By WESLEY LOY
Anchorage Daily News
December 13, 2006
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting in Anchorage this week, cut the limit due to a declining population of the bland, bug-eyed bottom fish.
Bering Sea pollock is one of the world's largest commercial fisheries by weight, and ranks as Alaska's most valuable seafood harvest.
Workers on giant factory ships and in shore-based plants process the white-fleshed pollock into goods such as fish sticks and a protein paste called surimi, which is used to make imitation seafoods and a wide range of specialty items in Asia. Their eggs, or roe, also are valuable.
All told, Alaska pollock products were worth almost $1.3 billion last year, federal officials said.
The 11-member council, made up mainly of government officials and industry players from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, set the pollock catch limit at 1.394 million metric tons, or nearly 3.1 billion pounds. That's a decrease from this year's limit of almost 6 percent, which is worth tens of millions of dollars to the fleet.
But fishing industry representatives and government regulators said next year's haul still will be gargantuan, in historic terms.
For the past few years, the pollock stocks have been at or near record levels. Now they're starting to decline somewhat, just as scientists expected, said John Bundy, a council member and president of Seattle-based Glacier Fish Co., which operates fishing ships in the Bering Sea.
But others expressed concern that the council set the catch too high, despite advice from some government scientists who favored a more conservative number because of some worrisome signs:
- Some pollock are moving farther north into Russian waters where they are susceptible to high catch rates by foreign ships.
- Zooplankton that pollock need for food is declining.
- Arrowtooth flounder that prey on baby pollock are increasing.
These and other trends should have prompted the council to trim next season's catch limit by an additional 94,000 tons, as some scientists favored, said Michelle Ridgway, a Juneau marine biologist and one of the council's advisers.
Representatives of major seafood companies were divided on that idea, but most urged the council to stick with the higher catch limit.
Paul MacGregor, who represents a fleet of fishing ships, said cutting next year's catch by an extra 94,000 tons would have denied the industry $80 million worth of pollock - fish that provide inexpensive food for people - even though some scientists said doing so would make little difference for the long-term pollock population.
Dave Witherell, a council staff member, said the panel faced a happy dilemma. The pollock population remains robust, and whether council members chose the higher or lower limit, both represent a catch well below what scientists would consider overfishing. The pollock fishery begins in mid-January and will run through much of the year.
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com
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