How 'Bout that Filet 'O Fish?

Companies embrace sustainable fish practices as overfishing affects business

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I used to love the taste of Filet ‘O Fish sandwiches. That scrumptious tartar sauce and the delectable white fish flakiness coupled with deep fried crunchiness—and let’s not forget the chewy bun. Oh so yum.

But then I noticed that the fish started tasting a little differently. Turns out McDonald’s used to only use North Atlantic cod for its sandwiches but had to change to a different supplier in the late 1980’s after cod-fishing grounds became so overfished. Now the sandwiches are made from a motley mix of five different whitefish species.

The depletion of fish from our oceans is the result of an increased appetite for fish—as well as advances in technology to catch seafood. The result has been detrimental to our ecosystem. The Wall Street Journal writes that restaurants are now galvanizing and moving toward more sustainable fishing practices due to the effects of overfishing on business. These measures are way overdue: according to a recent United Nations study, nearly all commercial fisheries will produce less than 10 percent of their potential by mid-century—unless something changes. And since the article states that the annual seafood demand will rise to at least 150 million metric tons in two decades—something’s got to change fast.

The article also states that food companies are changing their suppliers based on how sustainably the fish is raised. For example Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden, took Chilean sea bass off its menu after recognizing that it didn’t meet their standards. A few years ago, McDonald’s stopped using Eastern Baltic cod because it couldn’t guarantee that the number of fish being caught was accurately recorded. After the supplier improved reporting methods, McDonald’s resumed buying from that supplier. Yet these methods are not fool-proof. The article rightfully states that these large buyers might be looking too narrowly at sustainability. Greenpeace’s John Hocevar points out that the state of fisheries is that big chains don’t necessarily have a sustainable source, they just found “a less bad source.”

There’s no better place that exemplifies the damaging impact of technology on fish populations than Port Clyde, Maine. For years Earthjustice has represented local fishermen in that region who compete with industrial fisheries for local catch. In summary, local fishermen depend on the region’s once-robust population of herring. But they’ve contended with fleets of industrial ships that drag massive nets behind them and catch and kill everything in their path—which has lead to a decline in the herring population. The nets also have severely impacted populations of cod, hake, haddock, river herring, and other fish, and led to the deaths of marine mammals and seabirds entangled in the nets.

Our fishery work is far from over and it’s articles like these that highlight the massive devastation of our fisheries. Most importantly, we must take quick action to prevent irreparable harm.

Raviya was a press secretary at Earthjustice in the Washington, D.C. office from 2008 to 2014, working on issues including federal rulemakings, energy efficiency laws and coal ash pollution.