by Craig Weatherby
When it comes to seafood safety or sustainability, the facts at hand have often led us to disagree with stances taken by commercial interests and eco-groups alike.
We generally find ourselves on the side of environmental organizations, but follow the facts where they lead.
A recent Greenpeace fundraising email, which claimed a crisis in the Alaskan pollock fishery, aroused our suspicions, so we dug deeper for the facts.
Greenpeace has done some valuable work on behalf of beleaguered fisheries, and against destructive aquaculture practices.
But we think Greenpeace went astray earlier this month with their issuance of a disingenuous report… one based on selective facts and demonstrably inaccurate assertions about the Alaskan pollock fishery.
We wouldn't bother reporting on Greenpeace's misleading campaign but for the risk it poses to Alaska's deserved reputation for rigorous seafood safeguards, which were written right into the state's Constitution.
The facts often lead us to support Greenpeace positions… hopefully with greater degrees of equanimity.
For example, with some reservations, we generally agreed with the report Greenpeace issued last February, detailing the pressures on fisheries worldwide (see “Devastating Report Details Aquaculture Dilemmas”).
But we had some problems with a report Greenpeace issued last June, in which they ranked the sustainability of seafood offered by major supermarket chains (see “Seafood Report Gives Supermarkets Failing Grades”).
In that report, Greenpeace virtually ignored the proportion of a supermarket's fish sold with sustainability certification from the widely respected Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)… by implication appointing itself as a greater authority.
Passion is one thing, but arrogance is another matter. Sometimes, Greenpeace crosses the line.
And they seem to have crossed that line with a misleading report on Alaskan pollock populations.
Greenpeace report raises bogus Pollock alarm
Greenpeace sent this fundraising email recently, based on their Alaskan Pollock report:
Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2008
Subject: World's Largest Food Fishery in Danger of Collapse
I want to share some shocking news with you.
The National Marine Fisheries Service just revealed that populations of Alaska pollock, the largest food fishery in the world, have dropped 50 percent since last year. I am forwarding our press release below.
Please help us prevent the collapse of our fisheries by making a generous gift today. Today is the final day of our challenge grant and your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar. This is clear evidence that we need to act and we need to act now: please click here to donate.
Our challenge grant has raised $64,190 towards our $75,000 goal. I thank all of you who have given so generously to protect our oceans, together we can make a difference.
For the oceans,
John Hocevar, Oceans Campaigner
When we saw this alarming alert we found it odd that the fishery could have quickly fallen into such dire straits.
This fishery is regulated closely by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), which have not hesitated to cut harvest quotas in the past.
For example, NMFS regulators cut the Alaskan pollock harvest quota by 28 percent from 2007 to 2008, with no prodding needed from Greenpeace.
The Alaskan pollock fishery is also certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Wisely, MSC won't change a fishery's certified-sustainable status in response to short-term population fluctuations, which are neither rare nor necessarily cause for serious concern.
In contrast, it looks like Greenpeace jumped the scientific gun and did it knowingly to make fund-raising hay before all the data was in.
Greenpeace plays fast and loose with Pollock facts
On October 9, 2008, Greenpeace released a report warning that Alaskan pollock stocks had shrunk 50 percent from last year to record low levels, putting the fishery on the brink of collapse (See “Alaska Pollock Fishery on the Verge of Collapse”).
The summary includes this call for drastic action: “In December, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will set the new pollock catch limits for 2009. In order to restore the pollock fishery's health, the allowable catch must be cut in half, fishing on spawning populations suspended, and marine reserves established to protect critical habitats.”
The Greenpeace report and email are correct in stating that the NMFS reported a 50 percent drop in the levels of Pollock at what are called the “mid-water” levels.
And this certainly sounds alarming. But the NMFS report cited by Greenpeace was only part of the full data set needed to estimate current stock levels, and the all-important estimate of newborn fish just coming into play, which will constitute the stock for the 2009-2010 season.
The crisis claimed by Greenpeace is based solely on the mid-water trawl survey, but the then-incomplete results of the “bottom trawl” survey are equally crucial to scientific determination of the fishery's status.
Both surveys, and estimates of juvenile pollock, will be included in the final report NMFS scientists present to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which will make harvest quota recommendations for 2009 and 2010.
Despite Greenpeace assertions of bias toward industry, the council has never exceeded the Pollock quotas recommended by NMFS scientists.
And early indications reported by NMFS researchers refute the alarmist tone of the Greenpeace report.
Natural factors explain “missing” pollock
NMFS assessment scientist Jim Ianelli. explained that ocean temperatures were cold for the third straight year, so more pollock hugged the ocean floor than usual, which skewed the results of the “mid-water” survey, whose results prompted the premature Greenpeace alarm.
As he said, “The [Greenpeace] report that is circulating… represents only one piece of the data used in the analysis ... the mid-water survey is effective down to a half-meter from the bottom, but for the assessment numbers that get presented, we only go down to three meters from the bottom” (SSN 2008).
Ianelli had expected that when NMFS measured the deeper ground fish population they would find most of the “missing” pollock ... and when the preliminary numbers from the ground fish survey were calculated, the estimates came in at 92 percent of the expected “biomass”.
When he was asked if there was any overfishing of Alaska pollock indicated by any of the NMFS research, Ianelli responded unequivocally: “Not by any measure for this upcoming season” (NFI 2008).
Ianelli went on to illuminate the natural, cyclical factors at play, which have nothing to do with fishing (SSN 2008):
“As with many observations taken on fish populations, they are affected by many processes, including the current temperature regime, which was unusually cold this summer.”
“Indications are that the 2006 year-class [pollock hatched in that year] are well above average… the fact that we have new fish coming into the stock is an indication that they can still reproduce at substantial numbers.… The signs are good.”
So Greenpeace, while we appreciate your overall stance in protection of seafood, reckless claims can harm the reputation of all Alaskan fisheries.
You need to raise funds to operate, but please refrain from doing so via disingenuous alarms that can wreak collateral damage.
- Bauman M. Pollock stocks low, should rise by 2009. October 26, 2008. Alaska Journal of Commerce. Accessed online October 20, 2008 at http://www.alaskajournal.com/stories/102608/loc_20081026013.shtml
- Greenpeace. Alaska Pollock Fishery on the Verge of Collapse. October 9, 2008. Accessed online October 20, 2008 at http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/alaska-pollock-fishery-on-the
- National Fisheries Institute/AboutSeafood.com (NFI). Greenpeace Announces the Sky Is Falling… But Only Over Alaska. Accessed online October 26, 2008 at http://www.aboutseafood.com/press/media-blog/greenpeace-announces-sky-is-falling-but-only-over-alaska
- National Fisheries Institute/AboutSeafood.com (NFI). Greenpeace Tries to Profit Off Of Pollock Scare Story. Accessed online October 20, 2008 at http://www.aboutseafood.com/press/media-blog/greenpeace-tries-profit-off-of-pollock-scare-story
- SeafoodSource News (SSN). NMFS: Alaska Pollock Population Is Healthy. October 10, 2008. Accessed online October 20, 2008 at http://www.seafoodsource.com/NST-1-50119039/NMFS-Alaska-Pollock-Population-Is-Healthy.aspx
- Seaman T, DiPietro B. IntraFish.com. NMFS Researcher: No sign Alaskan pollock are overfished. Ocotber 10, 2008. Accessed online October 20, 2008 at Intrafish.com.