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The Net Loss of Overfishing
Wal-Mart Puts the Weight of Business Behind Conservation

Jennifer Shatwell, Staff Writer

What you buy for dinner tonight can determine the eating options of future generations. Earth’s oceans are being fished beyond their limits to satisfy the roughly two in five humans who depend on fish as a primary source of animal protein and, of course, those of us who just really enjoy the taste of seafood. More than 70 percent of the world’s commercial stocks are fished to their catch capacity, are over-exploited, or have collapsed due to unsustainable fishing. Rather than suppress our appetites for seafood, however, big businesses like Wal-Mart are giving consumers the option to conserve our fish and eat them, too.

World's Largest Retailer Sets a Precedent
Beginning this year, Wal-Mart will hold its wild-caught fresh and frozen fish suppliers to Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standards. Developed with scientists, conservationists, and fisheries experts from around the world, MSC standards mandate sustainable fishing so that targeted fish populations may replenish themselves.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and whose annual budget is larger than many nations' economies, serves roughly 100 million people each week. With guidance from Conservation International and partners, the company's decision to raise the bar for fish suppliers is just one example of its broader environmental commitment and illustrates the power of businesses to influence widespread change.

"Environmental problems are our problems," said Wal-Mart President Lee Scott in an October address to employees. "The supply of natural products (fish, food, water) can only be sustained if the ecosystems that provide them are sustained and protected."

Consumers will recognize MSC-certified products on Wal-Mart shelves by their distinctive blue eco-labels. While some of the retailer's current suppliers are already MSC certified, others are not. Rather than abandon those suppliers, Wal-Mart is giving them five years to adjust their business plans and "go green."

"The easiest thing we could do is walk away from unsustainable fisheries," says Peter Redmond, vice president for Seafood and Deli at Wal-Mart. "However, we see the opportunity to try and recover such fisheries where we find willing suppliers. If we only source from current MSC suppliers, we could very soon make them unsustainable due to our volume."

No One Wins the "Race to Fish"
Humans eat more than 100 million tons of fish each year – up 7.5 percent from 1998 levels. To meet the growing demand, Earth's oceans are being depleted of wildlife in a competitive and unsustainable "race to fish." As scientists and conservationists agree in the 2004 report Defying Ocean's End, however, the finish line is no more than a "net loss" for both fisheries and marine ecosystems.

The situation is particularly dire on the high seas – those international waters beyond each coastal country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone – where fish swim beyond the reach of national jurisdiction and, in turn, are hunted with little or no regulation. In what some are calling a modern marine version of the lawless Wild West, the high seas have a few widely ignored catch limits for specific fisheries, or none at all. This gives fisheries every economic incentive to catch as much as possible, as fast as possible.

Many fish species are caught before they reach reproductive age. In the North Atlantic alone, several key commercial fish populations, such as cod and haddock, have plummeted by as much as 95 percent in the last ten years.

Rewriting Economic Incentives
To preserve ocean wilderness and ensure bountiful resources for future generations, the conservation community is lobbying for better management of competition on the high seas and more responsible fishing practices. Wal-Mart is now putting the weight of big business behind that effort by helping to rewrite the economic incentives associated with overfishing. How do consumers benefit? Ocean conservation is as accessible as the checkout register.

Says company seafood vice presdient Redmond: "Customers who see that Wal-Mart offers wild-caught fish only from MSC-certified fisheries can be certain that they are buying from a retailer that is taking active steps to ensure that the wild-caught fish they enjoy will continue to be available to them and to future generations."

"Wal-Mart's actions represent a positive step in promoting the recovery of marine fisheries and strengthening conservation efforts for marine ecosystems," says Jim Cannon, a fisheries expert with CI. "By working with Wal-Mart and its suppliers on this issue, we can demonstrate that the private sector and the conservation community can develop practical solutions that benefit business and the environment."

Related Links:
> CELB: Wal-Mart Commits to Sustainable Seafood Procurement
> News: The green machine (CNN Money)
> Feature Story: Deep Sea Bottom Trawling
> Feature Story: Smooth Sailing Ahead for Cruise Industry
> Feature Story: Kiribati Safeguards Entire Coral Archipelago
> Feature Story: CI Backs Island Community's Conservation Efforts
> Feature Story: Tsunami Survivors Replant, Rebuild, and Restore
> Feature Story: Disturbing Costs of Unsustainable Fishing
> CI: Priority Areas: Key Marine Regions
> Web: Wal-Mart Web site
> Web: MSC Web site


© CI, Timothy B. Werner
More than 70 percent of the world’s commercial fish stocks are fished to their catch capacity, are over-exploited, or have collapsed due to unsustainable fishing.

© CI, Leeanne Alonso
Humans eat more than 100 million tons of fish each year.

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