The president of a nonprofit that represents dozens of Yup'ik villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is threatening to boycott McDonald's because of the way the fast food giant plans to market fish caught off Alaska.
McDonald's announced this week that packaging on its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and new fish nuggets, both made from pollock caught in the Bering Sea, will be stamped with a label that reads "Certified Sustainable Seafood." What most customers won't know is that Alaska pollock is a controversial fish among some village fishermen who blame the trawler fleet for wasting thousands of king salmon each year.
On Friday, the head of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents said his group plans to send McDonald's a letter of protest.
The pollock fleet reduced king salmon bycatch numbers from a high of more than 121,000 fish in 2007 to 11,350 in 2012, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. But AVCP President Myron Naneng said Friday that village fishermen are still being asked to make the deepest sacrifices in the interest of preserving the chinook runs.
Twenty-one Lower Kuskokwim River fishermen are now awaiting trial on charges they violated a fishing bans during the summer king salmon season. Some fishermen cited by state troopers told the Daily News they were fishing in defiance of what they believed was an unjust ban on fishing for food.
"It's OK to throw away thousands of chinook salmon overboard and then cite fishermen in the river system that maybe caught one or two chinook salmon that are in the river?" Naneng said in a phone interview. "That makes me question, 'Do we live in America?' "
Naneng's remarks strike at a still-simmering tension between village salmon fishermen who are regularly banned from catching kings, a rare source of cash and a favored food on the Lower Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, and the pollock fleet that has sharply reduced salmon bycatch since 2007.
"For Alaska pollock, we have among the highest scores of any fishery in the (certified sustainable) program," said Jim Gilmore, public affairs director for the At-sea Processors Association.
Gilmore said an electronic reporting system, monitored by a private company, now directs the pollock fleet away from areas where fishing vessels encounter king salmon.
"The fishing industry not only complied with (new bycatch) regulations but its been taking on its own responsibility for reducing that bycatch as much as possible," he said.
The $1 billion Alaska pollock fishery is one of the largest fisheries in the world. About 2.6 billion pounds of the white fish will be caught this year, Gilmore said, sold as fish sticks, fillets and imitation crab.
Through Alaska's Community Development Quota programs, Western Alaska villages hold a financial stake in the success of the pollock fishery.
The Coastal Villages Region Fund, which benefits 20 communities, operates its own pollock vessel, the Northern Hawk. The group earned $50 million on pollock in 2012, said spokesman Dawson Hoover.
In 2012, the CDQ caught 161 king salmon as bycatch while landing 88 million pounds of pollock, he said. The group is concerned about salmon bycatch but welcomed news McDonald's will be raising the profile of abundant Alaska-caught pollock, Hoover said. "(It's) one of the cleanest fisheries in the world, by volume."
More than 80 percent of the CDQ employees are from area villages, while Coastal Villages gave an additional $2 million to villages in October based on better-than-expected revenue, he said.
"I think our region, through CVRF, has a bright future with the jobs that we provide," Hoover said.
'WE SIMPLY DON'T KNOW'
The London-based Marine Stewardship Council has labeled pollock a certified sustainable seafood since 2005. The designation is meant to tell consumers that the fish comes from a responsibly managed stock and that fishing practices do not harm the environment or other species, according to the council website.
In 2012, Bethel-based research revealed a weak, late run for king salmon on the Kuskokwim River, which flows into the Bering Sea, and regulators banned subsistence fishing. The U.S. Department of Commerce declared the weak runs on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers a disaster.
Recent king salmon runs on the Yukon have been about half of the historic average size, said Fish and Game biologist Eric Newland. Regulators placed "severe" subsistence fishing restrictions on the river in 2009, 2011 and 2012 in an effort to meet escapement goals, he said.
Bycatch is likely one of a number of factors that contribute to low king returns in Western Alaska, but no conclusive link has ever been made, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Julie Speegle wrote in an email.
Ocean conditions, including ocean acidification, and warming are the leading theories, Speegle wrote. "The bottom line, though, is that we simply don't know and more scientific research is needed."
Naneng said bycatch appears to be only part of a larger problem, but said there's still room to improve when it comes to reducing the number of wasted fish.
He proposed charging trawlers a $5 penalty for every king salmon caught as bycatch, with the money funneled toward research on the cause of the declining runs.
Within the next two weeks, AVCP will draft a letter to McDonald's opposing its use of the blue "sustainable seafood" label, he said. The association, which Naneng said represents about 20,000 people in 56 villages, may call on rural Alaskans to boycott the fast food giant.
Low king salmon runs in other parts of the Alaska, such as Cook Inlet and the Kenai River, make the low runs a statewide problem, he said.
"I think we ought to ask the whole state of Alaska to do a boycott (of McDonald's)," he said.
As of early Friday afternoon, McDonald's spokeswoman Christina Tyler had not directly responded to questions about a potential boycott.
Tyler wrote that the company is guided by a sustainable fisheries program that informs its seafood purchases worldwide and considers "the impact of fishing methods on aquatic environment and biodiversity," among other factors.
A recent study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that the Marine Stewardship Council program now being used in McDonald's marketing "remains the best program to drive uptake of sustainable seafood in the market and protect fisheries and their surrounding ecosystems," she wrote.
A consumer watchdog group, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, has also studied the Alaska pollock fishery. Seafood Watch listed a spike in king salmon bycatch as a cause for concern, particularly for the Yukon River salmon stocks, but said it's unclear how much the bycatch contributes to declining chinook runs.
The group awarded the pollock fishery in Alaska a "good alternative" rating, a step down from its "top choice" recommendation.
"The Alaska pollock fishery is generally well managed," Seafood Watch researchers wrote. "However, there are concerns about trawling impacts, bycatch and overall population status."
THE FISH 'NOBODY EVER HEARD OF'
The At-sea Processors Association first sought to certify Alaska pollock as a sustainable seafood under the Marine Stewardship Council at the request of a major European white fish buyer, he said.
The council's eco-label has historically been more sought after by European shoppers than in the U.S., he said.
McDonald's began using Alaska pollock in its fish sandwiches in the 1980s. Today, all Filets-O-Fish sold in North America are caught off Alaska shores, although many customers would never know it, Gilmore said.
On Thursday, McDonald's announced it would become the first national restaurant chain to use the Marine Stewardship Council's label on its fish packaging nationwide.
"It's a nice boost in recognition for the most consumed species that nobody ever heard of," Gilmore said.
By KYLE HOPKINS