Special Report | April 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Story of the Sea

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“Sustainability is a process,” Rice says. “It’s not a target and an endpoint, and you could determine that a fishery is sustainable at [a certain] point, but it’s [only] going to be sustainable if there is a management process in place to keep it that way. The management process that’s going to keep it that way has to have certain essential elements, and the first is that it’s got to be based on science.”

Its use of science helped Alaska, in 2000, become the largest fishery in the world to be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC has come to be known as one of the preeminent third-party certification standards for sustainable seafood.

“The Alaska pollock fishery, that’s a real model for the world in sustainability,” says Kerry Coughlin, regional director of MSC Americas. “It’s a large fishery, but their management of that has been exemplary over the years. The managers in Alaska and the federal managers on that fishery are very knowledgeable, very committed on pollock.”

Pollock is the most abundant commercial fish species in the Bering Sea, making up 60 percent of the total biomass, according to ASMI. Alaskan pollock is also the largest whitefish fishery in the world and the largest U.S. fishery by volume—good news for companies like McDonald’s, which uses the fish in its Filet-O-Fish Sandwich and Fish McBites.

Pat Shanahan is program director for Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, which represents more than 95 percent of the state’s production. She says the pollock industry in Alaska is a prime example of sustainability because of its use of data to protect fish stocks. Every year, she says, fishery scientists conduct surveys to create quotas for the TAC. All pollock catches are then weighed at the time of catch and reported against the quota—statistics are reported by federal observers at 100 percent of the boats and processing plants—and fishing is stopped once quotas are met.

“The fishermen really defer to the science,” Shanahan says. “We wait to see what the scientists say. There are years when they’ve cut back fishing in order to adjust to natural fluctuations in the stock, and the industry just readjusts to that. That’s not always the case with other fisheries.”

Alaskan pollock’s story has more to tell than sustainability. The product is nutritious (high in protein and omega-3s, and low in fat and calories), low in waste (nearly all of the fish is used in some fashion), and low in harm to the environment (greenhouse gases associated with the industry are lower than those for red meat and poultry, while bycatch stands at a seafood industry–high 1 percent). Pollock pulled from Alaskan waters is also processed and frozen within 72 hours of catch, Shanahan says, and isn’t thawed until it’s cooked for consumption.

“I think that’s particularly of interest to [quick-service] operators who are looking at distribution over a wide geographic area,” Shanahan says. “They’re nationwide and want to have consistent branded items that are going to be the same no matter if I eat them in Kentucky or I eat them in California.”

No, Alaskan seafood in Kentucky and California cannot be considered local. But those invested in the people, the history, and the production of Alaskan fish products are committed to a different kind of food story.

“The Alaska brand that we’ve tried to build for many years now stands for … quality, it stands for sustainability, but it also stands for a pristine environment and ‘wild’ and it kind of brings up that ‘fishermen in the elements’ kind of thing,” ASMI’s Rice says. “So there’s a lot of really positive messaging that goes with the association with Alaska seafood.”

The sea’s supply

Gulf Shores, Alabama, is not nearly as isolated as Dutch Harbor, but travelers may still find it’s off the beaten path. To reach its palm tree–lined, white-sand beaches, plenty of tourists could tell you the best plan of action is to fly into Pensacola and then take 292 West along the coast, with an obligatory stop at the Flori-Bama dive that straddles the states’ borders.

Gulf Shores sits near the mouth of Mobile Bay and is home to a number of fisheries and seafood processors. Whereas Alaska’s fishermen are grizzled workers accustomed to the rough elements of the Bering Sea, Alabama’s come across as everyday sportsmen, Southern drawls and sharp tan lines to boot. But don’t let the laid-back vibes of the Gulf Coast fool you: The Gulf’s seafood industry is hard at work hauling in shrimp, oysters, crab, and various finfish. According to the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition, Gulf Coast fisheries like those found in and around Gulf Shores account for 70 percent of domestic U.S. oysters and 69 percent of domestic shrimp.

“The fishermen really defer to the science. There are years when they’ve cut back fishing in order to adjust to natural fluctuations in the stock, and the industry just readjusts to that.”

While Gulf Shores and Alabama aren’t nearly the hub of Gulf Coast fishing—that would be Louisiana, with three of the top 10 commercial fishery landings by volume, according to NOAA—it did play host in October to industry executives from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, who met as part of the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition. The Coalition was established by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission in the wake of 2010’s BP oil spill to help promote the Gulf’s fisheries, something the executives had at the top of their agenda during the October meeting.

The problem is, in the last 10 years, the Gulf Coast’s seafood industry hasn’t just had sustainability to focus on; storms like Hurricane Katrina devastated oyster supplies, while the oil spill severely damaged consumer perception of the Gulf’s products.

“I think the Gulf is a great example of a place where natural and man-made disasters have really impacted the fisheries there,” says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), an industry trade association. “Despite their obvious resilience, it has been a tough row to hoe in the Gulf. So that is a far different challenge than what you might find in Alaska based on whether the salmon is running that well or not. Those are very different challenges, and they have to be managed regionally.”

That’s exactly what people like Chris Blankenship, director of Alabama Marine Resources Division, are doing. Blankenship oversees the state’s reefs, opening and closing access to them based on the stocks available, and manages the amount of harvested seafood each season.

“We have a limit on the number of oysters that can be harvested per person per day,” Blankenship says. “That keeps our reefs healthy, puts product on the market, but also allows us to not overharvest those regions where they won’t be productive the next year or the next year.”

Blankenship says the Gulf is hard at work improving the sustainability of its fisheries. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission is rolling out a voluntary traceability program, Gulf Seafood Trace, that ensures customers know where their seafood is coming from, and the industry is also working on a third-party sustainability certification program with New Orleans–based Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.