Debate over the sustainability of New Zealand Hoki, a fish widely used in McDonald’s restaurants, erupts after a study was released exposing a possible government cover up of illegal fishing practices in the Hoki industry.

Image courtesy of: www.isciencetimes.com

Image courtesy of: www.isciencetimes.com

The study aimed to reconstruct NZ marine fisheries catches in the past several decades and in doing so discovered that 2.7 times the number of fish were taken from the ocean as reported. The leaked government documents contain internal memos written by officials from Ministry of Primary Industries, voicing concerns over the methods used to catch Hoki.  Most notably, the regular practice of illegal catching and dumping of thousands of Hoki raised questions over the industries true sustainability.   As New Zealand fisheries, specifically Hoki, were one of the first to be certified by the highly esteemed Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable, and earn subsequent recertification over the past 15 years, the illegal practices prevalent within the industry are cause for serious concern.

 

What is Hoki?

Hoki is a rather ugly looking fish that cruises the ocean depths, remaining half a mile under the surface on average.  Though its beady eyes, short snout, and long eel-like body may not look attractive it is frequently used in many fried fish sandwiches and meals.  Found almost exclusively in New Zealand waters, the Marine Stewardship Council based out of London, gave Hoki the blue seal of sustainability – enticing consumers and restaurant chains to purchase Hoki over other “non-sustainable” options. When McDonald’s made the move to source all of their fish sustainably, they frequently use Hoki in their Filet-O-Fish served in Europe and Oceana. In the early 2000’s increase in Hoki catch and consumption occurred for two reasons: Big brands started buying more Hoki while simultaneously Orange Roughy, a popular white fish, was in sharp decline from overfishing.  With high catch limits in the early 2000’s due to its large population, Hoki began to replace Orange Roughy as New Zealand’s primary fish export.

Hoki Catch image courtesty of: www.teara.govt.nz

Hoki Catch
image courtesty of: www.teara.govt.nz

 

However, now there is a fear that with a decrease in spawning aggregations and overall population counts that Hoki are headed for the same fate as Orange Roughy – overfishing.  Previously, and possibly even still, New Zealand Hoki were considered the most sustainable and well managed fishing industry.  It is true that quotas have decreased in relation to population decreases, in 2001 the catch limit was 275,000 tons per year and has since been decreased to just 100,000 tons of fish per year.  Focusing solely on the Hoki, not the collateral damage that Hoki fishing causes, are the current lowered quotas enough to allow the fish to continue to be sustained or do different regulations need to be imposed?

Cause for Concern?

New internal government memos that have surfaced, have led the public to believe that the New Zealand government allowed illegal fishing methods for Hoki to continue, even after considering the expansive environmental harm done by the industry.  Titled Operation Achilles, officials of the Ministry of Primary Industries evaluated and assessed the state of the Hoki industry and communicated their findings through internal memos.  This has been considered a government cover-up because the findings in the memos clearly point out the environmental harm and illegal behavior of many parties within the Hoki fishing industry, but the New Zealand government has not taken action to combat these problems or even admit to their existence.

Campaign to Boycott NZ Hoki Courtesy of: BBC

“Buy New Zealand Fish Get Dead Maui Dolphins Free!”
Courtesy of: BBC

Because Hoki reside so deep in the water column, bottom trawlers are used to catch the fish.  This method not only disturbs the marine life and vegetation on the ocean floor, but also results in high numbers of bycatch, which is detrimental to the ocean ecosystem.  The reports reveal that the bycatch frequently includes: sharks, rays, fur seals, and even rare dolphins. Endangered  Maui’s and Hector’s Dolphins are considered the rarest dolphin species and Operation Achilles notes that “The deliberate non-reporting of Hector’s dolphins” could have drastic effects on the environment and New Zealand’s public image as a sustainable solution.  In addition, government video footage shows the fishing companies blatantly and illegally dumping their catch twice in order to secure a “fresher” batch.  The main problem with this practice is that the fish that are dumped will not all survive and therefore leads to overharvesting of Hoki and depletion of their species.

Pressure for McDonald’s to Boycott Hoki

Since large companies such as McDonald’s have begun to buy large quantities of Hoki, their population has declined and spawning aggregations are much smaller than observed before the Hoki industry grew.  This draws concern from the New Zealand government as they need to keep this industry alive as it is their largest export, selling 15 million pounds of Hoki to McDonald’s (at its peak). Additionally, environmental activists are calling for McDonald’s to boycott New Zealand Hoki and demand the government address the unsustainable activities occurring, especially the underreporting of bycatch of marine mammals.  Since the Hoki industry is so lucrative for New Zealand, they want to maintain their image of a sustainable supplier.  In the leaked memos, an official notes, “A worst case scenario could see a large international company eg. McDonald’s, refusing to buy our non-green image fish”. Unfortunately for New Zealand due to their negligence in enforcing and maintaining sustainable fishing standards, their worst nightmare might be coming true.

As two Hector’s dolphins were proven to be caught, and only one dolphin reported, activists are calling on McDonald’s and McDonald’s customers to stop buying Hoki fish items and in doing so help save an endangered species.  If McDonald’s were to take a stance against unsustainable fishing practices them Marine Stewardship Council and its certified brands would have to reevaluate and promote stricter enforcements of sustainable standards.  Though Hoki is certainly not the most destructive fishing industry, by simply following legal procedure and adhering to sustainability standards the industry could remain viable and lucrative, instead of viewed as a threat to dolphins.

In contrast, Rubio’s fish taco chain made the decision to move to 100% sustainable seafood using a wider variety of fish and sustainability certifications.  Rubio’s sources both wild and farmed fish including Alaskan Pollock (what is in U.S. Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s), Atlantic Salmon, Pacific Mahi Mahi, Shrimp, and Tilapia.  Instead of the Marine Stewardship Council certification, Rubio’s is sustainably certified by FAO based Responsible Fisheries Management Certification, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, and Best Aquaculture Practices Administration Certification.  Maybe their cross agency certifications ensures that there is a greater chance of their seafood truly being sustainably sourced.

This leaked internal government papers regarding the Hoki fishery along with the study’s analysis of underreported bycatch and targeted catch will hopefully inspire larger companies who source their fish from New Zealand to force changes in the Hoki industry.  This government cover-up and contradiction with a sustainably certified fish raises the question of how do we determine if a resource is sustainable and ensure it remains that way?