Home Statewide Politics Murkowski Fish Story about McDonald’s is a Whopper

Murkowski Fish Story about McDonald’s is a Whopper

Photo credit: U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK), Creative Commons Licensing
Photo credit: U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK), Creative Commons Licensing

On Wednesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent a letter to Donald Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s, urging him to ignore pressure from Greenpeace regarding Alaska pollock.

The McDonald’s website celebrates that it sources all of its whitefish sustainably. In January of 2013, McDonald’s USA became the “first national restaurant chain to adopt the Marine Stewardship Council’s [MSC] blue ecolabel.” In a press release, Bill Fox of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said that WWF “supports the MSC as the only credible standard for sustainable wild-caught seafood. McDonald’s decision to display the MSC ecolabel on its seafood products gives consumers a way to contribute to the conservation of the world’s biodiversity.”

The chain uses Alaska pollock certified by MSC in its Filet-o-Fish sandwiches.

“McDonald’s has an excellent relationship with Alaska’s fisheries,” Murkowski wrote in her letter to Thompson.

Despite the strong history of sustainability in the Alaska pollock fishery, it is my understanding that McDonalds [sic] is being pressured by an environmental advocacy group, Greenpeace, to boycott purchases of Alaska pollock. This group’s effort is not related to the sustainable management of the fishery, but rather a misleading effort to advance an agenda that is not based in science or fact. Specifically, this group’s assertion is that “the Bering Sea Canyons” are at risk from mid-water trawling for Alaska pollock. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There are two entities with responsibility for federal fisheries management off the coast of Alaska: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the North Pacific Fisheries [sic] Management Council. The North Pacific Council is recognized throughout the country for its dedication to utilizing scientific research and data when making decisions. In the case of the Bering Sea Canyons, both have recently concluded that this portion of the Bering Sea is not at risk from fishing activities.

A Thursday press release accompanying the letter asserted that Greenpeace was “attempting to shut down” the pollock fishery.

This is not the first time Murkowski and Greenpeace have sniped at each other. In response to a 2010 Murkowski resolution, which Greenpeace labeled the “Dirty Air Act,” countering the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger health, Greenpeace hung a banner in the Hart Senate Office Building linking Murkowski to “dirty energy interests.”

In 2012, Murkowski sent a letter to the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement saying that while the impacts of drilling in the Arctic had been heavily analyzed, an expedition by Greenpeace to monitor drilling by Shell had not been analyzed or permitted. Dripping with irony, a press release suggested that Greenpeace’s actions could even “disturb marine mammals or interfere with anticipated Native Alaskan subsistence efforts.”

Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library, Creative Commons Licensing

Greenpeace has sought to bring some protections to the Bering Sea for a number of years. When, in 2006, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council said there was insufficient evidence to warrant protection for the Bering Sea Canyons, an area Greenpeace anticipated to be extremely biodiverse and sensitive, Greenpeace organized a scientific expedition to gather information.

The scientists involved in the 2007 Bering Sea expedition included a NOAA Fisheries biologist from Juneau and a member of the Advisory Council of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the two groups Murkowski cites in her letter to Thompson as reliable scientific sources. Greenpeace conducted a second expedition in 2012.

In addition to discovering new species in the canyons, Greenpeace gathered photographic and video evidence of damage from bottom trawling. Although the McDonald’s website says that “mid-water nets help protect the seabed from damage,” documents from the North Pacific Council’s April meeting in Anchorage indicate that pelagic trawl gear “contacts the seafloor approximately 44% of the time the gear is being towed.”

While the Council said this statistic applied to the Bering Sea shelf and assumed that contact with the seabed would decrease in the canyons, any contact with the variety of soft corals and sponges that Greenpeace documented could cause irreparable damage. These corals and sponges provide habitat for a variety of animals.

Following its 2007 expedition, Greenpeace said that the Alaska pollock fishery was “on the verge of collapse.” This is the sort of thing that may have triggered Murkowski’s remarks about Greenpeace’s agenda not being scientific.

But it is important to recognize that Greenpeace has at least two distinct wings, one for science and one for fundraising. Greenpeace engages in hyperbole to incite people and bring in money, much like a politician might rhetorically point to a boogie man to energize her base and aid campaign fundraising.

This works both ways. On the other side of the coin from “the sky is falling” is the message Greenpeace sent out after a 2013 North Pacific Council meeting saying, “[W]e got what we wanted!” Greenpeace turned the Council’s consideration of a protected zone for the canyons into a victory march, sending out an email shortly thereafter pointing to the “win” and asking for money to “continue to push.”

It seems the victory march was premature. At the April meeting, the North Pacific Council called for further research of the canyons. Movement continued toward a possible protective zone for Pribilof Canyon, one of two studied by Greenpeace that, while responsible for the majority of pollock catch in the canyons, contributes only 2.5 percent of the total pollock yield in the Bering Sea.

At that meeting, Greenpeace suggested a variety of options for the Council, including the exclusion of bottom-contact gear and bycatch limits for corals and sponges. These suggestions hardly equate to the “shut down” of the pollock fishery characterized by Murkowski.

Murkowski may be growing nervous as industry draws closer to environmental activism. At a Greenpeace event in Seattle, Adam Kanzer, an advisor to McDonald’s, said, “This is not an issue that pits the environmental community against the business community. It is an effort to protect a fragile ecosystem and ensure the long-term sustainability of these fisheries.”

For McDonald’s, sourcing its products for the long term and listening to scientists, even those who hitch rides with Greenpeace, makes good business sense.

While some of Greenpeace’s antics may strike opponents as inappropriate, there is no evidence to support the view that their Bering Sea advocacy is “not based in science or fact.”