Still Learning Nothing

Originally posted at

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

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

And we learned nothing from it.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 104 Globalization
  • 183 Environment
  • 190 Natural Resources
  • 208 Regulation