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There's always a catch

Alaska pollock could be the next big NGO target – does it deserve to be?

Every time things seem to settle down in the Alaska pollock sector, something crazy happens.

The “will they, won’t they” saga of the Russian pollock fishery’s bid for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seemed to put that issue to bed, but just last month, we reported that the story continues.

The market trauma of the Russian seafood ban seemed to largely have settled down – just in time for Russia to start offering subsidies for companies that keep their product in-country. China turned around and put food safety restrictions on imports from the country that seemed aimed at locking suppliers out.

Then, just after an industry-friendly executive takes over as the head of the MSC, Greenpeace takes action on an issue it’s been waiting to pounce on for years: the Bering Sea’s Canyons.

The fragility of the Bering Seafloor is not an unknown to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which regulates the Bering Sea harvest. The council has considered stakeholder input on closure of the areas for years, but no scientific data has so far compelled them to act, though research is ongoing.

The council process – lauded around the world as one of the most effective fisheries management practices ever developed – gives any legitimate stakeholders with an interest in the North Pacific the opportunity to give input into decisions on the harvesting of the vast waters off the coast of Alaska. It’s a deliberately long, data-driven process to make changes in management, but maintaining the sustainability of the fishery requires that kind of careful consideration.

But for Greenpeace Senior Oceans Campaigner Jackie Dragon, who told me she has brought up the canyons issue repeatedly with council members, things aren’t moving fast enough.

So last month, her group launched a rather odd campaign – one that has a dual strategy of both putting heat on the retailers, and advertising directly to the Seattle-based harvesters that target pollock in the disputed area.

The advertising posters and billboards – one of which hangs near the Ballard Bridge near the headquarters of many of Seattle’s largest seafood companies – carry the message “Bring balance to the Bering Sea.”

The retail side of the campaign, aimed first at Costco, Target and Albertson’s, is simple: “Don’t sell seafood that can impact America’s Grand Canyons of the sea,” Dragon said.

Though Dragon said this campaign is different – Greenpeace is pushing a message of partnership, she noted – the longer I spoke with her, the more I was convinced that we’re on the cusp of a standard, headline-grabbing “target the retailer” campaign.

“We think the council members will hear us better when companies where people buy their seafood stand with us,” Dragon said, which doesn’t so much sound like a message of friendship, it sounds more like a threat.

“It’s disappointing to see the Alaska catching sector continue to refuse to supply fish that’s not harvested in the canyons."

I pointed out that even if retailers did tell Alaska pollock suppliers they wouldn’t buy pollock harvested from the canyons, separating the non-canyon hauls from the rest of the harvests in the Bering Sea would be a challenge, if not an impossibility. At this, Dragon became agitated (and more than a little condescending).

“You don’t think in this day and age these companies can do that?” she snapped.

The volume of pollock harvested in the canyons, according to Dragon, is around 4 percent – to Greenpeace, it's an insignificant volume, but to the global whitefish sector, a sizeable enough amount.

Much of the basis for the campaign was a 2007 underwater survey by Greenpeace, during which it collected samples from the canyon floors, even discovering a new species of sponge (yeah, right).

Outside of Greenpeace, though, there aren’t a lot of prominent fisheries scientists familiar with the Bering Sea calling for a closure of the canyons.

In fact, Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, wrote a letter this week to the editors of The Seattle Times responding to a guest article written by, along with two other authors, Sylvia Earle.

“While it is true that the oceans are threatened in many ways, the Bering Sea is not threatened at all by fishing, and is in fact one of the best managed fisheries in the world with annual harvests well below scientific advice on what is sustainable,” Hilborn wrote.

“NOAA research has shown there is nothing unique about the flora and fauna of these canyons, and they are not heavily fished.”

Around 30 percent of the Bering Sea is affected by bottom trawling, he wrote.

The real threats, Hilborn notes, are ocean acidification, pollution, land-based runoff and IUU.

“Closing sections of the Bering Sea to fishing will have no impact on any of these,” he wrote.

So with a complete closure of the canyons unlikely, particularly if NOAA science doesn’t indicate it’s necessary, what is Greenpeace’s next move? Although Dragon insists this is not about direct action, I don’t buy it. And when I asked her to give details on the next step of the campaign, she declined to do so.

“I’m not privy to share details,” Dragon said. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to know what my Christmas presents are.”

I pointed out it’s pretty hypocritical to demand transparency from seafood companies and regulators while hiding your own agenda, particularly when you’re claiming you’re looking for partnership.

But there’s always a catch.