Editor's Note: This is part of our "Thanks for all the fish" series, which looks into the billion-dollar commercial fishing industry that has defined and sustained Seattle since the city's founding.
It sounds too good to be true: There are so many fish that Seattle-based boats haul in more than a million metric tons of them every year without depleting the population. "It still boggles my mind how much is a million tons of fish," says David Fluharty, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. "To actually catch that much protein . . ."
The fish is the unfortunately-named walleye pollock. One probably won't see walleye pollock — caught in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska by vessels dragging midwater trawls — on a bed of ice beside the ahi and Copper River king in a fish store display case. But one may well have eaten it in the form of fish sticks or pre-breaded fillets or, perhaps, McDonald's fish sandwiches.
By volume, Alaskan pollock support the world's largest food fishery. All by itself, the Alaska fishery represents about 1 out of every 100 pounds of fish from the entire world's oceans.
In terms of seafood export value Alaskan pollock shipped through Puget Sound probably trail only Alaskan salmon, says Andy Wink of the Juneau-based McDowell Group. Overall, the pollock fishery "likely creates the largest impact on Seattle of any Alaska species," Wink says. "It generates the largest amount of wholesale value of any Alaska species and all the boats that fish for pollock homeport in Seattle. Likewise, the crews on pollock ships are often made up of Washington residents or they at least get on the boat in Seattle."
Although pollock fetch little more per pound than the humble anchovy, the annual catch is worth more than that of any other U.S. fishery except salmon, lobster, shrimp and crab. In 2011, pollock were worth $374 million, compared to $618 million for salmon and $650 million for crab.
This cornucopia, say government scientists, shows no sign of running dry. Forget the familiar, depressing tales of north Atlantic cod and other once-great fisheries depleted by human short-sightedness and greed. Forget the collapse of Alaskan king crab after the big-money king crab rush of the 1970s. The Marine Stewardship Council, whose ratings are considered the gold standard, has certified the Alaskan pollock fishery as sustainable.
"The pollock industry was one of the first to get certified," says recently retired National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Kevin Bailey, who has written a book, "Billion-Dollar Fish," about the pollock fishery. It's also the largest one that's ever been certified.
Whether or not it's really sustainable, says Baily, "depends on whom you talk to." His own view is that the long-term sustainability of the pollock fishery is a big unknown.
Five years ago, Greenpeace warned that the pollock fishery was on the verge of collapse. The organization is taking a less alarmist attitude now. Greenpeace senior oceans campaigner Jackie Dragon suggests that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council has taken steps that probably have improved the sustainability of the fishery. And, she says, "We're not saying what the pollock industry wants people to think. We're not saying, 'No fishing.'"
No one, in fact, is saying that. Critics suggest that the high rate of harvest leaves little margin for error, and argue that it affects marine mammals and other critters that like to eat pollock.
Credit: Kate Thompson
The North Pacific council has decided to allow enough fishing to catch 60 percent of the overall biomass of pollock and, says Dragon, "hope that will be enough." (The biomass is the total weight of all the fish in an area.) The bottom line for Dragon: "Fishing on [pollock] so hard in the absence of so much information about the ecosystem is a gamble."
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