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Originally published Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Tide turns for pollock harvesting

The mainstay fish of the Puget Sound-based trawl fleet is declining in numbers, prompting scientists to push for a reduced catch that would be the smallest harvest in nearly a decade.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The biggest fishery in North America could shrink next year to its lowest level in nearly a decade, after scientists this week recommended a 26 percent cut in the harvest of Bering Sea pollock.

These pollock are by far the most abundant species caught off Alaska and a mainstay of Puget Sound-based trawl fleets. This year's harvest is expected to yield nearly 1.34 million metric tons.

That's nearly 3 billion pounds of fish that are turned into fillets, simulated seafood products such as surimi crab and other products with a processed value of more than $1.3 billion in 2006.

Federal surveys indicate the Bering Sea pollock population has declined in recent years, and the average fish size was smaller in 2006 than previously forecast. As a result, a team of federal, state and university scientists meeting this week in Seattle recommended a maximum allowable catch of about 1 million metric tons for 2008.

That level, if approved in December by a federal fishery council, would be the lowest harvest since 1999. And in 2009, the harvest is expected to drop some more.

"There is definitely some cause for concern," said Jim Ianelli, a scientist at the Seattle-based Alaska Fisheries Science Center who worked on a pollock-assessment report.

Ianelli said the pollock decline is due to unfavorable ocean conditions that resulted in below-average survival rates for young pollock from 2001 through 2005.

The pollock industry supports several thousand jobs in Alaska and the Puget Sound region. The five-year downward trend has caused considerable unease among industry officials, who have pointed to the giant pollock harvest as a bright spot in an era of global declines of many fishery stocks.

In 2005, pollock gained an eco-label and a marketing boost when it was certified through the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable harvest.

Industry officials and federal scientists believe the decline is most likely part of a normal fluctuation of stocks. Just two years ago, the harvest peaked at a record of nearly 1.5 million metric tons, and a strong pollock population born in 2006 could eventually help stocks bounce back.

"We have seen the trend going down and have been predicting this crash, but we're hopeful for the year 2010 and beyond," said Glenn Reed, executive director of the Seattle-based Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

The pollock also provide food for sea lions, fur seals and other species, and the decline has drawn scrutiny from conservationists.

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"There's less pollock out there for everything in the ecosystem that relies on them," said Jon Warrenchuk, a marine scientist with Oceana, an environmental-advocacy group. "We need to carefully consider how much fish we can remove before we jeopardize the resilience of the whole system."

The pollock dwell along the Bering Sea's continental shelf, where a mix of winter ice packs, upwellings and other influences have created nutrient-rich waters packed with food. The fish mass together in big schools to spawn in the winter north of the Alaska Peninsula, then spread over a much wider area as the year progresses.

Catcher vessels drop nets measuring some 200 feet across that may scoop up 75 metric tons in a single tow. Some vessels deliver to shore-based plants, some deliver to floating factory ships and other — known as factory trawlers — both catch and process the fish.

Fishermen have noticed changes in the pollock stocks in recent years. During this year's "B" season in the summer and fall, the fish were much farther to the northwest than in many other years.

That made the harvest much more difficult for vessels delivering to Aleutian Island shore plants. These crews had to burn more fuel to reach the grounds, then often found the fish widely scattered so they required much longer tows. Still, they weren't able to catch their full quota of pollock.

Meanwhile, the trawl fleet reached an unwelcome mark, accidentally catching a record 116,000 chinook salmon that were supposed to be reserved for fishermen who work closer to shore.

"A lot of people have been kind of breaking even," said Reed, whose association represents shore plants. "The season has been a tough go."

At the science team meeting Tuesday in Seattle, one fisherman said he felt like he was scraping to harvest tiny pockets of fish the past year and that the quota this year was set too high.

For scientists, one big question is the impact on the fishery of climate change.

The five poor years for young pollock survival coincided with a period of unusually warm bottom waters in the Bering Sea. Some believe that may have been a factor in the lower survival rates.

The warmer water also appeared to cause the pollock roe — a valuable product in Asia — to mature earlier in the winter and throw off the timing of its harvest.

"We definitely think the warming of the bottom water affects this. I think we can take that to the bank," said Ed Richardson, of the At Sea Processors Association, which represents factory trawlers.

Then, in 2006, the situation suddenly reversed. An extensive winter ice pack, as it melted, created colder bottom temperatures. That is the same year survival rates for pollock improved.

Still uncertain is how long the cold-water trend will continue, and how climate change will affect natural cycles that influence water temperatures.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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