain’s artfully arranged fish cases. Atlantic cod, a New England staple, will be sold only if it is not caught by trawlers, which drag nets across the ocean floor, a much-used method here.
“It’s totally maddening,” Mr. Sanfilippo said. “They’re just doing it to make all the green people happy.”
Whole Foods says that, in fact, it is doing its part to address the very real problem of overfishing and help badly depleted fish stocks recover. It is using ratings set by the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. They are based on factors including how abundant a species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method damages its habitat.
“Stewardship of the ocean is so important to our customers and to us,” said David Pilat, the global seafood buyer for Whole Foods. “We’re not necessarily here to tell fishermen how to fish, but on a species like Atlantic cod, we are out there actively saying, ‘For Whole Foods Market to buy your cod, the rating has to be favorable.’ ”
The company had originally planned to stop selling “red-rated” fish next year but moved up its deadline. The other fish it will no longer carry are Atlantic halibut, octopus, sturgeon, tautog, turbot, imported wild shrimp, some species of rockfish, and tuna and swordfish caught in certain areas or by certain methods. (Whole Foods has already stopped selling orange roughy, shark, bluefin tuna and most marlin.)
Although the new policy will affect fishermen nationwide, the reaction from Gloucester and other New England ports may be the unhappiest. New England has more overfished stocks than any other region, according to federal monitors, and its fishing industry has bridled — and struggled to survive — under strict regulations.
“We’ve been murdered,” said Russell Sherman, who sold his entire catch to Whole Foods for the last six years and is seeking new buyers. “It’s not fair at all.”
Jim Ford, who said he sold 700,000 pounds of fish to Whole Foods over the past year, declared, “It’s a marketing ploy, that’s all.” Mr. Ford said he would now sell to the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain instead.
Whole Foods has had a fish processing plant here since 1996, the oldest of four around the country, and has processed about 10,000 pounds of fish a day here in recent years. A number of local boats have worked with Whole Foods, including a handful that sold exclusively to the company.
Still, Whole Foods is only one buyer, and there will be “plenty of other market demand,” said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a trade group here.
“It’s the precedent and the message it sends out that’s really unfortunate,” said Mr. Giacalone, whose family runs a fish auction that sells to Whole Foods. “Whole Foods is a reputable, credible food source for a big community of people, and so when their headquarters makes this kind of statement, it’s not good for the industry.”
Some question the need for grocery stores to reject certain American-caught fish when the government has already imposed its own conservation measures. Many of the nation’s fishermen now operate under federally created systems that allocate a yearly quota of fish.
And for some stocks, the quotas are being reduced; fishermen are facing a 22 percent cut in the amount of Gulf of Maine cod they can catch. In New England, some areas are closed to fishing for part or all of the year; in others, only certain kinds of gear can be used.
“We have the strictest management regime in the world,” said David Goethel, a fisherman from Hampton, N.H. and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. “So using the word ‘sustainable,’ maybe it looks good in your advertising. But, without being too harsh, it means absolutely nothing.”
But Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, said Whole Foods was doing the right thing.
“Whole Foods is setting a good example by offering fish from relatively well-managed fisheries,” she said. “It’s too bad that more New England fish don’t qualify, but over time, such market forces should help bring these fish back — both in the ocean and to the Whole Foods seafood counter.”
Whole Foods is not the first supermarket chain to limit the kind of seafood it sells in the name of sustainability. Last month, BJ’s Wholesale Club announced a plan to sell seafood only from suppliers “identified as sustainable or on track to meet sustainability standards by 2014.” Other chains are making similar moves.
But in Gloucester, anyway, some fishermen are taking the Whole Foods decision more personally.
Whole Foods will continue to sell New England catches like haddock, pollock, scallops and hake. And it will still sell Atlantic cod that is caught by gillnets or, preferably, hook and line, Mr. Pilat said. While Whole Foods will still sell Pacific cod, he said, it will not appear much in the company’s New England stores for cultural reasons.
“The number of local fish that we will have to discontinue is minimal,” he said, “and we will be replacing those species with other very similar species, such as buying more flounder instead of the gray sole.”
The company is developing relationships with more hook boats, he said. But there are few such boats in the cod fishery, according to the fishery council.
Some fishermen questioned why Whole Foods would approve net-caught fish, as marine mammals are known to get entangled in gillnets, and hook-caught fish, as hooks often end up catching undersize fish. Last week, federal regulators announced that they would ban gillnet fishing for part of the fall in coastal waters from Maine to Cape Ann, Mass., because too many porpoises had been dying in the nets.
“There’s no immaculate fishing gear,” said Mr. Goethel, the fishery council member.
Mr. Sherman said that Whole Foods told him it would still buy pollock and hake from him, but that he could not even offload cod and gray sole at its docks unless it was quickly removed. “They’re talking about my fish like it’s atomic,” he said. “Believe me, they are a great outfit to work for, but they are corporate, and this is a corporate move.”
Mr. Giacalone, while disappointed, did not waste an opportunity to talk about some of the New England-caught fish that will still be available at Whole Foods, starting with pollock. “It’s a great eating fish,” he said. “Almost like the dark meat on a turkey.”