Editor's note: Seattle's $5 billion commercial fishing industry has defined and sustained this city from its founding. Earlier this week, writer Daniel Jack Chasan looked at the local fleet's key role in the world's largest single fishery, the walleye pollock off Alaska's coast and in the eastern Bering Sea. Today, he concludes the examination of the pollock's sustainability and we wrap up our Thanks for All the Fish series.
Basically, everyone wants the North Pacific fishing management system to work.
"The pollock guys went to Congress to get an industry-funded observer program because they felt that they were constantly being shut down early," says David Fluharty, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.
"The industry has really stepped up with funding for research in Alaska and now down here at the UW," Fluharty says. "They're able to afford it by assessing themselves a tax." He says that industry-sponsored research is "the kind of thing that sets the North Pacific apart."
Of course, the management system works only if the managers are getting good numbers. recently retired National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Kevin Bailey, who has written a book, "Billion-Dollar Fish," about the pollock fishery. He cites a NOAA announcement (which the Cordova Times reported in May) that federal fisheries officials had charged Seattle-based American Seafoods Co. with tampering with equipment used for weighing Alaska pollock on two of its six catcher/processors. Another American Seafoods ship faced charges of lowering weights a year earlier.
In all of the cases, American Seafoods requested a hearing process, which is underway. A statement earlier this year explained, "American Seafoods fully recognizes and appreciates the importance of accurate catch accounting and we take any alleged violations of law extremely seriously. We believe the [allegations] raise significant questions of fact and law that are best resolved by an impartial fact-finder through a process that allows both sides to present their positions."
Imperfect or not, the numbers indicate that the bycatch is unusually low. The bycatch consists of species — or ages or sexes — that aren't targeted. It's rather like the "incidental damage" inflicted on non-target populations in war. Even so, pollock trawls snare some chinook and other salmon. Oops.
"Salmon issues are currently a large constraint on where and when the pollock fishery occurs," Ianelli says. The pollock fleet's "actual impacts on returning salmon are likely to be low," he explains. "Nonetheless, their importance to Alaskan communities is very high and measures to minimize bycatch [including trawls that have salmon escape-panels, detailed time-area hotspot closures, etc.] are in place."
Alaskan salmon themselves seem to be doing fine. In 2011, fishermen pulled in 738.1 million pounds. (Washington salmon landings were more like 38.3 million.) The Marine Stewardship Council had certified all Alaskan salmon fisheries as sustainable, but the certification lapsed last year. The MSC, whose approval is highly valued, is now considering recertification and a draft report recommends recertification for 13 of 14 populations, including the famed Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet and Yukon River areas. Prince William Sound salmon fishing is listed as still under assessment.
Even if, viewed narrowly, the salmon fishery of southeast Alaska is sustainable, it may threaten salmon populations from Washington and British Columbia. Wild Fish Conservancy's executive director, Kurt Beardslee, points out that boats in southeast Alaska catch chinook from the Elwha River, where many people hope the removal of two dams will bring back the 100-pound fish that once spawned there. As things now stand, those giant fish will never come back, Beardslee says.
A pollock processing line in Alaska where observers monitor for any salmon bycatch. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.
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