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A bounty of fish: Questions about sustainability

Seattle's fishing fleet provides a rich catch of pollock for a hungry world. But is the future of the fishery as secure as it seems?
The walleye pollock

The walleye pollock Credit: Seafood for the Future

Alaska's pollock fishery

Alaska's pollock fishery Credit: Kate Thompson

The vessel Katie Ann processes pollock and other fish at sea.

The vessel Katie Ann processes pollock and other fish at sea. Photo: American Seafoods Company

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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Comments:

Posted Sat, Dec 7, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

It is well past time to get a real definition of sustainability:

Here is the definition it must have if future generations are to enjoy at least a little of what has given the present generation quality of life: A sustainable population is one that can survive over the long term (thousands to tens of thousands of years) without either running out of resources or damaging its environmental niche (in our case the planet) in the process. This means that our numbers and level of activity must not generate more waste than natural processes can return to the biosphere, that the wastes we do generate do not harm the biosphere, and that most of the resources we use are either renewable through natural processes or are entirely recycled if they are not renewable. In addition a sustainable population must not grow past the point where those natural limits are breached. Using these criteria it is obvious that the current human population is not sustainable. There is a specific relationship between resources and complexity. Complexity develops because it can, and the factor facilitating this is surplus energy. Energy precedes complexity and allows it to emerge. Technological improvements can only relieve whatever misery that has resulted from over-population for a while, for as long as misery is the only check on population, the improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. There is one variable that is consistent with all civilizational collapses—over-population. The increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) of societies carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources. Consequently the major categories of sustainability are population growth, ecological degradation, and resource depletion.

What most undermines any possibility of achieving sustainability is the assumption, built into capitalistic and socialistic societies, that unlimited growth is possible because of the availability of conditioned-reflex responses that develop more complex technologies, establish new institutions, add more specialists or bureaucratic levels to institutions, increase organization or regulation, or gather and process more information. Pushing for more growth and implementing these strategies is central to all levels of government in the United States thus depleting what enabled it to gain industrial complexity: the previous surplus energy and abundant ecological diversity that preceded and facilitated the evolution of its complexity. Here is the definition it must have if future generations are to enjoy at least a little of what has given the present generation quality of life: A sustainable population is one that can survive over the long term (thousands to tens of thousands of years) without either running out of resources or damaging its environmental niche (in our case the planet) in the process. This means that our numbers and level of activity must not generate more waste than natural processes can return to the biosphere, that the wastes we do generate do not harm the biosphere, and that most of the resources we use are either renewable through natural processes or are entirely recycled if they are not renewable. In addition a sustainable population must not grow past the point where those natural limits are breached. Using these criteria it is obvious that the current human population is not sustainable. There is a specific relationship between resources and complexity. Complexity develops because it can, and the factor facilitating this is surplus energy. Energy precedes complexity and allows it to emerge.

Technological improvements can only relieve whatever misery that has resulted from over-population for a while, for as long as misery is the only check on population, the improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. There is one variable that is consistent with all civilizational collapses—over-population. The increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) of societies carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources. Consequently the major categories of sustainability are population growth, ecological degradation, and resource depletion. What most undermines any possibility of achieving sustainability is the assumption, built into capitalistic and socialistic societies, that unlimited growth is possible because of the availability of conditioned-reflex responses that develop more complex technologies, establish new institutions, add more specialists or bureaucratic levels to institutions, increase organization or regulation, or gather and process more information. Pushing for more growth and implementing these strategies is central to all levels of government in the United States thus depleting what enabled it to gain industrial complexity: the previous surplus energy and abundant ecological diversity that preceded and facilitated the evolution of its complexity.

Posted Sat, Dec 7, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

At what point in history has any society managed to be sustainable? Ever? "A sustainable population is one that can survive over the long term (thousands to tens of thousands of years) without either running out of resources or damaging its environmental niche (in our case the planet) in the process.".

For all of human history, "sustainability" has simply been change, and/or survival of the fittest. This change of society has included either wiping each other out with plague and war, often simply throwing ones garbage off a cliff, and moving on to new, clean grounds; the same with old cities and settlements - moving on and leaving the old behind.

Perhaps it isn't inevitable that we'll destroy everything and ourselves. Perhaps we'll just keep changing.

Sustainability is an overused word that somehow has become a put-down label of criticism.

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Up until the early 1800s, and the industrial revolution was just getting into gear, one could say that human populations had been sustainable for well over a million years. And at that time the Age of Discovery/Wonder involved a planet that was ecosystem complex. But then the population accelerator was pushed to floor board, and it wasn't long before the first billion were cavorting through the tulips. And then in a little more than a hundred years we have polluted and simplified every aspect of this planet. Maybe if we had a capacity for intelligence we would try to restore the balance of life that pre-existed the industrial revolution.

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