Who’s accusing whom?


A letter from a U.S. senator from Alaska urging one of America’s largest fast-food chains to ignore an environmental group’s boycott surfaced this week, but the group is denying allegations that they have organized a boycott, calling into question just who is accusing whom of what.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent the letter on 30 July to Donald Thompson, president and CEO of McDonald’s Corp. In it, the senator (pictured) urged Thompson to ignore campaigning by Greenpeace regarding Alaska pollock, a longtime source of whitefish for the Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

In the letter, Murkowski said, “It is my understanding that McDonald’s is being pressured by an environmental advocacy group, Greenpeace, to boycott purchases of Alaska pollock.”

In a press release about the letter, Murkowski said Greenpeace’s current campaign was “attempting to shut down” the Alaska pollock fishery. Greenpeace, in response, flatly denied both of Murkowski’s allegations.

It’s hard to know what to think here. Both sides in this issue — Greenpeace and the Alaska seafood industry, whose interests are clearly represented by Murkowski — have shown evidence in the past of behavior bordering on the irrational. Critics have a history of accusing Greenpeace of producing reports with scant or poorly documented data. The most notable recent case of this is the group’s supermarket rankings released back in May, where Greenpeace ranked the world’s grocery store chains based on how sustainable their sources of seafood were. That report drew a scathing rebuke from Gavin Gibbons of the U.S.-based National Fisheries Institute, who accused Greenpeace of not being transparent enough in explaining its ranking process.

Alaska’s seafood industry, on the other hand, has had its share of thin-skinned overreactions. When a Domino’s Pizza TV commercial airing last summer made an unflattering comment about halibut for comic effect — without naming Alaska by name at all — the industry response was so harsh it drove Domino’s to issue an apology for the ad. Even an Alaska-based columnist thought that reaction was a bit over the top.

At first glance, it might look like Greenpeace is the culprit here. A guest post on the group’s website by Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, talking about Murkowski’s letter exaggerates the facts when he cites one of his own studies as proof that Alaska “ranks last” in the amount of its waters dedicated to protected or “no-take” zones. While the study shows that Alaska has “0%” of its waters dedicated to protected zones, so do 15 other states, which means at best Alaska ties for last place. There’s a big difference between saying that and saying it “ranks last,” which suggests Alaska fares more poorly than all 49 other states.

Greenpeace did speak directly to Murkowski’s letter. Jackie Dragon is the senior oceans coordinator at Greenpeace, and the group’s principal advocate responsible for environmental issues in the Bering Sea. She said that Greenpeace does feel strongly about pollock trawl fishing’s impact on the Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons lying under part of the Bering Sea, where sensitive coral habitats could be damaged. Dragon admitted that Greenpeace would like to see something done to protect the canyons from any fishing efforts that pose a threat there.

She also noted, however, that data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that fishing in that area of the Bering Sea only accounts for about 4 percent of the Bering Sea pollock fisheries’ catches. Based on that data, Dragon doesn’t think Greenpeace’s objections to pollock trawl fishing in the canyons is all that unreasonable.

While Dragon was careful not to say whether Greenpeace supported or objected to pollock fishing elsewhere in the Bering, she said there was both “a great deal to be proud of” and “there’s definitely room to grow” when it comes to sustainable fishing in the Bering in general.

Dragon was crystal clear, however, on the most important point: While Greenpeace has been in contact with a number of retailers and other companies that source Alaska seafood, including McDonald’s, the group’s only interest was in sharing their findings on sustainable fishing in the Bering. Greenpeace, Dragon said, is not asking for a boycott of any kind of Alaska pollock, from McDonald’s or anyone else.

“That is not the message, that is not what we’re saying, and that is not the conversation that we’re having,” she said.

So why is Murkowski saying Greenpeace is seeking a boycott? That’s not clear. A spokesman for Murkowski’s office said the senator was aware of a boycott, but declined to say how she knew this. McDonald’s did not respond to a request for clarification.

So what is Murkowski basing her accusation on? Is there hard evidence, or more oblique references that have been blown out of proportion by an industry that doesn’t take criticism well? Until the senator can clarify, all we have is her word vs. Dragon’s, a case of she said-she said.


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