Fish McBites: What are sustainable fisheries?

Initially marketed to create a seafood/non-meat alternative (for Catholics and others avoiding meat), for years, the “Fillet-O-Fish” sandwich and similar fast food items were purposely vague—both in name and taste.  In response to what I’m guessing were poor sales and the increasing public cry to know more about the origins of their food, fast food revamped and answered.  You may have seen in the recent news a large push by McDonalds and other fast food chains in promoting a new line of seafood options.  Fish McBites and the Premium Cod Fillet Sandwich are examples of the recent offerings put out by McDonalds and Wendy’s, respectively, attempting to highlight their culinary advances and environmental sensitivities.

McDonald’s Fish McBites (Source: mcdonalds.com)


If you’ve seen the commercials, you’ll notice McDonalds and Wendy’s go to great lengths to convey the fact that they are using sustainably caught Alaskan Pollock and North Pacific Cod.  (I will note here that not everyone has made the sustainable seafood leap—Burger King still sells its “Alaskan fish Sandwich.”  Whatever that means.)  And while there will always be detractors to the fast food industry and its products, some of these new items have be earning good reviews.  But what exactly does it mean that these products are sustainable caught?

Wendy’s Premium North Pacific Cod Fillet (source: wendys.com)

What the fast food companies are doing here is relying on the ratings of seafood guides.  While some are more popular than others, the basic idea is that a ratings agency evaluates different fisheries on a number of metrics to come up with an index of how well (or how sustainable) a fishery is.  For example, a ratings agency might consider the status of the population (past overfishing?), how much fishing is taking place (current overfishing?), how harvest impacts the ecosystem or habitat (think hook and line compared to dredging), and what bycatch are taken in the fishery (do fishermen get a lot of unwanted animals for a small amount of the target fish?).

The varying degrees of these answers inform an overall index—for example a rating from 1–10 as to the health of the fishery.  Often, these ratings are then further distilled into fewer categories, such as avoid, good choice, and best choice.  Finally, apps and pocket guides are distributed so that consumers can make informed decisions about their seafood.

Typical “stoplight” classification of seafood choices. (source: montereybayaquarium.org)

In all seafood guides that I investigated, both Alaskan pollock (McBites) and North Pacific cod (Wendy’s) were good or best options.  These are both very large fisheries, which means there are advantages and disadvantages to managing them; however, the seafood guides suggest that both are sustainably managed, and this is largely what the fast food chains are trumpeting.

As with any assessment of a biological or natural resource, there are assumptions.  And fish are certainly no exception.  The assessment of fish stocks has, in fact, been notorious difficult, famously summarized by John Shepherd: “Counting fish is like counting trees, except that they are invisible and they keep moving.”  There are several historic cases of incorrect assessment—both indicating a fishery was OK when it was not, as well as the opposite.

So what does The Fisheries Blog recommend you do when it comes to seafood choices?  Do some research on your own.  Although we are not suggesting any false information by McDonalds or Wendy’s, they are companies designed to sell units, not to ensure sustainable fisheries.  Check out all the different seafood guides, and see if a consensus emerges about different species.  Be critical of what is included in a seafood item or species.  For example, catfish is a very generic term that includes world-wide distribution of 2400 species harvested in every possible way.

While there is plenty to be excited about now that major fast food operations are embracing sustainable resources, remember that you are your best advocate.

Steve Midway

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3 responses to “Fish McBites: What are sustainable fisheries?

  1. Sorta related… If I were one of those genetics wizards with DNA barcodes, the first place I would check for misidentified/mislabeled seafood products would be the fast food operations. What happens when sales boom and the catches aren't holding up at that time of year?

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