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Oceana Magazine Fall 2012: Hello, My Name Is… Alaska Pollock

By Emily Fisher

When you consider that Alaska pollock is one of the most widely consumed seafood species in the United States and the world, it’s surprising how little the average person knows about this cousin of cod. We thought an official introduction was in order.

Think fast: What is the fish you are most likely meet in your McDonald’s Filet O’Fish sandwich?

Tilapia? Wrong.

If you answered Alaska pollock, nice work.

The fish in frozen fish sticks or breaded fish in your kid’s school lunches? Probably Alaska pollock, too.  And that mysterious fake crab stick you had in last night’s sushi? It’s surimi, a fish paste made from Alaska pollock, which is also molded into imitation crab, lobster and shrimp.

Pollock is everywhere.

And humans aren’t the only ones that enjoy the ubiquitous whitefish. Just about everything that lives in the Bering Sea eats pollock, including humpback whales, beluga whales, puffins, Steller sea lions, Northern fur seals, salmon, halibut and some of the largest colonies of nesting seabirds on earth. 

The walleye pollock is a medium-sized member of the cod family and gets its name from the white circles around its eyes. Pollock travel in enormous schools. The juveniles feast on the cold northern Pacific’s copepods and krill, which are tiny crustaceans. The fish is fecund, producing up to two million eggs each over a couple weeks’ spawning period.

“Without pollock, the Bering Sea ecosystem would look a lot different. Pollock are a central component of the food web,” said Oceana scientist Jon Warrenchuk, who has been keeping an eye on the pollock fishery from Oceana’s Juneau, Alaska office for years. Oceana is working to ensure that the fishery leaves enough pollock in the water for both humans and the many animals that rely on it. 

In addition to playing a central role in the Bering Sea food web, pollock is the target of the biggest fishery in the United States and one of the biggest in the world. The fishery is worth over a billion dollars today, but prior to the invention of the fish stick it was virtually unknown as a food fish. Russian and Japanese trawlers plied the Bering Sea until 1976, when the Magnuson-Stevens Act required that American companies alone harvest marine resources within 200 nautical miles of the coast. What began as a small fleet in the 1960s has exploded into a major industry in Alaska that catches more than 1 to 2 billion pollock a year.

Unfortunately, several stocks of pollock in Alaska were fished too heavily in the past, leaving too few fish behind to replenish those populations. In some cases the stocks have made no signs of recovery. Most of the world’s pollock supply now comes from the remaining pollock stock in the Eastern Bering Sea, which is currently at about 30 percent of unfished levels. 

While the pollock fishery is relatively clean compared to some other U.S. fisheries, because of the massive volume of pollock fishing, large quantities of other fish and marine life end up in the nets.

For example, the pollock fleet has caught more than its share of the rare and valuable Chinook salmon as bycatch. The fishery caught more than 120,000 Chinook salmon in 2007. After campaigning by Oceana’s staff and allies, in 2008 the North Pacific Fishery Management Council set a hard cap on Chinook bycatch at 60,000 salmon per year in the Bering Sea. That means if the pollock fishery surpasses that number, it will be shut down.

The pollock fishery has a reputation as one of the best-managed fisheries in the world, thanks to Alaska’s extensive infrastructure for data collection, scientific assessment, in-season monitoring and enforcement. All this data means that the system can quickly respond to changes in the water. For example, in 2010, in the face of severely declining pollock numbers, the pollock catch limit was set at its lowest level in 32 years. Since then, the stock has increased somewhat, but is still nearly 70 percent below historic levels and well below its long-term average.

Of the three basic principles of fishery management -- set scientifically-based catch limits, reduce bycatch and protect habitat – the pollock fishery is doing some things right, but there is clearly room for improvement. The fleet uses mid-water trawling gear that's supposed to avoid making contact with the seafloor, but the nets hit the bottom an estimated 44 percent of the time, which can damage seafloor habitats. There are some measures in place to reduce impacts on marine mammals, but Steller sea lions and Northern fur seals, which rely heavily on pollock, are still endangered or declining. 

So, with all of this in mind, how should seafood consumers feel about eating pollock?

Assessing the sustainability of such a large and complex fishery is no simple undertaking. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has ranked Alaska pollock as a “Good Alternative”, its moderate “yellow” ranking -- it’s not yet overfished, but there is significant room for improvement. Oceana will continue to work with government agencies, local communities, and fishermen to ensure this fish that is so important for feeding people and supporting a healthy Bering Sea ocean ecosystem is managed for a sustainable future.

Alaska Pollock

Nicknames:  Alaska pollock, walleye pollock, Theragra chalcogramma

Products: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, frozen fish sticks, surimi, imitation crab

Honors: By weight, nation’s largest fishery and world’s second largest

Birthplace: The majority of the U.S. catch of pollock comes from the Bering Sea, though a small portion is also caught in the Gulf of Alaska.  

Weight: From 1977-2011 the catch of eastern Bering Sea pollock averaged 1.17 million tons.

Net worth:  The Alaska pollock fishery is one of the most valuable in the world. The 2010 pollock catch from the Bering Sea was valued at more than $282 million and products made from pollock were valued at $1 billion.

Fishing method: Trawlers tow large cone-shaped nets the size of a football field for miles to catch schools of pollock.