Late last month McDonald’s announced the addition of “Fish McBites” to the menu for their 14,000 US restaurants starting in February. Labeled as “juicy, tender and irresistible,” the fast food chain is also touting that they will source the fish for the new product from sustainable wild-caught Alaskan pollock fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). In addition, McDonalds says it will also use the MSC-certified Alaskan pollock for their venerable Filet-O-Fish sandwich as well. Many are touting the claim that McDonald’s seafood offerings are going “all sustainable,” appearing ready to queue up at the counter for their first bite of a sustainably caught Fish McBite.
Now that sounds like a great thing, so we though we’d take a closer look.
In a press release, the Marine Stewardship Council applauds McDonald’s” ten-year commitment to sustainable fishing practices:”
“McDonald’s collaboration with the Marine Stewardship Council is a critical part of our company’s journey to advance positive environmental and economic practices in our supply chain,” said Dan Gorsky, senior vice president of U.S. supply chain and sustainability. “We’re extremely proud of the fact that this decision ensures our customers will continue to enjoy the same great taste and high quality of our fish with the additional assurance that the fish they are buying can be traced back to a fishery that meets MSC’s strict sustainability standard.”
McDonald’s will package their seafood products in the US with MSC’s blue ecolabel meant to insure the consumer that the delicious fish sandwich in front of them came from a sustainable fishery and caught using sustainable fishing methods.
What constitutes a sustainable fishery?
The problem begins with defining what “sustainable fishery” means. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List does not consider Alaskan pollock as a “best choice” but rather a more middling “good alternative:”
The Alaska pollock fishery is generally well managed. However, there are concerns about trawling impacts, bycatch and overall population status. This results in a “Good Alternative” ranking.
The fishery uses midwater trawling gear that’s designed to not impact the seafloor. However, these midwater nets contact the seafloor an estimated 44% of the time—resulting in severe damage to seafloor habitats of the Bering Sea.Alaska Pollock populations are moderately healthy, but their numbers have been declining. Alaska Pollock are now at their lowest levels in over 20 years.
Bycatch rates in the Alaska pollock fishery are generally low, but in recent years, the fishery has caught large numbers of Chinook salmon from stocks that are experiencing dramatic declines. It’s unclear the extent to which the Alaska pollock fishery is contributing to these declines.
There’s also conflicting evidence about the role of the Alaska pollock fishery in the decline of the endangered Steller sea lion and Northern fur seal, both of which rely heavily on Alaska pollock for food. It’s critical that these impacts be explored further.
Problems with sustainable seafood labeling
Many scientists and environmentalists have recently called into question the process used by MSC and Friends of the Sea (FOS), the two principal organizations granting certification and labeling of seafood as “sustainable.” According to an article published last year in the journal Nature an analysis spearheaded by fisheries biologist Rainer Froese of the Helmholtz Centre of Ocean Research, up to one-quarter of seafood sold as sustainable does not meet the criteria.
Just this week a report from National Public Radio took direct aim at MSC, saying that many environmentalists and scientists that have studied the MSC system of seafood labeling is misleading:
“We’re not getting what we think we’re getting,” says Susanna Fuller, co-director of marine programs at Canada’s Ecology Action Centre.”
Fuller says that consumers buying seafood products with the MSC label is “not buying something that is sustainable now.” To be truly accurate, she says, the label would need to include “troubling fine print.” Most MSC-certified fisheries come with “conditions,” Fuller says, specifying how fisherman need to change their operation or “study how their methods are affecting the environment” (0r both). The MSC gives operators years to comply with these conditions.
“It’s misleading,” says ocean specialist Gerry Leape, “to put a label of sustainability on a product where you don’t have the basic requirement.” Leape sits on the MSC advisory Stakeholder Council on behalf of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
How many McBites can one fishery sustain?
In addition to the concerns raised by environmentalists and scientists as to the efficacy and accuracy of sustainable seafood labeling programs, the question arises how well a fishery can sustain the sudden demand of a growing population hungry for cheap, easy, and fast food. Seafood Watch already places Alaskan pollock in decline and at a 20-year low. What will happen when demand for a McBite scales up? All the concerns raised of declining stocks, bycatch, trawling and impacts on the ecosystem will only be exacerbated.
So is McDonald’s working to “save the oceans” or is it just more fast food greenwashing? Though part of the rhetoric surrounding the launch of the McBites, it isn’t entirely fair to say that McDonald’s is claiming they are “saving the oceans” with the McBite. But armed with the MSC certification, the giant fast food chain certainly feels justified in claiming they are using fish caught from sustainable fisheries for their seafood products, and that may or may not be entirely true.
The real issue may come down more on how fisheries get certified and what that actually means for long-term sustainability under the stress of satisfying a high-demand fast food product. The public depends on independent, transparent and reliable certification programs to make the right choices.
As Tom Philpott says in Mother Jones, McDonalds could be doing a lot worse. But for the hungry consumer looking for a good fish sandwich made with truly sustainable fish, caveat emptor – buyer beware. Be, at least, a little skeptical.