Alaska pollock fishery gets eco-label approval

Posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2004

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The $750 million Alaska pollock fishery - the largest fishery in the world - has been approved for an eco-label, an industry group said Tuesday.

It took several years to get final approval for the eco-label from the internationally recognized Marine Stewardship Council based in the United Kingdom, said Jim Gilmore, spokesman for the At-Sea Processors Association. The industry group applied in January 2001 to have the Alaska pollock fishery in the Bering Sea evaluated against stringent MSC standards.

The nonprofit group issued its final report Monday.

At-Sea Processors sought the label, in part, to distinguish products made from Alaska pollock in the marketplace. One of its goals is to increase markets in Europe where consumers are more likely to look for eco-labels, Gilmore said.

"Europe is a growth market for us," Gilmore said. "Consumers can be assured that when they eat Alaska pollock, they are selecting a healthy and nutritious product that is also the right environmental choice."

Fisheries that get the MSC eco-label are deemed environmentally friendly. The label lets consumers know that the seafood is not being overfished and was caught in ways that don't hurt the environment.

Alaska salmon was the first fishery in the United States to get MSC certification.

Scientific Certification Systems, Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., conducted the lengthy pollock evaluation. The panel looked at stocks, the environmental effects of the fishery and how effectively it is managed.

In a 278-page report submitted to the MSC, a panel of marine scientists and fishery management experts found that Alaska pollock is responsibly and sustainably managed.

Before certification for Bering Sea pollock is bestowed, the association will have to sign a contract agreeing to make some improvements in the fishery. It also must agree to a five-year full re-evaluation and yearly audits.

The pollock fishery off Alaska's coast accounts annually for approximately one-third of all seafood landings in the United States and is processed primarily by several Seattle-based companies.

Scientists estimate there are approximately 11 million tons of Bering Sea pollock. In 2004, fishermen were allowed to harvest a little less than 1.5 million tons, with most of the fish going into fast-food fish sandwiches, fish sticks and imitation crab products.

Environmental groups have charged that the huge fishery has caused endangered Steller sea lion populations off Alaska's coast to plummet more than 80 percent in the past 30 years. Alaska's approximately 64,000 Steller sea lions rely on pollock, cod and mackerel for food.

The panel made no determination on why sea lions are declining. It did, however, cite 10 areas that need improvement, including continuing efforts to evaluate effects the fishery could be having on sea lions and fur seals.

The environmental group Trustees for Alaska said it plans to file an objection to placing an eco-label on the fishery.

"I find it astonishing that the Marine Stewardship Council can certify the pollock fishery considering all the controversy and litigation that the fishery has been the subject of," said legal consultant Stacey Marz. "There are so many areas I think they got wrong."

The World Wildlife Fund said while concerns remain about the fishery's impact on marine mammals, it is confident that that areas of concern cited in the report will be addressed.

"We are confident that the recommendations will be followed," said Scott Burns, director of the WWF's marine conservation program. "Today's recommendation opens the door to public recognition of what's right about a fishery and to public support for changes to lessen its impact on the marine environment."

The MSC, now independent, was created in 1997 out of a partnership between the WWF and Unilever, a food, home and personal care product company. More than 200 products now carry the MSC label available to consumers in 17 countries.

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