In January 2013, McDonald's made waves in the media by committing to use only wild Alaskan pollock, certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), to make its popular Filet-O-Fish sandwiches in the U.S.. With awareness of an overfishing problem on the rise, this move was hailed as a landmark of corporate responsibility.
From the get-go, a few fishery experts raised doubts about the ultimate significance of the change. Grist pointed out that the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch rates Alaska pollock a "good alternative," rather than a "best choice," in terms of sustainability, because fishing had already pushed its population to the lowest point in two decades.
A Slate article published on Wednesday casts further aspersions on the wisdom of using Alaska pollock. Its author, Lee van der Voo, spent 2013 investigating the seafood industry, and found that in the process of trawling for Alaska pollock, fishermen accidentally catch millions of pounds of Alaska halibut as "bycatch."
Even if pollock stocks remain at sustainable levels -- an open question -- there's growing consensus that years of bycatch have decimated halibut populations in the Bering Sea. The paragovernmental agencies that regulate halibut fisheries have already moved to place more stringent restrictions on halibut bycatch, but some fear that they haven't been aggressive enough, and that the halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea could soon need to be shut down completely
Van der Voo explains that this is a serious problem because thousands of Alaskans, including many of the state's native peoples, rely directly or indirectly on halibut fishing for their livelihoods. Van der Voo focuses, in particular, on the city of St. Paul in the Aleutian Islands, the 2,000-odd residents of which are almost completely dependent on halibut.
If the Bering Sea were closed to commercial halibut fishing, Alaskans would still be allowed to catch a limited quantity of halibut for their own personal consumption. But they wouldn't be able to sell any of it -- so a crucial source of cash would suddenly dry up, making life very difficult in a place where almost every consumer good has to be flown in from the mainland. Many of the inhabitants of places like St. Paul would likely be forced to move away, possibly forever.
For that reason, Alaska natives have said that trawlers pose an existential threat to their way of life. McDonald's Filet-o-Fish isn't, of course, solely responsible for this threat -- but this sad story does help prove that questions of sustainability are often more complicated than major corporations would have you believe.
CORRECTION: This post originally misstated the name of the organization that cast doubt on Alaska pollock's sustainability by classing it a "good alternative" rather than a "best choice." It is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, not the Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC does not make such distinctions.
Also on HuffPost: