Federal fishery regulators meeting in Anchorage on Saturday recommended a deep cut in next year's catch of Bering Sea pollock, the whitefish widely used for such goods as fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches and imitation crab.
The action was expected and had the broad support of government scientists who study the fish and believe the stock is healthy but trending down.
Activists with environmental groups Oceana and Greenpeace, however, called for a much deeper cutback in next year's catch, arguing the commercial fleet is fishing too hard on a stock important not only as human food but as nourishment for sea lions and other Bering Sea creatures.
The pollock fishery is the nation's largest by weight, yielding products worth more than $1 billion annually.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an 11-member panel of government officials and industry representatives that helps regulate commercial fishing off Alaska, voted unanimously to limit next year's pollock catch to 815,000 metric tons.
That's an 18.5 percent drop from this year's level and a 45 percent decline from the peak of nearly 1.5 million tons in 2004. It's also the lowest catch limit in more than three decades.
The council action is subject to final approval by the U.S. commerce secretary.
Doug Mecum, a council member and the Commerce Department's top fishery regulator in Alaska, said he was comfortable setting the pollock limit at 815,000 tons based on the work of federal scientists who spend millions of dollars monitoring the pollock population.
The scientists, he said, "don't make anything off this fishery. They have no vested interest."
Fishery biologists believe a large group of young fish are on track to survive to harvestable size, which could support an increase in the catch limit in 2010, Mecum said.
John Henderschedt, a council member and employee of Seattle-based pollock fishing company Premier Pacific Seafoods, said the industry had hoped the cut to next year's catch wouldn't be so steep. But he said he had no problem voting to support the 815,000-ton limit the scientists recommended.
Henderschedt wasn't sure whether a smaller Alaska catch -- Russia also is a big pollock producer -- could drive up consumer prices for goods such as fish sticks or McDonald's fish sandwiches.
But he said a lower Alaska pollock catch could serve to maintain the current high wholesale prices for goods made from pollock, chiefly fillets and a protein paste called surimi.
Environmental activists had urged a much smaller catch limit of 458,000 tons, or less than half what the fleet netted this year. They said their review of the federal science found weaknesses in the pollock stock that could lead to a collapse, depending on climate change. They also said fishery scientists seem to be putting too much faith in young fish reaching adulthood.
"To us, this is a time when you need to be extra cautious because there's not a lot of insurance," said Chris Krenz, who works for Oceana and holds a doctorate in marine ecology.
Council members, however, said they believe the catch limits the federal scientists recommend are amply precautionary.
"The harvest strategy that's in place has resulted in a sustainable harvest for quite a long time," Mecum said.
Find Wesley Loy's commercial fishing blog online at adn.com/highliner or call 257-4590.