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Pollock, salmon and global warming: The tricky questions of sustainability

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.

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." 

The future of the ecosystem worries a lot of people, the UW's Fluharty says. "We lost shrimp, lost herring, lost some of the small pelagics," he explains. "Pollock was favored in the regime shift." The result has been a lot of pollock but "in some respects a less diverse system." Has the Bering Sea been turned into a kind of monoculture, with the vulnerability that implies? "Or," says Fluharty, "is it self-regulating?" No one really knows.

Pollock book author Bailey says, "We don't understand the complexity. We can't see [the pollock] where they're living, [so] we don't really know that much." Among other things, fishing is simplifying the pollock's age structure. A pollock's natural lifespan, evolved over millions of years, is something like 30 years, he says. But they are no longer allowed to live even close to that long. "By fishing them hard, we're removing all the old fish. When you have a fishery and you remove the 25 oldest year classes, if you get three bad year classes in a row, you're in really deep doo-doo." But Bailey says that fisheries scientists have varying views on whether a narrow age range poses a threat.

We do know that the water in which pollock live is getting warmer. The Arctic is becoming ice-free in the summer. If the ocean keeps warming, new species will move north. Some species now found in the North Pacific may move up into the Arctic. The Arctic nations, including the United States, are working on an agreement to limit fishing until their scientists can figure out what's there and how much can safely be caught.

Will pollock become part of that new northern fishery? Maybe not. Many scientists consider them one of the species least likely to move north. To reach the Arctic, pollock would have to pass through a relatively narrow opening, and even if that didn't deter them, the pool of cold water in the shallow northern Bering Sea just might. Still, says, Ianelli, "There is some evidence that pollock can range quite far north even in years when cold conditions occur." Whether they stay put could depend on the abundance of different age groups, he says, with some ages apparently differing in their tolerances for cold.

Temperature swings over the past dozen years suggest that pollock may not fare so well in warmer waters. If the fish stay where they are, what changes in food supply and predation are they likely to face? "Unknown," Ianelli says, "but we’re monitoring it."

The pollock, then, may represent a great deal of the fishing picture in the North Pacific: rich in heritage, still amazingly abundant and in many way a model of sustainability and commercial success. But it's still beset by challenges, with a future that is by no means certain to be as bright. 

Over recent months, we've examined the health of the fish populations, the jobs that the industry has brought to the Northwest and the environmental questions. As we've learned more, we've become more convinced of the importance of healthy fishing and fish populations. And we look forward to continuing to report on the issues. 

You can find all of the stories on our Thanks for All the Fish page— The editors

Photos and illustrations

Page One: A sample of pollock is prepared for inspection on board a ship. Credit: Johanna J. Vollenweider for NOAA Fisheries.

Page Two: Map. Credit: Kate Thompson.

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