A bounty of fish: Questions about sustainability

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

James Ianelli, a stock assessment expert at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center on Sand Point Way, says there is science around the catch decision. "The level of productivity is typically highest when the spawning biomass is between 30-50 percent of the estimated average unfished stock size," he says.

The percentage of virgin spawning biomass (what fishery managers calculate as the biomass at the time fishing began) "serves as a flag to judge roughly if we're getting into a dangerous zone," Ianelli says. "For example, in 2009 [just when Greenpeace warned of impending collapse] the assessment indicated that the biomass was below the reference point." In response, the Acceptable Biological Catch was lowered from more than 1.5 million tons in the mid-2000s to .8 million tons for a few years.

Ianelli says that the goal of pollock management is conservation, but he explains, "By conservation I mean the active managing of natural resources for current public benefit and sustainable social and economic utilization." This is pretty close to the Theodore Roosevelt-Gifford Pinchot ideal of "wise use." When asked about the risk involved, he says "the notion of 'gambling' is why it's called 'fishing' and not 'catching.' "

Why do so many pollock congregate in the eastern North Pacific? "The shallow Bering Sea shelf region is highly productive because of wind-driven nutrient mixing, which drives primary production (algae which feed zooplankton etc.)," says Ianelli. "This area is quite large, greater than the area of California."


Sorting pollock in the Aleutian Islands. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Until the 1960s, no one caught pollock in the eastern Bering Sea. Late in the decade, before the United States started enforcing a 200-mile zone of economic control under the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Russians and Japanese started catching them on an industrial scale. "Catches peaked in the early 1970s as biologically sustainable limits were exceeded," wrote Keith Criddle of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in last year's ICES Journal of Marine Science.

After the U.S. established a 200-mile limit — and those pollock suddenly became our fish — the federal government placed observers on the foreign vessels and started setting catch limits. "With effective capacity to control catches and a mandate … to set sustainable catch limits," Criddle wrote, "the pollock stock was rebuilt." Now, American catcher-processors take some of the fish, and other American vessels deliver to American mother ships or shore-based plants. The fishing companies have formed cooperatives, and the cooperatives have formally divvied up the allowed catch. All the vessels still carry observers. Ianelli suggests that no other fishery is monitored as closely.

Arguably, though, as the fishery was evolving, one whole pollock population was wiped out. According to author and former National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Bailey, a separate pollock population once lived in the "donut hole" between the U.S. and Russian 200-mile limits. It's gone, destroyed by unregulated fishing. As the American fishery managed to capture more and more of the quota set by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, he explains, all the foreign fleets ended up in the donut hole. The pollock population there collapsed around 1990 and still hasn't come back, according to Bailey.

The UW's Fluharty is a former member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC), which regulates fishing in Alaskan waters, and he believes the council has consistently set very conservative catch limits for pollock in the Bering Sea. He also points to "the 2-million-metric-ton cap we have for [all groundfish in] the Bering Sea" as an unprecedented step to protect an ecosystem.

Bailey has warned in The Daily Beast about efforts to remove the limit in the name of jobs and food. Scrapping the limit would over the long run, he believes "pose an unacceptable risk to the Bering Sea ecosystem." No one has decided to take that risk — so far.

Later this week: Good intentions abound. But will the pollock?

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