Thursday, January 29, 2009

Nonsustainable industry practice: stupid wanton waste

This extremely pertinent question was posted on Fiery Blazing Handbasket, and picked up by Kodiak Konfidential, but it's just too barbed a point not to repeat once again:
Does anyone else find it odd that the Bering Sea pollock trawlers can catch and discard as bycatch over 100,000 king salmon per year while the small, community-based fishing effort has to shut down? That we haven't even managed to let enough kings by on the Yukon to meet our treaty obligation to the Canadians?

All so Americans can eat cheap fish sticks?
It's real stupidity, and corruption in action, that's what it is. Bycatch waste has got to be the stupidest shortsighted cut-off-your-nose practice in the fishing industry. It costs fisherfolk a lot of effort, time, money, and bad press--but it's the bottom trawlers and big industrial-size factory fishing boats and nets that do the real damage. "Bycatch" is dead dolphins in the tuna harvest (finally got some protections there, after a long, long fight), king salmon in the pollack harvest, dead sea turtles, dead sharks, dead birds, and so on and so on....and it's a HUGE problem. According to Global Chefs magazine, something like 25% of all fisheries catch is wasted. has a database of bycatch reduction methods, and NOAA has a whole Fisheries Feature devoted to the issue.

But, as Global Chefs and others point out, consumer action can have quite an effect. And it's the big fleets and megacorps, not the little Yukon River villages, that do the most damage.

Here's an interesting article from March 1999 from the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations on the management issues regarding sustainability, with a good bit of background on the present problems.


Milo Adkison said...

Interesting criticisms of the pollock fishery. Bycatch waste is a big issue in world fisheries, but the pollock fishery has one of the lowest bycatch rates of other species of any major fishery. Not only that, but they are one of the leaders in eliminating waste in processing the target species. Lumping this fishery in with the bad actors makes no sense. Their excellent record on bycatch and in other areas is why they have been certified as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council (

The high salmon bycatch is a recent phenomenon, and it needs to be solved. The North Pacific Fishery managemnt Council and the industry are putting a lot of effort into solving it. (see

Lastly, I was struck by the attitude towards "megacorps" and "cheap fish sticks". I think there's a lot of value in providing so much healthy and inexpensive protein to the public - my kids and my wallet both appreciate it. I also don't know how you could harvest and process a million tons from the middle of the Bering Sea without involving large companies.

Fifteen percent of the groundfish quota is allocated to Western Alaska communities, to their enormous benefit. They have been investing in the fisheries heavily, and now have a major ownership role in the pollock fishery; in fact, the Chair of the NPFMC works for one of these CDQ groups. They also use the revenues from these fisheries to invest in the salmon fisheries you're concerned about, greatly improving the economic viability of these vital sources of income for rural residents.

In sum, I'm disappointed in the black-and-white characterization of the problem. The Bering Sea pollock fishery benefits a lot of people, including substantial benefits to Western Alaskans in the mixed subsistence/cash economies. The fishery has a well-deserved reputation for responsible management and sustainability. Salmon bycatch must be reduced, but demonizing the fishery doesn't help.

Milo Adkison
Associate Professor of Fisheries
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Deirdre Helfferich said...

Hi, Milo, thanks for your comment.

I knew I was going to get scolded for this, and had intended to post a clarification later, but you beat me to the punch. Sloppy writing, sorry. And no issues are black and white, you're quite right: they usually seem to be a tangled mess of interconnecting strands of related issues that pull in all directions in complicated ways. I do reserve this blog for a bit of ranting.

The issue is one of volume: the large volumes of fish processed mean that, even with a proportionately lower bycatch rate, still, hundreds of thousands of pounds get wasted. And that is an appalling percentage--the pollock industry may be less than this, but the fact remains that an enormous amount of sea life is simply trashed. And really, it is very odd that an important food fish for one group can be destroyed in the process of harvesting another food fish. Naturally, not all the king salmon caught as bycatch die, although I'm not sure what the proportion is, but from what I read yesterday, it is significant.

Of course the fisheries benefit a lot of people: I heard on Alaska News Nightly the other evening that a study on the economic impact of fisheries in Alaska was released recently (actually, it looks like it was two studies), and concluded that it produced more income and jobs, directly and indirectly, than tourism and mining combined, coming in second only to the oil industry in economic impact for the state. My understanding is that the Alaskan management system has been very good, far better for sustaining the local fisheries than the management systems (or lack of them) that were historically used in the Lower 48, although this is also a more recent phenomenon. (The Russians, I believe, managed the fur seal industry fairly well, limiting it carefully so as to assure a continued fur harvest--but the Americans decimated the fur seals once Alaska was sold to the US. But I'm remembering this dimly--I may have this wrong.)

I believe also that my links clearly went to fishing and ocean-related organizations that are working on reducing bycatch, and these links included organizations of commercial fishermen. (I tried your link, by the way, but got a 404 error.) As I said before, bycatch isn't just a problem of waste, it's one of expense, time, wear and tear on equipment, etc. for fishermen. It's not sustainable for an industry to wipe out its own source of livelihood--but it's been done before, many times.

And that brings me to my attitude toward large corporations. I have no objection to eating fish. Love the stuff. I prefer it when it's cheap, local, and caught by my neighbors and friends. I do object to cheapness at the cost of the species I'm eating or at the cost of other species. For example, fish sticks used to be made from cod--until cod fisheries crashed from overfishing. Now the fish is endangered. Then the fish stick manufacturers switched to pollock. I used to like fish sticks, but stopped eating them years ago because of the cod situation. I realized that when a wild food is widely available to a few billion people, market demand creates a tempting tendency in corporations, whose primary directive in most cases is to make profit for their shareholders, to simply use the resource to its maximum short-term profitability and then move on to something else.

Fortunately, the short-term view is beginning to change in a lot of industries. You're right that demonizing the industry doesn't help--it's more the business structures involved that I am reacting to, rather than the associations like the PCFFA. And there is still the inescapable fact that all those salmon are being wasted, even if the fishery is considered sustainable for pollock.

The Marine Stewardship Council's principles for maintaing a sustainable fishery are great, though:

Principle 1: Sustainable fish stocks

The fishing activity must be at a level which is sustainable for the fish population. Any certified fishery must operate so that fishing can continue indefinitely and is not overexploiting the resources.

Principle 2: Minimising environmental impact

Fishing operations should be managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends.

Principle 3: Effective management

The fishery must meet all local, national and international laws and must have a management system in place to respond to changing circumstances and maintain sustainability.

Milo Adkison said...


Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'll just add a couple of comments:

First, the Marine Stewardship Council does consider the bycatch rate when certifying a fishery as sustainable. A shrimp trawl fishery, where the majority of the catch is non-target species, doesn't have a chance of getting certification.

Second, management agencies don't allow sale of bycatch so as not to create an incentive to target valuable species such as halibut and salmon. This is a crude tool that leads to wasteage. However, a lot of the salmon and halibut caught by the pollock fleet (and others) is donated to food banks at the industry's expense(see

Finally, in many respects it's a lot easier to monitor and control problems such as bycatch in large-scale industrial fisheries than in smaller-vessel operations with many more participants. The large pollock fishing vessels all have observers on them, and the mid-sized ones have observers about 30% of the time. This isn't possible in the small boat fisheries. It's also easier to get the industry to self-police and invest in technologies to reduce bycatch (see I'm not knocking the small-boat fisheries - I spent seven years salmon fishing myself.

I enjoy your paper and blog very much.

David said...

Nice sugar coating Milo, are you by any chance picking up research grants from the CDQ or other groups?
King salmon bycatch has been a contentious issue for 30 years and you call it a recent phenomenon?

Hey, I've had X-traTuff boots on for 40+ years and still sail merchant marine and run salmon tenders. My first king crab season Westward was in 1973. I also sail on research vessels that UAF, NMFS and ADF&G charter and I recognize an apologist when I see one, Perfessor.
I've watched those fish shrink down to trout size over the years and you will notice the quotas are finally being cut, and as usual, too late. They have reached the first stage of extinction just as every other factory trawler fishery world-wide has done before them.
Don't presume to intimidate people in here by specious defense of an industry which has to tow more and more square miles to catch the pollock that are not only depleted but will soon be sized for a King Oscar sardine can.
All that extra towing is one salient factor in what you describe as a"recent" phenomenon.
The CDQ groups have been trapped into there not being a choice in trying to save the king salmon when they have to protect their big boat overhead and profits to the detriment of all the upriver people, particularly those who were excluded from any CDQ participation and thereby driving a cultural economic wedge between the haves and have nots.
You want some more informed opinion go to John Enge's "Alaska Cafe" in the Alaska Report.
John and I are 3rd generation Alaska fishermen from Petersburg and have the temerity, evidence and experience to back up our claims such as this critique of your assertions.
Too many stories to tell in one post
but what you are selling, I ain't buying.

Milo Adkison said...


Please consider the possibility that those who disagree with you aren't doing it because they've been bought and paid for by the bad guys.