INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT - Margaret Wittenberg

Margaret Wittenberg is Vice President of governmental & public affairs at Wholefoods Market, USA.


Could you talk a little about why you decided to sign on with the Marine Stewardship Council?

We’re really excited about the Marine Stewardship Council because this is a way we can ensure that in the long run, we’re going to have fish to sell. And at the same time, maintain ecological interests. And we think it’s a perfect marriage having that combination. The other thing is the stakeholder process where everyone is working together rather than against each other.

Do you think that consumer demand can help to change the ways seafood is produced in the same it sparked the immense growth of organic agriculture?

We really think that the connection, the similarities between Marine Stewardship Council and organic are very, very close. If you think about the organic industry 20 years ago, it was a few farmers who wanted to show a different way to do it. They wanted to have sustainability of the soil but they wanted to have people know what they were doing. The stores where they sold their product were willing to give them a price premium in order to differentiate who they were, as well as give them fair value for what they were offering. because their expenses were definitely more than a conventional farmer. MSC, the Marine Stewardship Council is very similar. It’s a market-driven program. With Marine Stewardship Council we’re telling the fishermen that if they use sustainable seafood, if they manage sustainability, we will market it as something special and give them full value for it.

Do you see a similarity between an increasing demand for organic produce and sustainably caught seafood helping to change the way fisheries operate?

People are finally understanding that we don’t have limitless resources. There is a point. There is definitely a drive from customers wanting to help maintain the ecosystem of the world and I definitely see the connection between organic and seafood there.

With organic, it’s the concern of having the soil able to continue to produce good quality healthful food. With seafood, consumers are concerned there won’t be any fish left. And with the Marine Stewardship Council’s way of looking at this, similar to organic, we’re going to reward the fishermen who do fish in a sustainable way, just like the organic farmers do, and we give them credit for it.

Do your customers ask about the origins of where and how fish they are purchasing have been caught?

Oh yes, we’re inundated with consumer concern about seafood sustainability. We have some people that want us to support certain boycotts and we have people that are just worried about what they can expect in the future. Here at Whole Foods, we have always tried to work with the fishermen. We feel that they are stakeholders with us in the process and so rather than doing any boycotts, we’ve tried to work with fishermen who have done a good job and focus on them. And Marine Stewardship Council is doing the very same thing on a worldwide basis.

Are you hearing that more and more people are asking about where the fish are caught and how?

Yeah, our consumers are asking the questions. They’re asking where the fish is caught and how it is caught. It’s very important to them. They’re hearing information. There’s more information in the media now about what’s going on with our seafood population. So they are asking and they’re very concerned. The Marine Stewardship Council will give us more information that we can pass onto our customers with a positive message that this is a sustainably managed fishery that we’re dealing with.

Basically, it looks like you are going to carry both MSC product and seafood that is not certified?

Right. We will be selling both Marine Stewardship Council certified seafood, as well as seafood that is not certified. Part of that is just a realistic vision where the Marine Stewardship Council is. They are slowly adding more fisheries to their certification process and we need to sell fish in the interim, but the wonderful thing is the questions we’ll be getting from people asking when they see the Marine Stewardship, Council "Fish Forever" label. That will give the consumers more impetus to buy that product and learn more about it, so we’ve done this with organic. We’ve sold conventional produce, as well as organic and over the years there’s been more and more organic available and more and more people buying organics, so we see the same type of thing happening with the Marine Stewardship Council certified seafood.

Over time the demand in the market for organic produce has increased. Do you expect the same thing to happen for sustainably caught fish?

There’s interesting parallels between organic and what can happen with sustainably managed seafood. Years and years ago organic was quite new and as the availability grew, more consumers knew about it, heard about it and wanted to buy it. And we see this very same thing happening with seafood. When more sustainably caught seafood is available, customers will buy it.

What information will you be able to give customers when they ask about the criteria of the MSC?

When customers ask us about Marine Stewardship Council seafood, we’re going to be able to tell them there are three main principles that they’re being judged by and that is the sustainability of the population of the seafood, the sustainability of the ecosystem and how well it is managed as a whole.

Earlier you were telling me about your decision not to carry Chilean sea bass. Could you talk a little about that?

We made a decision early in 1999 not to carry Chilean sea bass and that was a decision that was made with the seafood coordinators, or buyers, as well as our corporate office. The criteria for us was "Is this a managed species? Are there actual quotas for this?" We found that there weren’t so we could not support selling fish that was not managed and could be over fished quite soon.