Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski recently sent a letter to the CEO of McDonald’s urging them to ignore Greenpeace and dozens of environmental groups who have been working, some for more than 12 years, to protect the iconic Bering Sea Canyons – Zhemchug and Pribilof – the largest underwater canyons in the world.
Senator Murkowski made some statements in her letter that must have had the folks at McDonalds and others scratching their heads. Given the letter’s significant inaccuracies, we felt compelled to send our own letter to the Senator to set the record straight.
Some of the senator’s claims were designed to be alarming. She claimed Greenpeace has an “anti-fishing campaign” calling for a boycott of Alaskan pollock. Alaska pollock, the signature ingredient in McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich, is the product of our nation’s single largest food fishery and a boycott would indeed be cause for alarm.
Our campaign is not calling for a boycott of Alaska pollock, nor is it an “anti-fishing campaign.” This is about a place, and not about any individual fishery. It is about the long overdue need to protect a portion of the Green Belt – the crowned jewel of the Bering Sea where the world’s largest underwater canyons harbor the lion’s share of coral and sponge habitat, essential fish habitat that is important for numerous commercially important species, and is a vital component of a healthy, functioning ecosystem.
In her letter to McDonalds the senator said she was writing “to begin a conversation on an issue of great importance to my state and your company – the sourcing of sustainable seafood for your restaurants throughout the US and around the world.” We absolutely agree on the importance of such a conversation; it is one that Greenpeace has been having with McDonalds for years. We know them to be a company that is interested in issues of conservation and management that impact the health of the ecosystems that provide their seafood.
Why is the Bering Sea and its canyons so important?
The Bering Sea is one of our nation’s richest marine resources. These waters that are so important for Alaska, and Washington state for that matter, where the majority of fishing revenue actually goes, are also extremely important for all Americans as well as people around the world who rely on the protein that comes from the area. We catch more than half of all US seafood in the Bering Sea. But, in Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons (the Canyons), only a very small portion of the Bering Sea’s massive pollock catch – less than 4 percent – is caught. These Canyons are not in Alaska’s state waters, but in national waters, and they are part of the natural resources managed for the benefit of all Americans.
Senator Murkowski asserts in her letter that Greenpeace is engaged in a misleading effort that is not based in science or fact, and that we are asserting that the Bering Sea Canyons are at risk from mid-water trawling for pollock, and “nothing could be further from the truth.” The senator say the two agencies responsible for fisheries management in Alaska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) have concluded that the area is not at risk from fishing activity.
When it comes to the impact of pollock trawl gear on the Canyons, and the shelf-break and slope of the continental shelf where they are located – an area so productive that scientists coined the term “Green Belt” to describe it – the government record is clear. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has a good summary in their report on Walleye Pollock. The upshot is that NOAA’s “analysis found that in the Bering Sea slope soft substrate, pollock midwater trawls actually had a greater overall impact on the seafloor habitat than the total impact of bottom trawls in the region.” In fact, despite the senator’s claim, NOAA scientists have predicted that Pribilof canyon, alone, could lose up to 75% of its living structure over the long term from fishing gear impacts.
More than a million pounds of deep-water corals and sponges are removed from Alaska’s waters by fishing each year. When you consider the fact that these habitat-forming animals grow exceptionally slowly, just a few centimeters a year, the problem becomes clear. NOAA scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center confirmed last year that the Canyons and the greater Green Belt stand out as the place in the Bering Sea that is known to contain, and is also predicted contain the greatest amount of coral and sponge habitat in the Bering Sea. The Canyons and the Green Belt are known breeding, nursery and foraging grounds for commercially important species. Yet, despite the knowledge that this area is most at risk from fishing impacts, it is the only major habitat type in the Bering Sea where no protections exist.
Public Support for the Bering Sea
Tremendous amounts of public input has been submitted to the Council urging action, including by some of our nation’s largest supermarketschains. In a comment letter from Ahold USA earlier this year they characterize themselves this way: “As a leading provider of commercial seafood in the US, we are an important stakeholder in US fisheries…” We agree. Seafood providers have a unique role to play in encouraging balanced policies in our nation’s fisheries, as public stakeholders who are committed to encouraging responsible fishing practices that can best insure the ongoing supply of the products they sell. In their letter, Ahold USA provided additional motivation for the Council to move swiftly to protect the Canyons: “the motions adopted by the Council in 2013 were an important step towards realizing NOAA’s number one stated objective for deep-sea coral and sponge conservation and management: protect areas containing known deep-sea coral and sponge communities from impacts of bottom-tending fishing gear.” In fact, multiple semi-annual reports to Congress state the Canyons are areas known to contain coral and sponge habitat awaiting protection.
It is true that the science available to manage our fisheries is never enough, yet always improving, despite being hampered by a lack of available funding. Significant decisions continue to be made, always with the best available science at hand. Where there is insufficient data, or uncertainty, which is inherent in fisheries management, precautionary management is the accepted rule.
While the Bering Sea may be, as McDonalds says on their website, “one of the best places to catch wild Alaskan pollock” today – the question we are asking is what is needed to ensure that it always will be so. The answer, unfortunately, is elusive and only as good as the best available science. Despite the fact that the North Pacific is viewed by many as having the best managed fisheries, thanks in part to some of the most robust research and monitoring that money can buy, there is still a great deal of information missing, which increases uncertainty for decision makers. Scientists still lack a good deal of information about the pollock stock, or stocks as some would say. In fact, some of the best places to catch wild Alaska pollock historically – Shelikof Strait, the Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Sea Donut Hole – are now nearly empty of the fish, leaving many questions still unanswered. Scientists, also, don’t yet understand all of the important connections in the Bering Sea food web. Their advice, given what they do know, is that maintaining the complex ecosystem in a healthy and resilient state is the best way to ensure its continued productivity. We agree.
How seafood companies can protect the Bering Sea
Our message to seafood providers is this: Given the enormous economic and ecological value of the Green Belt region, it makes sense to protect a small portion of the overall area through precautionary measures, to ensure productive fisheries over the next several years, until permanent protections are implemented. Since less than 4% of AK pollock is sourced from the canyons, precautionary measures to avoid fishing there in the interim will not impact the availability of product, but will absolutely remove the threat of irreversible habitat loss, until theCouncil can arrive at a permanent solution. We recommend buying pollock caught in Alaska, outside of the Canyons.
Fishery managers had an opportunity in April to set aside some of these vulnerable areas now, while the longer-term science and policy process slowly unfolds. Instead, they have left this vital habitat vulnerable to adverse impacts from ongoing fishing. Seafood consumers want to be confident that they are purchasing products that are caught responsibly, and businesses should take steps now to ensure they are not contributing to destruction of vulnerable habitats in the Bering Sea.
We don’t know what the long-term effect will be of systematically scraping away the ancient coral and sponge habitat along the Green Belt. An amazing marine wilderness hangs in the balance, from albatross to whales. We can do something today to protect a part of this remarkable marine place for the future.