Your New Destination for Sustainable Seafood: McDonald’s

The fast-food chain announces it will only serve MSC-certified fish at its U.S. restaurants.

Don't let envoirnmental concerns keep you from eating this sandwich. (Photo: McDonald's)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

For those of you who like to vote with your fork, you can head over to McDonald’s. That’s right: Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are now being served with a supersized side of sustainability.

McDonald’s USA announced this morning that 100 percent of the fish sold in its U.S.-based restaurants will be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Both the Filet-O-Fish sandwich and the company’s new Fish McBites will be made from MSC-certified wild-caught Alaskan pollock.

The fast-food giant is one of the single largest buyers of fish in the U.S., making the shift to MSC-certified products a considerable challenge to the seafood-sourcing status quo. Over 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. have met MSC’s Chain of Custody standard, which means they can track fish all the way back through the supply chain to the fishery itself.

While McDonald’s spokesperson Christina Tyler wouldn’t get specific about the exact number of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches sold in the U.S., she tells TakePart that it was “in the hundreds of millions of fish sandwiches each year” and that the company has moved away from cod as a source of protein.

Which brings us to the question we know you’re wondering about: Can one single fishery sustain this kind of appetite? According to the MSC, the answer is yes.

“McDonald’s’ commitment will not put additional pressure on the Alaska pollock fishery,” Kerry Coughlin, MSC regional director, tells TakePart. “The Alaskan pollock fishery is conservatively managed, and is constantly monitored.”

It’s estimated that between 800,000 to 1.2 million metric tons are taken from the pollock fishery each year, enough for all those fried-fish sandwiches and then some. The fishery first became certified as sustainable under MSC guidelines in 2005, and that status was renewed in 2010. To maintain the certification, it must be renewed every five years and go through annual surveillance audits.

In 2011, McDonald’s adopted the same MSC certification for its European restaurants.

The news is being praised by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a nonprofit group working to improve worldwide fisheries management.

“McDonald’s’ commitment to source sustainably by improving sources, rather than just switching to 'good' sources, has transformed the whitefish sector, reversing decades of overfishing, rebuilding fish stocks and quotas and paying handsome dividends to all whitefish buyers worldwide,” says Jim Cannon, SFP chief executive, in a statement.

Of course, the Alaskan pollock fishery hasn’t been without controversy. Finger-pointing over declines in chinook salmon (also known as kings) harvests were aimed at pollock fishermen, who were pulling up the valuable fish as bycatch. Pollock trawlers now have a strict cap on the chinook salmon bycatch they’re allowed before they’re shut down by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

McDonald’s isn’t the only corporate giant working to source sustainable fish. Whole Foods has also partnered with MSC to bring sustainable choices to its fish counter, and even Walmart is inching closer to its goal of only providing fresh, frozen, farmed and wild seafood that is certified sustainable through third-party verification. Given the buying power of these massive corporations, the news is hopeful.

“There is a growing awareness of sustainable sourcing,” says Tyler. “This is something McDonald’s has been working on for ten years. It’s a great way to educate our customers.”

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