Billion dollar fishing industry on the verge of collapse

Feature story - October 10, 2008
The world’s largest food fishery is on the verge of collapse. Pollock, used to make McDonald’s fish sandwiches, frozen fish sticks, fish and chips, and imitation crabmeat, have had a population decrease of 50 percent since last year.

Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans' ecological limits with devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. Scientists are warning that overfishing results in profound changes in our oceans, perhaps changing them forever.

The dwindling fish populations are largely due to the enormous amounts of fish being removed from Alaska's Bering Sea. Factory trawlers take over a million tonnes of pollock out of the ocean each year. The fish can't reproduce and recover as quickly as they are being fished.

Just as the financial institutions on Wall Street collapsed due to poor oversight and mismanagement-the pollock fishery is on the fast-track to collapse as well. In order to avoid a collapse, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council must take swift and decisive action when they meet in December to reduce catch levels and put pollock back on the path to healthier population levels.

A Billion Dollar Industry

The pollock fishery is a billion-dollar industry. These days, it seems when you have that much money at stake, common sense gets thrown out the window. Each year, fishery management wants to catch the most fish to get to the most profit. They continue to fish, even when warning bells are going off and science tells them its time to cut back.

Just how much pollock are they catching? Picture this- if the pollock from the 2004 catch were laid end to end they would wrap around the earth more than 38 times. Now, that's a lot of fish sticks! Pollock are being fished excessively and cannot keep up with the pressure.

Of the four Alaska pollock stocks, two are now shut down completely and a third is just a fraction of its former size. Despite the warning signs, including five years in a row of low juvenile survivorship, the industry has continued to target the pollock spawning aggregation, taking huge numbers of pregnant females before they release their eggs. This kind of fishing practice only deepens the problem by not allowing pollock to reproduce, grow and mature to reproduce again.

Bering Sea Ecosystem

Scientists and conservationists have warned that unless the Council reduces fishing pressure on Pollock - a vital forage species for fur seals, whales, and endangered Steller sea lions - the entire Bering Sea ecosystem could be in jeopardy of collapse. This would prove devastating for the state's commercial fishermen and traditional coastal communities that depend on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods.

Swift Action is Needed

Fishing interests have no doubt played a huge role in shaping the pollock fishery. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is dominated by fishing industry representatives. With exemptions from conflict of interest laws, Council members regularly vote against measures that would affect their bottom line.

In December, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will set thenew pollock catch limits for 2009. In order to restore the pollockfishery's health, the allowable catch must be cut in half, fishing onspawning populations suspended, and marine reserves established toprotect critical habitats.

Bering Witness - Learn more about our work to protect the Bering Sea.

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