The fourth most popular seafood item in America might not be one that you’d expect. Pollock, though it fills our freezers and fast food chains, is not the most familiar fish to most Americans. The strongly flavored whitefish comes disguised under many different monikers: fish sticks, fish and chips, Filet-O-Fish and even surimi, the imitation crab meat you find in a California sushi roll.
How much is too much?
It’s anonymity is all the more remarkable considering that the Alaska pollock fishery is the largest fishery by volume in the United States, with the last decade’s annual catches averaging around 2.9 billion pounds. Yet pollock possess several characteristics that enable their populations to withstand this volume of catch. The fish reach reproductive maturity at a very early age in their relatively long lifespan and produce plentiful offspring (the female pollock can produce more than 2 million eggs over several weeks!) That means that new generations continuously replenish population numbers even when lifespans are cut short by human demand.
The species’ incredible resilience has led humans to see pollock as an almost endlessly renewable resource, making it the fish of choice for mass-produced processed food. It is important, however, not to take the species’ abundance for granted. Although pollock fisheries continue to be relatively well-managed, concern has arisen in recent years over trawling impacts, bycatch and population control. In fact, pollock populations are now at their lowest levels in over 20 years.
A Disputed Designation
In 2005 the Marine Stewardship Council designated the Alaska pollock fishery a certified sustainable fishery. Some controversy arose in the following years however, when the Alaska Oceans Program, Greenpeace International, and the National Environmental Trust convened to file an objection to the fishery’s certification. They accused the fishery of making false claims about their population management and doing extensive damage to the surrounding ecosystem. After a panel of fishery scientists and MSC trustees reviewed these claims, however, the certification remained in place.
One of the concerns of the conservationists who attempted to revoke the certification was bycatch, marine wildlife unintentionally killed during the fishing process. Though careful regulations have been put in place to reduce bycatch rates, some unintended catch is inevitable using the midwater trawling method relied upon by the pollock industry.
Trawling is normally conducted in the midwater zone safely above the seabed. However, even midwater nets are estimated to make contact with the seafloor 44 percent of the time, which can be highly destructive to important Bering Sea habitats.
The Seafood Watch Pollock Report published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium even suggests that Pollock trawls have a “ greater overall impact on the living biostructure of the Bering Sea shelf than any other bottom trawl fishery and a greater impact on the Bering Sea slope than all other bottom trawl fisheries combined.”
Bycatch of other species is also a concern raised by many conservationist groups. Bycatch generally accounts for between 1 and 2 percent of the total Alaska pollock catch. Of course, compared to the 20 percent average bycatch rate associated with global seafood production, this figure is relatively small. However one very important species, the Chinook salmon, has felt the effects of pollock trawling.
This commercially and ecologically important species, which shares the same Alaskan waters as the pollock, has suffered significant population declines due to pollock trawling. Fortunately, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is working to correct this problem. The group, which wields significant control over the pollock fishery, has introduced new standards for bycatch management that have reduced the rate of Chinook salmon bycatch allowed in the pollock industry. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the voluntary bycatch avoidance program instituted in 2008 has helped reduce salmon bycatch by over 80 percent in just two years.
Keeping a Keystone
Maintaining healthy pollock populations is crucial not only for the benefit of the species itself, but also for the well-being of the entire ecosystem it occupies. Pollock is considered a keystone species in its native ecosystem, and any serious decline in the species’ population could result in devastating effects. The endangered Steller sea lion and the Northern fur seal, both of which rely on pollock as a large part of their diet, have experienced nutritional stress and population declines that corresponded with pollock shortages.
Despite these issues, many experts still give the Alaskan fishery considerable credit for its efforts to reduce impact on the ocean ecosystem. “Catches are closely monitored by scientifically trained observers to ensure that limits of pollock, and other bycatch species, are effective,” explains Katie Semon, the Program Manager of FishWatch, a non-profit organization run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Also, pollock biomass is variable, and the increases and decreases are thought to be affected by both natural environmental conditions and fishing.”
Moderation, Not Elimination
Although the pollock industry is not free of faults, the fish still remains a fairly responsible consumer choice. Not even the strictest conservationists recommend cutting pollock from our diets entirely, but simply advise us to be aware of just how often we eat it. Since pollock also have low mercury levels, they are a safer fish to eat than many other species. So next time you see a vaguely labeled fish product, check the ingredients to see if it’s really pollock you’re enjoying!