When Sustainable Sushi was being developed, the Alaska pollock fishery — the 2nd largest fishery in terms of total biomass in the entire world — seemed relatively healthy and stable. At the very least, it provided a traceable and ostensibly well-managed seafood source that was superior to the random mash of imported whitefish that provides the ersatz fish protein underpinning our fish stick and surimi industries. In fact, the Alaska pollock fishery has been considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for years, and is an MSC-certified fishery.
Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse, however. Recent developments in the fishery seem to suggest that all may not be well in pollock country.
For five years running, the stock has seen lower levels of recruitment (new fish in younger age classes) than historical trends would lead researchers to expect. Overall stock levels have severely declined as well, taking the overall populations to levels only previously reached in the late 1970s — a time when the fishery was open to international fleets and was being heavily over-exploited.
Bycatch levels are also higher than one would like. An increase in overall CPUE (Catch Per Unit of Effort — a measurement of the amount of resources and manpower needed to produce a given amount of fish) has led to increased mortality among co-habiting salmon. Local sea birds and marine mammals are also being affected; strong links are being drawn between the pollock fishery and a downturn in northern fur seals and the endangered Stellar’s sea lion.
Pollock trawls are impacting sensitive seabed habitats as well — new explorations in the Bering Sea have revealed rich areas of endemic corals. Unfortunately, these areas are not yet protected from fishing, and the pollock fleet is freely operating in coral beds which should ideally be listed as no-take zones.
Most troubling, however, is the reaction on the part of the Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), a federal body that is responsible for setting the yearly pollock quota. Rather than use the aforementioned concerns as justification to pare down the fishery and reign in some of its more worrisome aspects, the NPFMC instead did the exact opposite and increased the allowed amount of king salmon bycatch to 60,000 fish.
This is poor management from an environmental standpoint. The pollock fishery’s regulations are such that when the bycatch cap for salmon is reached, the fishery is immediately shut down for the year. This increase in tolerable bycatch numbers reflects the rising CPUE within today’s pollock fishery, but rather than move to rebuild the fishery, it simply allows for greater and more damaging exploitation.
The pollock fishery is no longer what it once was. It is clear that federal management cannot be depended upon to make wise and environmentally sound decisions in the face of the economic and industrial short-term interests that dominate the pollock industry. Given the current situation, I have no choice but to urge readers to refrain from purchasing products that contain Alaska pollock. In the sushi industry, this means the California roll and other items that include kanikama (imitation crab).
This is by no means an irreversible situation. The Alaska pollock is an incredibly resilient and fecund fish that has the capability to bounce back. Proper management can restore the fishery to its former productive glory, just as was done in the early 1980s. The greater worry is for other impacted populations, primarily Stellar’s sea lions, Alaskan king salmon, coldwater corals, and northern fur seals. If the pollock fishery is to continue, it must reinvent itself to be more sensitive to these co-habiting species.
I have no doubt that other environmental organizations have this issue on their radar, and that we will in the very near future begin to see more criticism of the Alaska pollock fishery from groups much larger and more established than Sustainable Sushi.