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The 100-pounders must have been 7 or 8 years old. The more years a fish is exposed to seines, the lower its chances of survival — rather like playing Russian roulette again and again. Beardslee argues that unless people stop catching Elwha River chinook farther north, those fish have virtually no chance of living out their full life spans and attaining their old, legendary sizes.
Greenpeace senior oceans campaigner Jackie Dragon concedes that the eastern Bering Sea overall is "definitely considered one of the best-managed and healthiest ecosystems out there. That's true." The North Pacific Fisheries Management council has banned pollock fishing in the Northern Bering Sea Research Area, where not much is known about the effects of trawling. Dragon praises the closure as "incredibly positive and proactive." But there is more to be done. "What we really want to be able to do is to congratulate these fishery managers and agencies and scientists [for] leading the nation forward," she says.
One way of moving forward, she says, would be to protect two huge underwater canyons in the Bering Sea. Greenpeace has sent small submarines down into the canyons, and a group of scientists has reported in the online journal PLoS One that "two of the largest canyons in the world, Zhemchug and Pribilof, cut into the edge of the continental shelf in the southeastern Bering Sea." They found an abundance of fish including the commercially important perch, squid, marine mammals and birds.
Greenpeace sent people and a thermal airship to Juneau last June for an NPFMC discussion of the canyons' future. Greenpeace's effort received support from big corporate fish buyers, including McDonald's and Trader Joe's. The council voted to study the areas in which corals and sponges live, and to move toward an ecosystem management plan.
Dragon argues that a lot of the research on the canyons has already been done. And while she welcomes the idea of an ecosystem management plan, she points out that "the devil will be in the details."
In addition to protecting the canyons, Dragon says that the council should take more account of other species when setting catches for pollock. "When we remove 60 percent of the pollock every year, it's hard to believe the other species aren't affected," she argues. (The Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which regulates commercial fishing off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, has just voted to ban any new fishery targeting forage fish until scientists figure out what affect that would have on predators.)
"If you leave more pollock in the water, it naturally turns into fur seals and sea lions and sea birds," Dragon says. In the 1990s, some people worried that depletion of pollock and other prey species contributed to the rapid decline of threatened and endangered Steller sea lion populations. In 2002, a federal court ordered NMFS to take other species into account.
Ocean policy consultant Ken Stump, who served on the Steller sea lion recovery team, notes that the sea lion population had been plummeting ever since the 1960s. The population decline coincided with the development of the pollock fishery. The relationship seemed obvious. "What would it be like if you took 60 percent of the food off the shelves in your grocery market?" he asks rhetorically. "That's what we've done in places like the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands."
Since 2000, he says, with trawlers kept 20 miles from sea lion rookeries and haulouts, the population has been recovering. He says flatly that the pollock fishery is well-regulated, but there's an implicit policy choice between "more sea lions and fur seals or more fish fillets at McDonald's."
Ianelli doesn't pretend that the feds have all the answers, but he does point out that the "Alaska Fisheries Science Center has the largest food-habits data collection and analysis program in the world." And that the data "is used to evaluate relationships between predators and prey."
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