Red Fish, Green Fish 

Color-coded alerts are not just for terrorism anymore.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the nation is on yellow alert. According to FishWise, a new sustainability labeling system being used by Natural Grocery Company in El Cerrito, so is the Alaskan halibut.

The store is among the first in the Bay Area to implement FishWise, a program developed by Sustainable Fishery Advocates, a consumer education group based in Santa Cruz. The three-year-old nonprofit, founded by Shelly Benoit and Theresa Ish, has devised a labeling system that not only informs consumers of the origin and fishing or aquaculture method used for each species a store sells, but labels each variety green (sustainable), yellow (caution), or red (unsustainable) at the seafood counter.

Sustainability is a key buzzword in seafood these days. Organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Environmental Defense publish popular guides to help consumers choose their fish. These pocket-sized guides, which usually list "best" and "worst" species, are meant to be taken to markets and restaurants.

Environmentalists and eco-foodies are all for informing consumers, who have begun boycotting near-depleted species such as Chilean seabass. But many cooks and retailers I've spoken to cite frustration with the pocket guides' yes-no approach, which doesn't reward fishermen and suppliers who use sustainable practices to fish "bad" species. Furthermore, there are hundreds of varieties that fall somewhere between "eat" and "don't eat."

FishWise, Benoit says, uses much of the same research as Monterey Bay Aquarium and other consumer-education groups. Its approach, however, is to work with retail stores who become program members. FishWise gives seafood-counter staff a system for analyzing the sustainability of their stock on a case-by-case basis. Along with the color-coded labels, the stores get educational materials to pass out to customers, including a binder listing "green" substitutions for "red" or "yellow" species.

After New Leaf Community Markets, a five-store Santa Cruz natural foods chain, started using FishWise eighteen months ago, "green" fish sales were up 22 percent, and "red" fish down 30 percent, Benoit says. "People want to know this information," she concludes. Jennifer Sand Kuhler, assistant manager at Natural Grocery Company, says the El Cerrito store has been following the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Watch List for past couple of years. Last week, the store introduced the FishWise labels, some of which are red. "We're going to keep [a red fish such as] petrale sole in our case, but eventually we'll get it from a source that doesn't use commercial dredging methods," she says. "At this point we're going to do what the consumer dictates. We're hoping they care."

FishWise and Natural Grocery host an educational session and seafood tasting Friday, October 8, noon to 6:00 p.m. at 10367 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito; 510-526-1155.

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