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Introduction: White Gold Fever
They say some waters are too cold even for sharks. MARTIN CRUZ SMITH, in The Polar Star
What makes a good fisherman? Boldness enables him to take risks and intuition guides him in making quick decisions. Thick calluses and strong hands help with the hard work on deck. Generally, these qualities of a good fisherman make for a good businessman as well, and fishing for pollock was to become good business for a young Norwegian named Kjell Inge Røkke.
One wintry day in 1980, a trawl was deployed from the Arctic Trawler into the dark waters beneath it. The fishing master Erik Breivik, fresh from Norway, was looking for cod near the bottom. The net spun off the reel until it was in the water, then the doors, large metal door-shaped slabs that hold the net open from the sides like sails, entered the water with a splash. The winch hydraulics moaned in a loud and low "brrrrmmm" as the thick wire line was played out and the net descended toward bottom. An hour later the trawl was reeled back in. Now the hydraulics screamed under the load. The crew eagerly awaited the riches coming up; millions of pounds of fish were there for whoever had a boat and the nerve to venture into the Bering Sea to catch them.
A great catch, fifty thousand pounds of Alaskan groundfish scooped from the bottom of the ocean, neared the surface. Icy sea spray stung unshaven faces, and the smell of fresh fish hung in the air. Hungry gulls circled overhead. A deckhand shouted out, his hand shot up in a closed fist—the universal sign to "halt"—and the Arctic Trawler shuddered from stem to stern, her winches stopped dead. The catch of fish bulging out from the net was so enormous, it split open like a zipper and fish spilled out. The net trailed behind for a hundred feet, undulating in the ocean swell. If the huge bag of fish was hauled up the stern ramp, fish would gush out from the wound in the net—sending most of the catch back to the sea. A body flashed across the deck and leaped from the stern railing onto the rising and falling codend. The crew watched with dropped jaws as the gutsy fisherman clutched the webbing and scrambled in a crabwalk to the open gash of the net. As he bobbed up and down, and stitched the hole, he knew that a slip into the cold sea was almost certain death.
This time the young fisherman Kjell Inge Røkke was lucky, the net was mended, and the catch was saved. The winches roared back to life and one imagines him riding the bucking trawl back up the stern ramp onto the deck in triumph, waving his woolen hat, the crew cheering—a modern day cowboy. A Norwegian cowboy. John Sjong, the skipper of the Arctic Trawler, said of the incident, "The next thing I knew he had a couple of needles in his pocket and he ran back on the bag and he sewed it up and saved the tow—he was a hundred feet behind the boat sitting on a bag of codfish." He thought, "Jeez, I wouldn't have done that."
Two years later, Røkke, a high school dropout from Norway's western coast, bought his own trawler and fished for pollock in the Bering Sea. He teetered on the edge of bankruptcy several times and then bounced back to found American Seafoods, eventually controlling 40% of the pollock harvest. Røkke came to play a small but important role in the story of the Alaska pollock fishery. He built on his daring and success as a fisherman, gathered riches in the business world, and made it to the pages of Forbes magazine's list of the world's wealthiest people. In two decades, he went from a deckhand on a fishing boat to a net worth of $3 billion. Røkke had come to the New World and realized the American Dream. His companions on the Arctic Trawler, Sjong and Breivik, had similar success fishing for pollock. Together they personify the opportunity that the pollock resource presented: great risks were taken and great wealth was gained. These names and others will weave through the narrative of this story.
Alaska pollock is the shy little sister of the cod fish. Not too many people recognize her, but over the past thirty years she's grown up. Now Alaska pollock makes the cod look like a poor cousin. As a seafood product, these days it is ubiquitous. Pollock has been an important foodstuff in Japan since the 1960s; the minced meat is pressed and gelatinized into a product called surimi, and the valuable pollock eggs are used in sushi. Surimi can be further processed, adding texture, coloring, and flavoring, to resemble crab and shrimp meat, or made into a sausage called kameboko.
When the Alaskan crab populations crashed in the early 1980s, many Americans and Europeans were unwitingly introduced to pollock disguised as imitation crab. But now the market for pollock has matured. The white flesh not only is sent to market as fake crab, but also is fed as a healthy fish product to US soldiers in Afghanistan and to American children in school lunch programs. Pollock is everywhere. It is the pure white meat in fish sticks bought at Walmart and Filet-O-Fish burgers ordered in McDonald's.
Te current demand for Alaska pollock outstrips the supply. Pollock is the most lucrative marine fish harvest in American waters and comprises about 40% of the US catch. Since 1950, a total of 187 million tons of pollock have been mined from the waters of the North Pacific Ocean (see Figure 1). The fishery in the United States alone has an annual gross value of over $1 billion. Alaska pollock has alternated with the Peruvian anchoveta as the world's largest fishery since the 1980s, and because the anchovy is primarily reduced to animal feed, pollock continues to be the largest fishery for human consumption.
But has the white gold rush ended? Compared with the 1990s, the fishery certainly has changed, maybe even matured. This modern day buffalo has been domesticated, the pie has been sliced, and the modern day cowboy has been gentrified.
What Do We Know about Pollock and Why Is It So Important?
The scientific name of Alaska pollock, Theragra chalcogramma, derives from the ancient Greek words "Ter," or beast, and "agra," or food. Besides being commercially important, pollock is the dominant species in many subarctic coastal ecosystems across the North Pacific Ocean, and hence plays an important ecological role. Befitting its name, pollock is a key prey for beasts of the ocean, marine mammals such as seals and sea lions. They are also prey for seabirds and large piscivorous fishes, such as halibut and cod. Sometimes there are periodic massive die-offs of seabirds that are blamed on shortages of juvenile pollock. The endangered status of some marine mammal populations has been atributed to either a lack of pollock or their poor nutritional value as mammal prey. Juvenile pollock are even an important prey of adults. During certain seasons as much as 80% of the diet of adult pollock in the eastern Bering Sea is made of smaller juvenile pollock.
Pollock is a major predator of lower trophic (food chain) levels and a competitor of small fish and jellyfish for plankton. Cyclic fluctuations in the abundance of pollock have been linked with climate "regime shits" that are sometimes associated with changes in the structure of marine ecosystems and with dramatic increases in jellyfish abundance in the Bering Sea.
On the surface Alaska pollock may seem like dull and ordinary fish, but under the water they are masters of their environment, capable of living in a variety of habitats from nearshore eelgrass beds to the open oceanic waters of the Aleutian Basin. They thrive across a vast geographical extent that ranges from Puget Sound to the Chukchi Sea, and across the Pacific from Siberia to the Sea of Japan. Pollock survive in a temperature range of one to twelve degrees centigrade, which is fairly broad for northern fishes.
Compared with some modern fishes with lineages originating as early as 250 million years ago, pollock is a recent arrival on Earth. It evolved and has lived in the North Pacific Ocean for around three million years. But that is old when you think of it—humans have been on the North American continent for only about fifteen thousand years. The pollock evolved from an ancestral cod that migrated across the Arctic Ocean during an interglacial period. After some millions of years of evolution in the Pacific Ocean, another warming period allowed some individuals to make a reverse migration back into the Atlantic, giving rise to the Alaska pollock's other close relatives Theragra finmarchicus and Gadus ogak. The Alaska pollock is genetically so similar to Atlantic cod that some ichthyologists have suggested that it be renamed Gadus chalcogramma. Surprisingly, it is more similar to Atlantic cod than to Pacific cod.
Fish populations don't freely wander the world's oceans. Most, like pollock, are structured and organized into geographically based stocks. Some stocks may exchange individuals through migrations and straying, and others can be isolated and over time become genetically distinct. In pollock there are a number of known genetically distinct stocks, and others where there is some limited exchange of individuals among them. As we develop more sophisticated tools to examine the genetic differences, higher resolution of stock structure is obtained. But among scientists studying and managing the populations, there are the lumpers and the splitters—that is, those who believe in vast roaming and mingling schools of fish, and those others who conceive of a multitude of locally adapted populations. The need to manage stocks on the scale of their own natural structure is a key aspect to fisheries management that is still mostly unappreciated.
Why are pollock so valuable to harvest? The short answer: volume! But there are other characteristics that make it easy to fish and catch, and qualities that make it a good product. First, the pollock occurs in large dense schools off bottom that are almost exclusively pollock. This makes it easy to catch large quantities with relatively little effort. Since they are caught off bottom, there is relatively little dragging of the net on bottom, and little disturbance to the bottom habitat. And because the bycatch of other species is low, sorting and processing the catch is easy.
Pollock can be made into a number of food products. The eggs are highly valued in Asia. The objective of the winter fishery is to catch fish while they are aggregated in large spawning groups, but before the eggs swell with water and are released. The flesh of pollock is white with a low fat content and a relatively low parasite load, making it good for fillets and for minced meat to use in fish sticks and fish burgers or to process into surimi. The liver has a high oil content that is extracted to make omega oils and the remaining waste is made into meal, largely used as chicken feed. The only part of the fish not used presently is its skin.
Are Pollock and Other Marine Fishes Overharvested?
We expect fish stocks to naturally fluctuate with changes in climate. Usually, during periods of warming or cooling, fish stocks residing at the polar ends of the population's range increase or decrease accordingly, while the reverse happens at the other end. But in the case of pollock, several stocks at either end of their range in the North Pacific Ocean have tended to decrease recently, leading to suspicion of overfishing as a contributor to the demise of several stocks. The roles of climate change versus overfishing in stock declines is an ongoing debate.
The situation is different in the eastern Bering Sea, where pollock is considered one of the world's best-managed populations owing to unusually stable levels of commercial harvests. It is sometimes referred to as the poster child of marine fisheries management. Is it the management of this stock that's different, or maybe is there some attribute of the fish there that makes them more resilient to the pressure harvesting puts on them? In most cases, fisheries managers know that in spite of their best efforts, fisheries ebb and flow as their target populations cycle through periods of high and low abundance.
It isn't as though all is calm in the pollock fishery of the stormy Bering Sea. In 1992 Ross Anderson of the Seattle Times wrote of the Bering Sea pollock, "The industry is careening toward collapse." But it didn't happen. In fact, the pollock stock increased, peaking at an all-time high a mere three years later. In 2008 another steep decline seemed imminent and the warning flags were again hoisted up the yardarm. The director of the Greenpeace Ocean Campaign, John Hocevar, said, "We are on the cusp of one of the largest fishery collapses in history." Hocevar added, "Unsustainable fishing rates have been allowed to continue" and "while the fishing industry and others continue to cite the pollock fishery as a model of fisheries management, the pollock population has declined sharply in recent years." But federal stock assessment specialist Jim Ianelli responded, "I don't think we are overfishing." Once again the stock didn't collapse. Then in 2009, news articles in the Economist and Science magazines expressed more alarm on an international scale about the health of the major stock of pollock that lives on the eastern Bering Sea shelf. Quotas were decreased to their lowest levels in 30 years by fisheries managers. Has the death knell for pollock sounded?
It seems as if we can't decide, or at least can't agree, whether pollock stocks are collapsing or thriving. Why is it so hard to tell how many fish are in the ocean? And why is it so difficult to manage them? Will the pollock have the last laugh as we try to regulate catches and to engineer the population's natural cycles?
At this moment, marine harvest fisheries, including that for pollock, are on the tipping point of revolutionary change. Fisheries managers are under intense scrutiny. Highly publicized articles, often written by researchers sponsored by the environmental and anti-industrial fishing Pew Foundation, warn about drastic fisheries declines and predict that nothing will remain in the world's oceans but jellyfish in the near future. On the other side of the aisle, scientists, sometimes supported by the fishing industry and government, argue that there is very little overfishing and stocks are recovering. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) points to the number of US stocks that are recovering from overfishing. The Marine Fish Conservation Network claims that they are juggling the books by pooling overfished and healthy stocks.
A study led by a Pew Foundation Fellow named Dr. Boris Worm concluded that most of the world's fisheries would collapse by 2048. Other prominent marine scientists have disagreed with this assessment of the state of the world's fisheries. One of the world's most highly respected fisheries scientists, Dr. Ray Hilborn at the University of Washington (who has been described as a "hired gun for the fishing industry"), said of Worm's projection, "It's just mind-boggling stupid." Worm replied that it was a "news hook to get people's attention." Ten in a later paper, Worm, now partnered with Hilborn himself, seemed to reconcile their differences (once again supported by the Pew Foundation). More recent studies indicate that fish stocks aren't as bad off as we once thought, but about 25% of them are still overexploited or collapsed.
Other reports have indicated that there is a broader ecosystem consequence to overfishing and that we are "fishing down" the food chain. This term means that as the more delectable top predators, such as tuna, swordfish, and salmon, are fished out, industrial fisheries then start fishing for the smaller animals that are the prey of the larger fishes. Thus, human fishers become both highly efficient predators and competitors as well. Recently, that conclusion has also been atacked.
In response to charges of overfishing, the At-Sea Processors Association said, "Could the 'gloom and doom' crowd have it wrong? University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn thinks so." Te report continues, "Dr. Hilborn's work ... showed that fish stocks, in fact, are increasing in abundance." Te word bombs that are lobbed back and forth show the extent to which we are engaged in a major battle for the public's attention and favor. Scientific findings announced in press releases reflect the powerful forces struggling behind the scenes. When there is an economic stake, whether that is related to corporate profits or environmental fund-raising, it has the appearance of agenda-driven science to me, analyses done for the purpose of finding a specific result.
Large industrial ships may, or may not, be fishing down the food chain as a consequence of overfishing, but some are fishing lower on the food chain purposefully. Small pelagic crustaceans, such as krill, and small fishes, such as anchovy, concentrate valuable marine oils. Te omega-3 and omega-6 oils are important in a healthy diet and are in high demand. Norwegian companies are harvesting krill in the Antarctic using new "green technology." In a public relations bid to change their image, they call their trawlers "Life Science Factories." By the way, guess who presides over the company that is competing with whales and penguins for krill? It is Kjell Inge Røkke from the Arctic Trawler, who now rules over a maritime empire from Norway.
Who Owns the Fish in the Sea?
Te human demand for seafood has simply exceeded the capacity of the oceans to produce it. With that in mind, it is frightening to consider China's emerging demand for seafood and the ensuing pressure that ocean resources will face in the future. Solutions that are sometimes proposed are to privatize the ocean's resources or to transform the Earth's seas from hunting grounds to marine farms.
Excerpted from BILLION-DOLLAR FISH by Kevin M. Bailey. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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