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Fishing for the truth on seafood prices

Flickr user andreagp

Note: Prices have changed since this story was first reported in 2012.

99 Ranch’s seafood counter is enormous – and it needs to be: the store serves seafood eaters of many nationalities and income levels all over the Bay Area. The selection is huge: grouper from Peru, fish from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and India.

Carlos Montelibano heads the fish department at the 99 Ranch in Mountain View where the prices are low.

“We’re really cheap. You can go there and see their prices,” he says.

Salmon is $4.99 per pound. Momo Li of Mountain View loves to shop here because she says it is a lot cheaper.

“For example just yesterday, I bought a piece of halibut over at whole Foods, right across our house – it was $9.99 for a small piece – and I think the price per pound was 19-something per pound,” says Li. “So that was only half a pound. They have halibut here today. I just saw it. It was not that price at all.”

At 99 Ranch, it’s $6 per pound. Butterfish is $2.69 per pound. It looks fresh and a serving costs less than a cup of coffee. But what makes it so cheap? I asked fishmonger Montelibano if he knows anything about the fisheries that supply the fish for 99 Ranch. He said the fish come from a lot of places, Brazil, India...China. But when asked if he knew anything about how they’re caught, he replied: “Mmmm … not really.”

And when it comes to fish, like salmon, for example, where it comes from is important.

Sheila Bowman works at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She manages culinary and strategic initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program.

“Right now, there’s a few salmon farmers doing a good job, but most of the farmed salmon is on our red list,” she says.

You might be familiar with Seafood Watch pocket guidebooks and apps. They tell you which fish are best to buy, based on things like sustainable fishing practices and mercury levels. Green is good; yellow is so-so; and you should avoid red. Bowman says the scientific recommendations help consumers and businesses, specifically here in the U.S. market, make better sustainable seafood choices.

The fish at 99 Ranch looks just fine – and it could be – but the chain doesn’t note the use of Seafood Watch or any other system to judge its suppliers. Fishmonger Carlos Montelibano says he simply knows that buying in high quantities keeps his fish affordable.

“The buying power for 99 Ranch is really good. The fish we buy, a whole lot from the vendors. That’s why they can give us the cheaper price,” he says.

And customers like Lester Coutinho of Palo Alto aren’t too concerned about the lack of apparent oversight. He’s a regular at 99 Ranch, because it’s convenient, the fish is cut well, and it is fresh. And he trusts the seafood selection.

“I work for a non-profit organization that is particularly mindful of how fish are harvested. I am mindful. So usually farm raised fish is what we look for,” Coutinho says.

The Monterey Bay Seafood Watch guide, though, notes that not all fish are farmed equally. And that’s why other Bay Area markets make note of exactly where their fish come from.

On Earth Day 2012, the national Whole Foods chain announced it would no longer sell any item that is red-listed or avoided by Seafood Watch. Mark Hernandez is the regional seafood buyer for Whole Foods in Northern California. He wakes up before dawn to chat business with fishermen and frequently travels to places like the Maldives and Chile to inspect salmon and tuna fisheries.

“It’s a full-blown science project. The assessment process is really detailed and quite expensive too,” Hernandez says.

And at Whole Foods, that’s part of the cost that gets passed on to the consumer. It is significant – maybe three times as much for a piece of fish than at 99 Ranch. But as Monterey Bay’s Sheila Bowman says, by spending a bit more money, buyers get “dividends in things like supporting small farmers, supporting local fisheries, supporting the guys who perhaps are doing things a little bit more manually in a little bit less industrially.”

Jimmy Anderson, who fishes the Northern California coast, has been selling salmon and crabs down at the docks in Half Moon Bay for more than fifteen years.

“Sometimes it’s really great to be out on the ocean, there’s so much life and it’s really pretty…on the flip side, we’ve been out there times where it isn’t too nice and you’re not catching too much and it’s like hell,” he says.

Anderson has the license to sell salmon and crab to restaurants, grocery stores, at farmers markets, and off the boat. He can usually unload all his stock right here, this season at about eight bucks a pound, the catch being you have to take the whole fish, which often costs at least $100.

Steve Derby travels up from Palo Alto each week to buy salmon and crab from Anderson.

“It’s fresh. It’s good. It’s the best you can get,” says Anderson.

“Once you’ve had the difference in what fresh fish tastes like, and even store bought fish. You know the difference. Second of all, you like to have local people flourish. That’s the name of the game. If you look for price, than go to Walmart and get your fish from wherever they get it,” Derby adds.

Sheila Bowman, with Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch, says she can’t always buy with conscience. But she tries to do it as often as she can.

“Every time I purchase something that I know is being done in better way, I feel good about it. That’s one of the things you’re buying is that environmental care,” Bowman says.

When you purchase fish, you’re voting with your wallet and your fork. It’s a declaration of what’s valuable to you. It might not be affordable to live as we want, but for Bowman, the sacrifice is worthwhile. Because of what she knows but can’t see.

“You look at the oceans, and they’re blue and the waves are breaking and its peaceful and it feels great,” says Bowman. “But it’s not until you can look below the surface and see that when you drag a troll across the sea floor, and you’ve captured everything that moves, you’ve essentially clear cut the ocean floor. When you clear cut a forest you can see that.”

But you can’t see that with the ocean.


CrosscurrentsfishSeafood Watch