Following Grist’s Q&A with David Benton of the Marine Conservation Alliance, George Pletnikoff — a former fisherman who now works with Greenpeace — wrote to respond to some of Benton’s points, arguing that the Alaskan fisheries are not quite the model of sustainability.


I read with interest the article about David Benton of the Marine Conservation Alliance. The board and funders of the Marine Conservation Alliance are a veritable who’s who of the industrial fisheries (mostly draggers and factory trawlers), and they have a right to their perspective. But being an Aleut from the Pribilof Islands, I have a different worldview and understanding of what is happening in Alaskan waters. I would like to respond to Benton’s brave statement that Alaskan fisheries are healthy and that there are no examples of any overfishing practices. To the contrary, the examples abound.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council manages the lucrative pollock fishery — lucrative for the moment, that is, for one or two fishing communities and for the Seattle owners. Under the “precautionary” catch limits set by the NPFMC, three of the region’s main pollock fisheries have been closed or severely limited due to overfishing: two in the Bering Sea (the Aleutian Island and Bogoslov fisheries) and one in the Gulf of Alaska (the Shelikof Strait roe fishery). Despite use of “strict guidelines,” these fisheries have been decimated by the same catch formulas still in use to determine the total allowable catch for pollock in the Bering Sea.

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Today, the vast majority of the fishing pressure is on the spawning aggregation in the eastern Bering Sea, home to the last pollock stock capable of supporting a sizable commercial fishery. Yet, there are no marine reserves set up to protect spawning fish. And what does the NPFMC say about this? “We use the best available science to determine total allowable catch limits.”

Another once-important fishing area in the Bering Sea is the famed Donut Hole, or no man’s land, which is west of Alaska, east of Russia, and outside any country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. While the Donut Hole is supposed to be largely off-limits in accordance with an international agreement adopted in 1994, enforcement is weak. I received anecdotal information just last week that two large Korean factory-trawlers went into the Donut Hole to fish pollock recently and caught one lonely fish!

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Additionally, aside from the tanner crab fishery — which itself is but a fraction of what it once was — crab fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea are either nonexistent or severely cut back.

The NPFMC does not use the “best available science” practice of ecosystem-based management when setting catch limits or creating fishery-management plans, so the entire ecosystem suffers. The populations of Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, northern fur seals, red-legged kittiwakes, Steller’s eiders, and many other species of marine birds and mammals are all suffering.

According to the most creative theory seeking to shift blame away from overfishing, all of this is being caused by killer whales! We looked far and wide trying to find the rogue killer whales this summer and barely saw any. You don’t have to be a conspiracy buff to note that the zanier the theory, the more likely it is to be funded by the pollock industry.

Human beings are also adversely affected by the NPFMC and the state of Alaska’s mismanagement of its responsibilities. Our coastal villages are suffering gravely. They are dying due to the lack of fishery economies, and people are moving away from home in search of work. People often say, “Healthy fisheries need healthy communities; healthy communities need healthy fisheries.” Sadly, this is no longer the case.

Rationalization — the new word for carving up natural resources and handing them to processors and large-boat operations — has stolen fish and crabs from our coastal communities. We were promised that rationalization would make fishing safer and reduce bycatch. But now, small-boat fishermen are forced to travel far offshore in search of fish that used to be plentiful close to home. And as for bycatch, the pollock industry unintentionally caught 700,000 salmon in the Bering Sea last year. And this bycatch problem has been on the increase year after fishing year.

I respectfully beg to differ with Benton’s rosy picture of sustainable and healthy Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea fisheries. Managers are not as precautionary as they should be, considering the lack of information they are using to make huge decisions about ecosystems and our futures. Benton seems to be rationalizing it all out — just like the NPFMC did with the Bering Sea crab fishery, giving it all to the processors who are mostly from foreign countries, and leaving the crumbs for our people and for seals, sea lions, otters, and sea birds.

If I sound emotional about these issues, I am. Our foods, our culture, and our traditions — cared for and nurtured for 9,000 years — have been badly shaken by this model of fishery management within the last 20 years.

Note: Greenpeace, Alaska Oceans Program, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Trustees for Alaska just released a report [PDF] highlighting the shortcomings of the pollock fishery from an ecosystem perspective.