In the icy, stormy waters of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska, massive factory trawlers and other vessels are on the hunt again for millions of pounds of pollock, Pacific cod and more than a dozen other groundfish species.
For nearly three decades now, the dawn of the new year has meant the start of these massive Alaska fisheries, which catch an enormous amount of fish, predominantly pollock and Pacific cod, with relatively little manpower.
The longline fishery was to begin Jan. 1, and the trawl fishery Jan. 20, with a significant portion of the pollock and Pacific cod harvest going to domestic markets.
A healthy U.S. market is dependent on a healthy foreign market, so while domestic markets are good, the big, unanswered economic question is whether foreign markets will be able to get the credit they need for purchase of Alaska groundfish products. Otherwise, groundfish normally headed for overseas markets could get dumped in domestic markets.
Alaska pollock, the darling of fast food restaurants, is served up as fish sandwiches, fish and chips and even fish tacos. The popular whitefish is also the stuff of surimi, the ubiquitous fish past used to make ersatz shellfish products that look and taste much like the real thing.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, during its December meeting in Anchorage, cut the Alaska pollock total allowable catch in the Eastern Bering Sea to 815,000 metric tons, down from 1 metric tons in 2008, as a conservation measure to sustain the fishery.
The harvests take place in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands region, known as the BSAI, and the Gulf of Alaska, or GOA, with most of the harvest caught in federally-managed waters beyond the limit of state-managed waters.
The federal council meanwhile raised the allowable catch of Pacific cod from 170,720 metric tons in 2008 to 176,540 metric tons in 2009. The council each year recommends allowable harvests of 2 million metric tons for all Alaska groundfish.
In 2007, the latest year for which complete figures were available, the BSAI groundfish harvest in federal waters was nearly 1.7 million metric tons, and the Gulf of Alaska's was more than 151,000 metric tons. That translated to nearly 4.1 billion pounds for both. In state waters, there was an additional harvest of 40.2 million pounds. The groundfish fishery that year generated 1,182 jobs, compared to 3,759 jobs in the salmon fisheries and 1,246 jobs in the halibut fleet, state labor officials noted.
Crews aboard the groundfish vessels - the larger ones averaging over 100 workers - catch, process, freeze and store on board tons of groundfish. They produce surimi, the minced fish used to make products such an imitation crab meat, or fillet products. Most of the work is entry-level positions offered by processors, and crews work 12 to 16 hours a day, often in split shifts.
While at sea, the crew members have little time for anything other than working, eating and sleeping. For the majority of the companies, pay is based on the value of the product produced. "Because products processed at sea are of the highest quality, and can be produced with the utmost efficiency, at-sea processing employees are among the best paid seafood workers," according to the At-sea Processors Association, an industry association. Employees who meet contract conditions also get free room and board at sea, plus transportation to and from the fishing grounds.
The groundfish industry produces a huge supply of healthy, high protein food for the world wholesale and retail markets, including fast food restaurants, which sell millions of fillet of fish (pollock) sandwiches, and retail products that include fish (pollock) sticks. Through it's Community Catch initiative, the At-sea Processors Association provides more than one million seafood meals annually to food banks, mostly Alaska pollock and cod harvested in the Bering Sea fisheries.
Community Catch coordinates with SeaShare, a Northwest non-profit that links the seafood industry with Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest), the largest domestic hunger relief organization, with more than 200 regional food banks. In 2002, APA's Community Catch program received America's Second Harvest's Special Recognition Award, honoring the association's efforts to feed hungry Americans.
That humanitarian effort aside, marine conservation organizations have cast a skeptical eye for years on the groundfish fleet, charging them with fishing practices destructive to the ocean ecosystem , including the needs of sea mammals, and with wasting tons of seafood caught incidentally and dumped back into the ocean. Certain areas are now off limits to fishing to protect Steller sea lions rookeries and haulouts, and the federal fish council is working on measures to reduce chinook and chum salmon bycatch.
The history of the Alaska groundfish fisheries dates back to the late 1800s, when cod schooners - sailing boats - came to Alaska to fish from the Pacific Northwest. A state voice in control and management of fisheries, and other renewable and non-renewable natural resources, didn't begin until statehood.
In 1964, five years after statehood, foreign vessels began harvesting pollock in the Bering Sea. By 1972, after a record harvest of nearly 1.9 million tons of pollock, the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union agreed to start reducing annual harvests. Four years later, the Fishery Management and Conservation Act was passed by Congress, putting marine fishery resources beyond state jurisdiction but within 200 miles of all U.S. coasts under federal jurisdiction. The legislation was renamed in 1980 to honor the late Sen. Warren G. Magnuson and in 1996 to honor Sen. Ted Stevens, both of whom had extensive involvement in the legislation.