When was the last time you used the term fishmonger? Never, you say? Well, you’ve got company: perhaps a handful of foodies can use the word meaningfully in a sentence, which is a shame considering the expertise it takes to become one of this rare breed. Now is a perfect opportunity to become familiar with the term—and the type of skilled person it represents—for the sake of your health and for the planet’s well-being.

Fishmongers sell fish and seafood. They source, select and purchase them. They also handle, gut, bone, fillet, display and merchandise these fruits of the sea. Those gorgeous sea bass fillets don’t just swim into the fish case and clean themselves up!

For centuries, up until about 50 years ago, most cities had butchers, bakers, greengrocers and fishmongers. However, the age of the modern supermarket put all of these craft services under one industrialized roof, and fishmongers have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, except in traditional fishing communities.

Whole Foods® is trying to revive the tradition of fishmongers by spotlighting the skill and craft of these Old-World artisans. The grocery-store chain staged the first-ever national Fishmonger Face-Off at the FOOD & WINE Classic on June 16 in Aspen, Colorado. Eleven finalists squared off, capping weeks of fierce regional competitions among top Whole Foods Market fishmongers nationwide. After an impressive round of battles, the Golden Trident trophy went to Bob “The Fish Guy” Reany from Denver, a fishmonger of more than four decades’ standing. Experience won out over the flash and brash of his youthful, tattooed competitors.

Even better, the event educated a receptive international audience about sustainable seafood and the philosophy behind the chain’s recent, much-publicized move to become the first national retailer to stop selling “red”-rated seafood caught in the wild. Shoppers can now easily purchase wild-caught seafood from fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or rated “green” or “yellow” by Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) or Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), both of which are nonprofit research organizations.

According to its website, Whole Foods has worked with BOI and MBA since 2010 to display their color-coded sustainability ratings in an effort to help customers make informed purchases of wild-caught seafood. Here’s what the color codes mean:

Green (best choice). Species are abundant and caught in environmentally friendly ways.

Yellow (good alternative). There are some concerns about the species’ status or the methods used to catch them.

Red (avoid). Species suffer from overfishing, or current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Aspen event focuses on how you can get to know your fishmonger and take advantage of his or her knowledge base. In a postevent interview, Whole Foods global seafood coordinator David Pilat shared a few words of wisdom:

“There is nothing like taking home a fresh piece of fish,” he said. “When it’s sustainable, it’s that much better. The questions to ask your fishmonger are really simple:

  • Where did this fish come from?
  • When did this fish come in?
  • What is the rating on this fish?”

Pilat advises caution when buying farmed fish, which often contain preservatives and chemical additives such as phosphates and sulfites, used to plump and extend the shelf life of seafood like scallops and shrimp. When buying farmed fish, Pilat says, have these questions ready:

  • Where is the farm?
  • How was the fish raised?
  • What was it fed?
  • Were there avian or mammalian byproducts in the feed?
  • Were there pesticides in the water?

So get out there and own the word fishmonger today. Better yet, find one in your neighborhood or in your market and start the conversation. It’s a wonderful way to learn more about where and how your seafood is sourced and whether you’re eating healthfully as well as responsibly.