ANCHORAGE - A panel determined that the $750 million Alaska pollock fishery is well-managed and sustainable - a finding that could bestow an eco-label on America's largest fishery.
The industry group At-sea Processors Association is seeking the label from the Marine Stewardship Council in an effort to increase the market for Alaska pollock, particularly in the United States and Europe, where consumers increasingly are looking for the green stamp of approval, APA spokesman Jim Gilmore said Tuesday.
Fisheries that get the MSC eco-label are deemed environmentally friendly. The label issued by the nonprofit organization in the United Kingdom lets consumers know that the seafood is not being overfished and was caught in ways that don't hurt the environment.
Three years ago, Alaska salmon was the first fishery in the United States to get MSC certification.
Scientific Certification Systems, Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., was chosen to conduct the more than two-year evaluation. The panel of three experts issued its 232-page report Friday, concluding that the fishery satisfied the council's three primary areas, said project manager Chet Chaffee. The panel looked at pollock stocks, the environmental effects of the fishery and how effectively it is managed.
The preliminary findings will undergo a peer review and additional public comment before a decision is made about whether Alaska pollock gets the eco-label. Gilmore expects that decision within the next two months.
"This comprehensive evaluation of the Alaska pollock fishery confirms the views of many other respected fishery managers and scientists that the Alaska pollock fishery is conservatively and responsibly managed," Gilmore said.
The pollock fishery off Alaska's coast accounts annually for approximately one-third of all seafood landings in the United States. Pollock is used in frozen fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches and imitation crab.
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 has about 64,000 Steller sea lions. Sea lions have been protected by federal law since 1967.
Sea lions rely on pollock, cod and mackerel for food.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, helped secure about $80 million in federal funding for more than 200 scientific studies to find out why Stellers are declining so rapidly.
The three-person panel made no determination on why sea lions are declining. It did find that the Alaska pollock fishery needs work in about one-third of the performance areas, including those concerning sea lions.
Chaffee said that after the review process is completed APA will have to sign a written contract agreeing to make the required changes to get the eco-label. The changes will have to be done within a time schedule and maintained, or the eco-label can be revoked, he said.
Several environmental groups criticized the panel's findings, including Trustees for Alaska and Alaska Conservation Foundation, which hired environmental consultant Stacey Marz to do their own report for the panel. She said the pollock fishery is harming sea lions and violating the federal Endangered Species Act.
"I am surprised they can pass," she said.
Gerald Leape, vice president of marine conservation for the Washington, D.C.-based National Environmental Trust, said the fishery does not deserve an eco-label.
"Right now, with its devastating effects on the ecosystem, including major repercussions for Steller sea lions and other marine wildlife, the pollock fishery does not merit approval," he said.