Guest post by Lance Morgan, PhD, President of Marine Conservation Institute
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is asking McDonald’s to stand down on an issue that could impact the long term availability of one of its signature products — the Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Yesterday, Senator Murkowski asked McDonald’s to ignore environmental groups who are calling for important and long-overdue protections for the Bering Sea Canyons.
These canyons — Zhemchug and Pribilof — are the largest underwater canyons in the world and occur along the fruitful, yet totally unprotected Green Belt zone. The Bering Sea is where much of our nation’s “fish burger” fish comes from.
This vital area is home to a vast array of marine life and was named a “Hope Spot” last year by renowned National Geographic Society scientist-in-residence Dr. Sylvia Earle. It is one of the places that needs to be protected for the health of our planet.
Why McDonald’s? If you are one of the millions of people who have tasted a Filet-O-Fish sandwich then you have eaten Alaska pollock. McDonald’s has a vested interest in ensuring that oceans are healthy enough to continue providing an ongoing source of fish fillets.
The fishing industry, however, has demonstrated an interest in short-term profits. They consistently fight to fish throughout the Canyons and downplay the destructive impacts that their massive trawl nets have on the sensitive habitats of the very fish they desire.
While Senator Murkowski makes broad claims about Alaska’s fisheries being the finest and most sustainably managed, companies such as McDonald’s have a lot to lose. Short-sighted policies that allow for the destruction of vulnerable habitats could have devastating implications for the long-term availability of fish.
By investigating the facts and doing their part to encourage responsible fishing practices, McDonald’s can protect the habitats that provide fish.
In our recently released SeaStates 2014 report — a state by state analysis of coastal protections — Alaska ranked last. None of Alaska’s state waters (or surrounding federal waters) are protected in marine reserves, despite repeated calls and agreements nationally and internationally that reserves should protect 20% of habitats (or more).
The Bering Sea Canyons and Green Belt zone are at the heart of a biologically diverse and productive ecosystem which provides habitat and foraging areas for fish and crab as well as sea birds and marine mammals, including a number of imperiled species such as Steller sea lions, northern fur seals and short-tailed albatrosses.
NOAA scientists have also found the Green Belt area to be unique as it contains the majority of the known and predicted coral and sponge habitat in the Bering Sea. Commercially important species — not just pollock, but king crab, halibut, and Chinook salmon — use these areas at multiple life stages for shelter from predators, as spawning and nursery grounds, and to forage for prey.
It is well established that heavy trawl nets and other types of fishing gear can quickly destroy the complex habitat that slow-growing corals have taken many hundreds of years to develop.
NOAA scientists say the Green Belt and the canyons will see the largest reductions in habitat structure of any area in the Bering Sea. Fishing impacts could reduce the living structure in parts of Pribilof Canyon by 50-75%.
Despite the well-established importance of this habitat, the canyons and Green Belt are the only major habitat in the Bering Sea with no protections in place.
Conservation groups have proposed Canyon protections for over a decade, and since 2012 fishery managers have received tremendous public support for action.
Comments urging precautionary protection for the canyons have come from a broad coalition of NGOs, together with more than 130,000 individuals, indigenous stakeholders, independent scientists, Seattle businesses, and even some of our nation’s largest supermarket chains. Safeway, Trader Joes, SuperValue, Ahold USA and HyVee have all sent letters urging protection for the canyons, and other companies, including McDonald’s, have communicated their concerns directly to the fishing industry.
NOAA has reported that less than 4% of the Bering Sea pollock is being caught in Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons, the areas proposed for protection.
So, protecting these areas won’t jeopardize the fishing industry’s ability to deliver pollock in the short term, but protecting the canyons and the vital Green Belt habitat they contain will provide a valuable insurance policy for the future.
McDonald’s would be wise to ensure their fish are available not just today, but long into the future.
Learn more about Bering Sea protection at beringseacanyons.org