March 1, 2013 | Vol. 69, No 03

Wild Caught Alaska Pollock Gets a Boost at McDonald's

Wild caught Alaska pollock are getting a big boost in name recognition, thanks to a new nationwide campaign by the fast food chain McDonalds, offering the fried white fish in bite-size pieces.

Margaret Bauman.
The fast food chain McDonald’s introduced Fish McBites nationwide on February 1st, in snack, regular and the larger “shareable” sizes, plus the Fish McBites Happy Meal.

Company employees scoop up the rounded fish nuggets and pop them into colorful little paper containers that tell the buyer this order was “popped from the sea.

“Bite through crispy tender pieces of poppable white, flaky Alaskan Pollock. First taste the crisp seasoned coating, then plunge deep into a creamy, tangy tartar sauce. Repeat until satisfied.”

Customers can also choose from half a dozen other sauces to dip the fish nuggets in, from barbecue to sweet and sour.

A cautionary note, however, is that this is a limited time promotion and McDonald’s has not commented on when Fish McBites would be back on its menu next year.

Wild caught Alaska pollock has been certified as a well-managed, sustainable fishery by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, through an independent, third-party certification program based on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Code of Conduct for Responsible fisheries and the FAO Guidelines for ecolabeling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries.

Wild Alaska pollock is also certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

According to McDonald’s the snack size McBites are 210 calories, including 100 calories from fat, 330 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of protein. The regular size McBites have 320 calories, including 140 from fat, 500 milligrams of sodium and 18 grams of protein. The larger, shareable size of McBites is 630 calories, including 290 from fat, 1,000 milligrams of sodium and 36 grams of protein. None of these figures include additional calories and sodium content of the tartar sauce.

According to McDonald’s, the labeling on orders of McDonald’s USA Filet-O-Fish and Happy Meal Fish McBites will boast that the fish is “wild caught Alaska Pollock responsibly sourced from an MSC certified sustainable fishery.” The packaging will also carry MSC’s logo and website.

Kerry Coughlin, regional director, MSC Americas, said McDonald’s accompanying media campaign would carry the message to 30 million people through mainstream media, “supplementing the awareness raised among McDonald’s 25 million customers. MSC is very appreciative of McDonald’s partnership; their ten-year commitment to sustainable seafood and recent announcement on MSC labeling and promotion will resonate worldwide,” she said.

It’s good publicity for Alaska’s $1 billion pollock fishery, including Community Development Quota programs like the Coastal Villages Regional Fund, which attributes $50 million of its 2012 earnings to pollock harvests. In fact, said CVRF spokesman Dawson Hoover, the CDQ’s salmon and halibut commercial fisheries are subsidized largely by those pollock harvests.

While the McDonald’s campaign heralds the sustainability of the pollock fishery, which earned MSC certification back in 2005, the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel is crying foul, saying the pollock fishery should not be called sustainable because its incidental harvests of wild salmon are adversely affecting commercial and subsistence harvests in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region. AVCP President Myron Naneng says restrictions placed on salmon harvesters make criminals out of people fishing for food rather than profit. “It’s not sustainable because it is taking away another sustainable fishery that has been in existence for ages, and making criminals out of people fishing for food, not for profit,” he said.

CVRF’s Hoover notes that the state’s six CDQ groups have jointly agreed to pay the freight to bring some of the bycatch salmon caught in pollock fisheries back to Alaska from SeaShare, which is the recipient of the bycatch salmon. Most of that returned salmon goes to the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage, which offers its food to affiliated food banks around the state. Still the affiliates must pay the freight to get the food to rural locations and the cost of shipping frozen salmon out to rural Alaska is so high that none of it gets to the western Alaska villages affected by restrictions on king and chum harvests, a spokesman for the food bank said.

Coughlin said that MSC is really sympathetic with the low Chinook runs in Western Alaska, ”but there is no real scientific evidence that the pollock fishery is responsible for the decrease in those runs.” The McDonald’s pollock promotion will be good for Alaska’s fisheries, because McDonald’s sells 300 million fish sandwiches annually in the US alone, Coughlin said.

Former Alaska legislator Nels Anderson, who agrees with Naneng, has sent emails to both McDonald’s and MSC, expressing concern that they are misleading the public in saying the wild pollock fishery in Alaska is sustainable.

“If the Marine Stewardship Council and McDonald’s were to check with the North Pacific Fishery management Council and get the bycatch numbers of king salmon, chum salmon, other salmon species, marine mammals and birds, the would be shocked beyond measure and McDonald’s should immediately cease and desist selling pollock under the MSC ‘sustainable’ label and MSC remove pollock from their list of ‘sustainably’ caught fish,” Anderson said.

Jim Gilmore, a spokesman for the At-Sea Processors Association, said that Chinook bycatch numbers for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands pollock fleet of catcher vessels and catcher processor vessels has declined since 2007. He noted the December 2012 stock assessment and fishery evaluation report prepared by NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, which put the 2012 Chinook bycatch of the BSAI pollock fleet at 10,157 kings. That compared with 122,262 kings caught by that fleet in 2007.

Meanwhile, MSC is on the verge of certifying Russian pollock as a sustainable fishery, and many in the Alaska pollock fishery are concerned, saying Russian harvesters are not held to the same standards. MSC’s not commenting on this, saying that’s still a work in progress, and McDonald’s had no comment on whether they would consider using MSC certified Russian pollock in future promotions.

What concerns harvesters and processors is the fish is known as Alaska pollock, whether caught in Alaska or Russian waters, so that if McDonald’s were to choose in the future to purchase Alaska pollock harvested in Russian waters, McDonald’s could still legitimately promote it as wild Alaska pollock, industry sources said.