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Still Learning Nothing

Posted by Mark Floegel on September 24th, 2009

Originally posted at http://markfloegel.org/

The best time to announce the worst news is late on Friday. The federal government and public relations firms have known this for years. So it was that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scheduled its press conference last Friday for 3 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time or (even better!) 6 p.m. in the east.

As planned, the news that stocks of Bering Sea pollock – America’s largest fishery – have declined to a 30-year-low was reported only in the fishing trade press and the Seattle and Anchorage papers. Mission accomplished.

Every summer, NMFS technicians survey pollock. The amount of fish allowed to be caught in 2009 was based on the 2008 summer survey. The 2010 quota will be based on the 2009 survey and so on. On one hand, these surveys are about “environmental protection.” (Alas, we must us the dreaded quotation marks, because the environment has not been protected.) On the other hand, the surveys are a government-subsidized service for the industrial trawler fleet that pulls the pollock from the sea.

On the other, other hand (we’re playing three hands today), most people don’t know what a pollock is, but we eat enough of it. (As I mentioned two paragraphs ago, it’s America’s largest fishery.) All that imitation crabmeat in the supermarket wet case? Pollock. (And why must pollock imitate crabmeat? American fisheries management.)

Pollock is the whitefish in all those disgusting frozen fish sticks. Pollock is, or was, the fish in the sandwiches at the fast food restaurants. Now that pollock is in severe decline, McDonald’s is considering switching to hoki. This has nothing to do with environmental awareness; McDonald’s requires a steady supply of a consistent product at a predictable price. Hoki, a whitefish that’s overfished by industrial trawlers in New Zealand waters, will be a temporary fix, a few years at best. Thanks, Ronald.

Where was I? Oh right, severe decline. Three years ago, NMFS allowed the trawlers to take 1.5 million metric tons of pollock out of the Bering Sea. This year, because the decline was already evident in last year’s survey, the quota was set at 815,000 metric tons. The industry trade press headlines news like this as: “Pollock prices likely to rise.”

The At-Sea Processors Association, the trade group that represents the industrial trawlers, will try to convince the feds to keep the quota high and if the past is any evidence, they’ll do it. That’s why the fish population is crashing. What’s worse, they may bully the feds into continuing the pollock roe season. Roe, of course, is fish talk for eggs. The trawlers deliberately target the pregnant females, strip the eggs out of their bellies and sell them for big bucks on the Asian market.

What the Epicureans of Korea and Japan eat for dinner is what doesn’t become a fish in the Bering Sea, with tragic consequences for the sea and the other animals that live there. Pollock have traditionally been mighty breeders, the rabbits of the northern seas (one reason we fish them so hard). As such, they’ve provided much of the food for the rest of the animals in the ocean, like Steller sea lions and Pribilof fur seals. Because we humans got greedy with the trawlers and the roe, now those species (and more) are in trouble.

Yes, eating the eggs is a great way to deplete a population of fish (or any other wild creature) and yes, there’s more to it than that. Global warming plays a role, with warm water moving north into the Bering Sea, making conditions for pollock love less favorable than they’ve been in decades past. The pollock don’t cause global warming, though, nor do sea lions or fur seals. So yeah, we should stop burning so many fossil fuels, but until we do, we have to back off with the trawlers and give the pollock time to rebuild their numbers.

An irony here (not the irony, there’s too much irony for that) is that Bering Sea pollock are often referred to (by the industrial trawling people) as “the best-managed fishery in the world.” Sadder still is that the statement is not far from accurate. Look at Atlantic cod, that population crashed 15 years ago and has yet to come back.

And we learned nothing from it.