Too Little, Too Late for Largest U.S. Fishery

Feature story - October 1, 2009
Decades of mismanagement, overfishing and refusing to create marine reserves may have unfortunately caught up with the Alaska pollock fishery. The billion dollar fishery is the largest in the United States, producing a large number of breaded products like fish sticks, fish fingers, and fish fillet sandwiches, as well as surimi, the processed seafood often sold as fake crab or used in sushi rolls.

According to the latest data collected by the North Pacific Fisheries

Management Council, populations of Bering Sea pollock have reached record low levels.

Warning Signs Ignored

The warning signs were clear as early as the 1970s when Steller sea lion populations began plummeting dramatically. Between 1970 and 1976 the first large declines of Steller sea lions were recorded in the Aleutian Islands. Sea lion populations were decreasing as pollock catches were increasing.

Steller sea lion populations decreased 50% by 1988 and 70% by 1992. Despite clear evidence linking the decline with starvation caused by fishing industry removals of billions of pounds of their preferred prey, policy makers have refused to reduce catch levels to account for the needs of species that depend on pollock for food.

Bering Witness to the Collapse

In 2006 and 2007 Greenpeace traveled to the Bering Sea to explore and document the rich marine environment as well as the destruction left behind by industrial fishing. Research confirmed that the fragile Bering Sea ecosystem couldn't sustain the high of commercial fishing without paying a price. Factory fishing ships continued to take too many fish out of the sea-leaving too little for the animals whose lives depend on it.

Greenpeace captured powerful video of barren seafloors and trawled habitats. Native communities also continue to feel the negative impacts of commercial factory fishing on their livelihood and traditions.

(click on date or mouse over image to scroll through timeline)

Seeing Red

Alaska pollock are often been referred to as the "best managed fishery in the world," certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council and "green listed" by many environmental organizations.

In 2007 Greenpeace released a report, Carting Away the Oceans, which included pollock on their seafood Red List. Citing trawling damage to the seafloor, unsustainable catch levels, massive bycatch, and impacts on endangered Steller sea lions, Greenpeace pressured major supermarket chains to stop selling pollock by giving them negative scores for stocking their seafood cases with troubled fish.

What's Next?

Will policy makers learn from these mistakes and take a more precautionary, ecosystem-based approach? With the increasing impacts of global warming and ocean acidification, sustainably managing fisheries is only going to become more difficult in the future.

A government bailout once the pollock fishery collapses won't bring the fish back. In order to save the ecosystem and the future of the fishery, less pollock need to be caught and marine reserves need to be established.  In the short term, if the rumors are correct, the fishery will have to be closed completely in 2010 to allow pollock stocks to recover and to prevent starvation of pollock predators like Steller sea lions and fur seals.

Greenpeace advocates the creation of a network of no-take marine reserves, protecting 40 percent of the world's oceans, as the long-term solution to the overfishing of tuna, pollock, and other species, and the recovery of our overexploited oceans.