Review: Brian Fagan on the Pollock Fishery

The Alaska pollock is the little sister of the cod. In fishing terms, they are relative newcomers, but the growth of the pollock fishery over the past thirty years makes cod look like poor relatives. As we learn from Kevin Bailey in his comprehensive consideration, 187 million tons of pollock have been mined (his word) from the North Pacific Ocean since 1950. With its cold and vicious storms, this is one of the toughest, most dangerous fisheries on earth. Only the Peruvian anchoveta, threatened regularly by warm-water El Niño events, rivals the northern fishery. Anchovies mostly serve as animal provender. Ubiquitous pollock feed humans and masquerade as crab and shrimp meat. They appear in Walmart fish sticks and MacDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwiches. The Japanese make sausages from them and compress the fish into surimi paste, used as a crab substitute. Pollock eggs appear in sushi.

Pollock thrive in all manner of maritime environments from inshore eelgrass beds to the turbulent open waters of the Aleutian Basin. They abound from Siberia to the Sea of Japan, from Puget Sound to the Chukchi Sea, and congregate in enormous schools clear of the bottom, which means that the nets used to catch them do not damage the seabed. For generations, skilled fishermen traversed the Bering Sea as in a treasure hunt. Today, the Sea is an industrialized fishery dominated by large companies and international players.

Bailey’s account of the fishery and its management is a closely argued narrative. He has a gift for storytelling and introduces a stream of colorful characters, many of them Norwegians like Kjell Inge Rokke. Known as the “Norwegian Cowboy,” Rokke was a high school dropout who started with nothing, bought his own trawler, flirted with bankruptcy, then founded American Seafoods, which eventually controlled 40 percent of the pollock market. Characters like Rokke were independent thinkers, risk takers, and gamblers, who grabbed opportunities and acquired great wealth. Above all, they loved going to sea. The corporations they founded may now operate in a complex regulatory environment supervised by federal and state officials, monitored by a number of environmental non-profits and political forces, but many day-to-day risks still haunt the pollock fishery and its participants. Their leaders are still people of exceptional boldness and ability.

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Bailey leads us through a complex history of booms and busts. He begins with mid-Victorian assumptions that fisheries were inexhaustible, which was, of course, wrong. Steam trawlers, highly efficient, rapacious captures, and modern ocean-going, industrial-scale fish processors have changed the sustainability equation rapidly. The pollock fishery developed after World War II as the US government and others promoted ocean fisheries to help feed the world’s growing population. New players entered the arena, among them the Japanese, also the Soviets. The demand for surimi fish paste brought Japanese boats to the Bering Sea by 1958. A peak in Soviet fishing came in 1973. Then the United States passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976, which extended the Fishery Conservation Zone out to two hundred miles. This meant that US fishers inherited the world’s largest fishery. Meanwhile, large factory trawlers from other countries focused on the so-called Donut Hole in the central Bering Sea. Catches were enormous, then crashed dramatically in one of the most spectacular, but little-known, overfishing collapses in history in the 1980s. The Hole has never recovered.

The American Fisheries Act of 1998 ended the fish race by allocating quotas, bringing some positive environmental effects, allowing some restoration of pollock populations and protection of the animals that depend on pollock as prey. Much of this regulated system, however, is leased to large companies, with major social consequences for independent operators, such as remote Alaskan communities ashore. Many indigenous fishers, working alone or in small groups, who have depended in fishing as a way of life, are effectively squeezed out by quotas and industrial-scale competition The North Pacific Fishery Management Council now has jurisdiction over nine hundred thousand square miles of ocean off Alaska, including its quotas. It has eleven members, most of them industry representatives.

The Alaskan pollock fishery is now mature. Following the ubiquity of the pollock, the fishery has consolidated into a mighty force, politicized with the help of powerful lobbyists. Many people with economic stakes in the fisheries still convince themselves that fish stocks are unlimited, echoing the delusions of climate changes deniers. Reality tells a different story. Despite prolific catches, pollock demand already exceeds supply, just as environmentally conscious eaters are turning away from red meat and warming seas trigger major changes in fish population distributions.

Billion-Dollar Fish is a beautifully written essay on a very complex subject, from an author with prolonged first-hand experience of Bering Sea fisheries. Bailey reminds us that when a harvest is destined for the menus of McDonalds and other mass-market venues, the resulting demand is enormous and potentially insatiable; industrial-scale harvests have wide consequences, not only for individual species, but also for others that depend on them—their predators, their habitats, and human communities. Despite significant interest in preserving the fisheries, their survival remains in peril. One can only hope that both the pollock and the fishery will survive.

Brian Fagan is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. He has written about whales and bees for Book Post.

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