Setting the Record Straight About America’s Most Sustainable Fishery

By John Sackton and Peggy Parker

Virtually all U.S. retailers have taken steps in recent years to articulate seafood-sourcing principles, sometimes via their seafood department, and others as part of an overall corporate responsibility commitment.

Whichever way these policies have been implemented, they have for the most part been positive for the seafood industry. Partnerships between retailers and suppliers have supported fishery improvements around the world, and have provided many examples of how large-scale seafood sales programs can rely on seafood that is sustainably harvested with minimal environmental impacts.

The common thread through most of these policies is the recognition that retailers are not in the business of science, and therefore have to rely on credible scientific evaluations by third parties to certify that the fisheries they buy from are meeting their commitments to sustainable practices.

In the United States, we are very fortunate in that many of the seafood sustainability principles are enshrined in federal law. Under the Magnuson Stevens Act, which governs all fisheries in federal waters, U.S. fishery managers are required to use the best available science in making decisions about harvest levels. They are required to identify essential fish habitat, and ensure that these habitats are protected, as well as being required to abide by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Act, both of which offer extensive protections from fishing activities that are detrimental to other species.

The experience of the Bering Sea, where over 50 percent of all U.S. seafood is harvested, bears out just how successful these conservation steps have been. Many of the principles in national fishery legislation were applied much earlier in the Bering Sea. For example, the North Pacific Council adopted a precautionary cap on total removals of groundfish in 1981, nearly 35 years ago.

The North Pacific Council has never since its inception in 1977, authorized harvests larger than the limits recommended by its science advisors, even though this did not become required by federal law until 2006.

But even more remarkable, the impact of these decisions can be measured by comparing the Bering Sea, where most U.S. pollock, cod, flatfish, halibut, salmon and crab are harvested, to other ocean basins around the world.

There are four areas of the world where there are major groundfish fisheries capable of supporting harvests of 2 million tons or more. We used United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) harvest data to compare four ocean basins: the Northwest Pacific, fished primarily by Russia; the Northeast Atlantic, fished primarily by Norway, Iceland and the E.U.; the Northwest Atlantic, fished primarily by Canada and New England; and the Bering Sea, or Northeast Pacific, fished primarily by the U.S. off Alaska.

The Northwest Pacific (Russia), from 1985 to 1989, averaged harvests of 5.2 million tons. Today those harvests are around 2 million tons, a drop of 60 percent.

In the Northwest Atlantic (Canada), from 1979 to 1990, groundfish harvests averaged more than 860,000 tons per year. In 2012 they were 88,000 tons, a drop of 90 percent.

In the Northeast Atlantic (Norway, Iceland, Russia), catches averaged more than 4 million tons annually for four years between 2003 and 2006. In 2012 that had dropped to 2.4 million tons, a decline of 40 percent.

In the Northeast Pacific (Alaska and the Bering Sea), since 1981, the five-year period with the highest landings averaged 2.06 million tons, while the latest FAO data from 2012 showed harvests of 1.85 million tons. In 2015 stock levels for pollock are again near record levels. The change from the period of the highest landings to now is less than 10 percent.

Naturally, there will be fluctuations from year to year, and well-managed fishery harvests are adjusted up and down to account for these fluctuations.

But fisheries collapses when harvests collapse over a sustained period, largely due to a previous period of drastic overfishing. Three major ocean basins all experienced heavy overfishing, and fisheries collapsed. The only exception was Alaska.

Today, good fisheries management has reversed previous declines in these areas, but Alaska fisheries management has been successful since its inception, and as a result never experienced a similar crash.

This is what makes Alaska’s track record, more than 35 years, such an outstanding sustainability success.

So why for eight years now, has Greenpeace asked retailers to cut back or avoid selling Alaska pollock?

The latest iteration of this campaign is called "Bring Balance to the Bering Sea," in which Greenpeace claims that the sensitive bottom habitat in two canyons on the continental slope is being destroyed by the groundfish fisheries in Alaska, and therefore market pressure is needed to bring about protection.

Because the scientific consensus is so opposite to what Greenpeace is claiming, this campaign is almost Orwellian in its approach.

Retailers in the Crosshairs

In announcing the campaign, Greenpeace Senior Oceans Campaigner Jackie Dragon said, “For far too long, industrial fisheries have depleted marine populations and destroyed sensitive ocean habitat, while major retailers have bought and sold that destruction without any accountability.

“The billboards and posters throughout Seattle urge the companies that sell Bering Sea seafood to share the responsibility for protecting a reasonable portion of the ocean to sustain marine life and humankind into the future," Dragon said.

This statement may have been true in the past in some areas, but it's certainly not applicable today, and it's manifestly not applicable to the Bering Sea.

Greenpeace espouses a goal to protect 20 percent of U.S. waters by 2020. In Alaska, the North Pacific Council has already established bottom trawl closures to protect vulnerable habitat in about 50 percent of all federally managed waters in the Bering Sea. Furthermore, the Council also has closed 25 percent of the continental shelf in Bristol Bay, Southeast Alaska, and portions of the Gulf of Alaska to bottom trawl gear.  It sounds like they are two steps ahead of Greenpeace.

Greenpeace began publishing its annual "Carting Away the Oceans" report card eight years ago, ranking retailers on their sustainability efforts as judged by Greenpeace, and specifically on whether they will reduce or stop selling 19 species Greenpeace put on a red list, including such well-known species as Alaska pollock, Atlantic Sea Scallops and Yellowfin Tuna.

It should come as no surprise that not a single retailer has cutback or listened to Greenpeace regarding these three species, including those retailers to whom Greenpeace gives the highest score.

For eight years, 100 percent of the 26 retailers scored by Greenpeace continue to sell Alaska pollock, yellowfin tuna and warm water shrimp.

Retailer sustainability policies may encourage sourcing from specific suppliers or areas, but all these species can be supplied sustainably in abundance. There is simply no evidence these species don’t comply with the most rigorous sustainability requirements.

There is also no scientific or credible reason to accept Greenpeace’s views on the Bering Sea. It's the area where the best sustainability practices have been put into effect, and where the reliance on sound science has been 100 percent effective.

This science is currently guiding the discussion on Bering Sea Canyon habitat. After stakeholders - including Greenpeace - raised concerns, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. science agency managing fisheries, undertook a review of existing data and commissioned a new large-scale habitat study on benthic corals and other organisms.

This review concluded, first, that there was no significant differentiation in the habitat in the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons to distinguish them from the rest of the Alaskan continental slope. In fact, in areas of high coral concentration along parts of the Aleutian Islands, NOAA has already instituted habitat protection.

Second, NOAA’s benthic longitudinal survey, undertaken with cameras last summer, is the largest effort ever made to map the abundance of deep sea coral and other benthic organisms in the Bering Sea. The results of this survey are going to be presented to the North Pacific Council this June, at which time the Council will consider whether additional protections are needed, and if so, where.

Fishy Publicity Stunt?

To those who have worked to make the Bering Sea the most sustainably managed fishery regime on the planet, it seems like Greenpeace must have other reasons to pursue its campaign, since its claims are debunked by sound science.

In our view, this is a publicity stunt, designed to build public support and awareness of Greenpeace, at the expense of those retailers, seafood producers and scientific managers who have succeeded in making the Bering Sea the world’s model for sustainable fisheries.

The good practices and reputation of fishery managers in the Bering Sea should not be penalized for being the best and most transparent stewards of this national resource.

John Sackton is publisher of and is a well-known commentator in the U.S. seafood industry. Peggy Parker is the science and sustainability editor for SeafoodNews.

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