The Bering Sea next year could yield its smallest catch of pollock in more than 30 years, squeezing the supply of a raw material used in goods such as fish sticks and imitation crab legs.
Government scientists who track the population of the mottled bottom fish are recommending a commercial catch limit of 815,000 tons. If approved, it would be a nearly 19 percent cut from this year's level and the lowest catch limit since federal management of the fishery began in 1977.
While painful for the commercial seafood industry, the cutback is no cause for consumers to race to McDonald's for the last Filet-O-Fish sandwich, scientists and industry players say.
"The sky is not falling when it comes to pollock in the Bering Sea," said David Benton of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents fishing fleets, processors and ports.
"This was an expected downturn, and we've seen similar patterns in the past," Benton said.
Others, however, see plenty of worry in the steep decline of the pollock fishery, which as recently as 2006 produced close to double the catch it might next year.
Jon Warrenchuk, an ocean scientist with the conservation group Oceana, said he's concerned that fishery regulators are counting too heavily on a fast rebound in the pollock stock.
He and other conservationists believe it might be wise to cut the catch limit even deeper, noting that pollock are important for more than just fishermen.
"Anyone who's concerned about the overall health of the Bering Sea ecosystem is always watching what the pollock stock is doing," Warrenchuk said. "It's central to the food web."
Pollock historically has ranked as the nation's largest commercial catch by weight and the most valuable of Alaska fisheries, worth some $1 billion after processing.
More than 100 boats begin chasing pollock in January each year, and bagging the full limit is rarely in doubt as the sophisticated vessels and crews are highly proficient at finding and netting fish.
Jim Ianelli, a fishery scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, agrees that the pollock decline was something he and his colleagues expected based on annual population surveys in the Bering Sea plus complex mathematical modeling.
Ianelli believes that as soon as next year, the stock is likely to begin growing again as pollock born in 2006 begin to reach adult size.
Federal catch limits for pollock historically have been conservative, and they're tightened as needed to make sure the reproductive capability of the stock is preserved, he said.
John Bundy, president of Seattle-based Glacier Fish Co., which runs three ships that catch and process pollock at sea, said it would hurt to see the catch limit cut to 815,000 tons next season. He said he was hoping federal scientists would recommend a limit of no lower than 900,000 tons, compared with this year's 1 million.
"It's definitely bad news," he said. "On the other hand, we still live in a world of supply and demand and if it helps maintain the prices we've seen in the last half of this year, which have been excellent, then that's good."
Because Alaska pollock accounts for such a large part of the world's whitefish supply, consumers of goods such as fast-food fish sandwiches might see price increases, Bundy said.
But he noted food companies can substitute other types of fish such as tilapia.
Ianelli said his recommended catch limit for next year is preliminary and could be adjusted up or down a bit.
Two panels of scientists will review the recommendation, he said.
Then, at a meeting next month in Anchorage, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will settle on a catch limit. The 11-member council, with government and industry representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, helps regulate commercial fisheries off Alaska.
Find Wesley Loy's commercial fishing blog online at adn.com/highliner or call 257-4590.