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Projected Recovery of Billion-Dollar Pollock Fishery Evaporates

Government reports pollock population sinks to all-time low

SEATTLE - Scientists charged with evaluating the sustainability of fishing limits for the billion-dollar Alaska pollock fishery recommended a slight decrease in the harvest for 2010. Although long-touted as one of the world's "best managed" resources by industry officials, pollock populations have declined over 60 percent in the past seven years, and 73 percent since 1988, forcing managers to scale back the maximum allowable catch, though by less than some scientists and environmentalists say is needed.

In a split decision, the Plan Team voted to recommend a maximum catch for 2010 of 813,000 tons. Two Plan Team members shared Greenpeace's view that a maximum catch of 413,000 tons was more appropriate given the poor state of the pollock population.

"In spite of concerns raised by environmentalists and scientists, unsustainable fishing rates have been allowed to continue as well as heavy trawling on spawning aggregations," said John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans campaign director in the U.S. "What we are witnessing with pollock is yet another example of a global overfishing problem that stretches from bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean to the hoki off New Zealand."

Alaska pollock is the ubiquitous white meat found in frozen fish sticks, MacDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, and imitation crabmeat. It is also a vital food source for many species including whales, fur seals, sea birds, and endangered Steller sea lions.

The preliminary recommendations announced today would set a maximum catch limit of 813,000 metric tons for 2010, down from 815,000 metric tons in 2009. The quota is 34 percent lower than what NMFS had projected in last year's stock assessment report; NMFS has repeatedly stated that the decline in the pollock fishery is cyclical and will rebound in spite of a lack of scientific evidence to support this claim.

Concerns about the impacts of overfishing and climate change on ecosystems and subsistence fishing have been mounting in Alaska. Two resolutions recently passed by the Alaska Federation of Natives at their annual convention in October call for banning bottom trawlers from the waters surrounding native villages [Resolutions 09-09 and 09-27]. Click here for the resolutions

In addition, the village corporation and the tribal government of St. George have joined forces to seek creation of no-trawl zones within 20 miles around St. George Island and no bottom trawls deeper than 100 fathoms in Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons. While pollock vessels are not technically known as bottom trawlers, NMFS estimates that their fishing gear is in contact with the seafloor 44 percent of the time, and that pollock trawling has greater impact on Bering Sea shelf and slope habitats than any other fishery.

"The people of St. George Island have had enough of watching our waters being destroyed year after year by these outside large industrialized factory trawlers without any regard for our safety and our needs," said George Pletnikoff, senior oceans campaigner with Greenpeace in Alaska. "Establishing Cultural Heritage Zones is our only chance of survival."

This year, NMFS conducted two types of surveys to estimate the health of the pollock population: a bottom trawl survey and an echointegration survey. The bottom trawl survey abundance estimate was the lowest on record, and the biomass estimate was down 25 percent from last year. The echo integration survey results, which more accurately show the number of younger fish, also revealed a decline in biomass of 7 percent to .924 million metric tons, down from .997 million metric tons the previous year - an all-time low.

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