The North Pacific Fishery Management Council today set the 2010 pollock catch limit at 813,000 metric tons, the lowest in 32 years. The limit reflected the maximum recommendation made by scientists earlier this year, based on historic low numbers of spawning pollock in the Bering Sea. Oceana has called for further protection for pollock—an essential food for salmon, endangered Steller sea lions and other animals—and a reduction of the catch limit to around 433,000 metric tons.
“Even though catches were low, this year’s pollock fishery caught 30 to 40% of the remaining prime spawning pollock,” said Jon Warrenchuk, Ocean Scientist for Oceana. “There isn’t much left in the bank.”
Scientists with NMFS predicted higher pollock numbers than materialized in 2009, resulting in marked decreases in estimates. Bering Sea pollock numbers did not rebound as expected and continue to be below historic levels. Without a dramatic rebound in pollock numbers and stronger protection of the remaining spawning pollock, Oceana continues to press for more conservative quotas to reduce the likelihood of a collapse of pollock stocks and to avoid crossing management thresholds which force the fishery to shut down. Both would have catastrophic impacts economically and ecologically for the region.
The Eastern Bering Sea pollock stock has declined rapidly. The spawning biomass of females has dropped by almost 60% since 2004. The fishery in 2009 caught a large proportion of the remaining spawning pollock. This represents a serious threat to the future health of the pollock stock, with the hope for recovery resting with the successful recruitment of a single large year class in 2006, the only average or above average year class in the last six years.
Yet there were lower than expected amounts of three-year old pollock in this year’s surveys, a serious concern as that may reflect a decline in that critical 2006 class. Also of concern was the increasing number of young pollock caught before they had a chance to spawn, which could push future population numbers even lower.
“The Fisheries Service is putting a lot of faith in model projections and hoping things work out, but there’s a lot of unknowns and not a lot of room for error considering the low numbers of fish,” said Warrenchuk. “Relying on virtual fish on a computer screen is not sufficient, especially with all the changes happening in the Bering Sea, including the new risks of climate change and ocean acidification impacts we haven’t considered.”
Pollock are central to the health of the Bering Sea. They are a critical part of the food web and an important food source for endangered Steller sea lions, fur seals, salmon, halibut, seabirds and other animals. The low pollock numbers will have impacts on other marine animals, local economies and the health of the Eastern Bering Sea marine ecosystem.
“We need to keep fishing low and slow to make sure pollock has the best chance to start recovering,” said Jon Warrenchuk, Ocean Scientist for Oceana. “Pollock is central to the Bering Sea food web, and the pollock stock is a climate hiccup away from being in serious trouble.”
The Bering Sea is home to 26 species of marine mammals, including the critically endangered northern right whale; millions of seabirds hailing from all seven continents; more than 450 species of fish; and some of the world’s largest submarine canyons.
The Alaskan pollock fishery is one of the largest fisheries in the world. Pollock is commonly used in imitation crab meat and is also the primary ingredient in fish sticks and many fast-food fish sandwiches.