Here’s a guest post from Jennifer Jacquet of the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia, and blogger-in-chief of the Shifting Baselines Blog.


Ask a scientist to give a good example of a well-managed fishery, and they often will cite the Alaska pollock fishery. But John Hocevar of Greenpeace-USA prefers to say that pollock is heavily managed, not well-managed. And new research shows he is correct.

This year, acoustic surveys by NOAA Fisheries indicate the 2008 pollock population is almost 50 percent below last year’s survey levels. That’s bad news for pollock, which is America’s most ubiquitous fish, found in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, frozen fish sticks, fish-and-chips, and imitation crab.

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Alaska pollock is also the poster child for market-based initiatives as the Marine Stewardship Council certifies it as "sustainable" and the fishery is managed through the distribution of transferable quotas between fishermen (although the total allowable catch is still determined by the government).

I am not sure where humans get off thinking that taking 1 to 2 million tons of anything from the ocean each year would not have eventual repercussions (for instance, on Aleut coastal communities) but nevertheless the pollock fishery is always championed as a model fishery. This is why Dr. Jeremy Jackson at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says the collapse of pollock would be "the ultimate example of the emperor having no clothes."

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The National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who helped with the assessment responded to accusations of overfishing by saying that colder water temperatures were what led to lower biomass estimates (i.e., the fish were undetected because they stay closed to the sea floor). What were his options?

Hocevar concedes that the temperatures in the Bering Sea have actually been colder than normal the past couple years and that could, in theory, be contributing to the poor recruitment. "But the time series doesn’t quite fit," says Hocevar. "And the fishing impacts are a hell of a lot more obvious. In any case, as we can’t control the temperature, we have to react to the reality on the water by adjusting our fisheries management accordingly."

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will make the decision on whether or not to lower the quota in the next two months. Greenpeace is calling for lower pollock quotas to ensure the future of the pollock fishery and the animals that feed on the fish, such as fur seals, whales, and endangered Steller sea lions, which means we should soon see a reduction in pollock available for humans and a smaller patty size in the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich.