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The Decline and Fall of America’s Last Great Fishery

Oceans Without Fish

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

This week CBS News devoted a rare segment to the rapidly deteriorating ecological conditions in the world’s oceans. The report cited new research from the University of Halifax in Nova Scotia predicting that the world’s oceans will be largely depleted of fish by 2048. The report quoted lead scientist Dr. Boris Worm as saying: “This isn’t predicted to happen. It’s happening now.” 

In fact, some scientists have been predicting an oceanic apocalypse for nearly 20 years. In 1997, I spent several months investigating the shocking decline of fish populations in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, including a short stint on several factory trawlers, including the SS Gijon, based out of Seattle. I filed dozens of articles for CounterPunch, In These Times, the San Francisco Examiner and other publications on the looming disaster. What follows is a slightly revised chapter from my book Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me on the economics and politics driving the looting of the North Pacific fisheries. –JSC

The SS Gijon cuts through the slate-colored swells, trailing a white V in the waters of the Bering Sea. The trawler lowers its giant pelagic net from the stern of the ship and it unfurls into the waters below. The vast net, thousands of yards of nylon mesh, sweeps in a lethal curtain across the depths.

Hours later, the nets are cranked up to the piercing whine of straining engines. Inside: more than 400 tons of fish, crabs and squid. A Stellar’s sea lion and a few fur seals, indiscriminately snared while foraging for salmon, are also part of the haul.

The sea lion and seal are not spared. Indeed more than forty percent of the haul is considered worthless by-catch and will simply be ground up and spewed in bloody currents of saturated chum from the bilges of ship back out into the sea. Some 500 million pounds of marine life are wasted in this way in the North Pacific every year.

The Bering Sea is now the most productive fishery in North America. More than one-third of the United State’s commercial catch come from these frigid waters near the top of the world. Among the species sought by the fishing fleets of the North Pacific are yellowfin, sole, herring, halibut and ocean perch. But the most cherished target is pollock, the tofu of fish. Pollock, craved by the Japanese for surimi, turns up in American markets as fish sandwiches at Burger King and McDonalds and as imitation crab in the fish freezers at Safeway.

The SS Gijon is registered to the Seattle-based American Seafoods Corporation, a subsidiary of Resource Group International, a Norwegian conglomerate. The ship is a floating factory, longer and wider than a football field. The $40 million trawler can process 80 tons of fish mass a day, turning sole into fish meal and pollock into surimi. The catch is stored in huge freezers, where it can linger for months.

Resource Group International’s primary competitor in the lucrative Pollock fishing grounds of the North Pacific is the Arctic-Alaska Fisheries Company, another Seattle-based outfit. Arctic Alaska was acquired in 1992 by Don Tyson, the chicken mogul and Clinton patron from Springdale, Arkansas. Since then Tyson’s company has bought up three other Alaska seafood operations and, as a consequence, began fending off anti-trust investigations by the Federal Trade Commission.

The incursion of the big factory trawlers into the icy waters of the North Pacific began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By 2000, there were 45 factory trawlers operating in the Bering Sea fishery. The big ships are powered by super-charged diesel engines fed by massive fuel tanks that permit the trawlers to remain at sea for months without returning to home ports to refuel or off-load their catch. Often the processed surimi is simply transferred at sea to smaller ships owned by Japanese fish merchants. The long range of the factory ships allows them to operate in several distance fisheries in a single season and evade the catch quotas that saddle smaller operations.

The arrival of the industrialized super-trawlers spelled an almost immediate cultural and economic disaster for the communities of coastal Alaska. For decades the flourishing Alaskan fishing industry had been characterized by independent ship owners and small processing plants, sprinkled down the coast in towns like Kodiak, Cordova and Ketchikan.

In the 1970s, nearly 80 percent of the Alaskan pollock catch was made by small operators. Now the situation is almost entirely reversed. More than 70 percent of the Pollock in Alaskan waters is taken by factory trawlers and dozens of independent boat owners have gone bankrupt. But it’s the shore-based factories, making value-added fish products, that have been hit the hardest by the new generation of trawlers. The canneries, surimi plants and frozen fish processing factories provided year-round high wage jobs, an important stabilizing force for rural Alaska’s predominantly season economy. Today many of those plants and jobs are gone, replaced by the factory trawlers, which increasingly tend to employ Mexican and Vietnamese laborers at sweatshop pay rates.

Many of the Artic-Alaska Company’s ships unload their catch not in Seattle, but in Shanghai, China, where Tyson purchased a fish factory in 1994 from the Chinese government. The deal was brokered with the help of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and was back by federal government insurance and loan guarantees from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). In fact, the growth of the American factory trawler fleet was heavily underwritten by the US treasury, thanks to effective inside work by the congressional delegation from Washington state. Tyson’s company alone swept up more than $65 million in low-interest loans to fun the construction of 10 factory trawlers. In total, the Seattle-based factory trawler fleet raked in more than $200 million in so-called Fisheries Obligation Guarantees and other federal subsidies.

The economic dislocation brought about by the invasion of the mega-trawlers into Southeast Alaska is grimly paralleled by an ecological catastrophe in the waters of the Bering Sea and North Pacific. Again most of the blame can be laid squarely on the industrial behemoths. Using sophisticated sonar and electronic tracking devices, factory trawlers like the Gijon can swiftly zero in on new spawning grounds and fish them to near extinction. This is called pulse trawling. A particularly outrageous example of this genocidal method occurred in the 1980s in the Shelikoff Strait off the Aleutian Islands, when a newly discovered pollock stock was relentlessly fished to the point of collapse. According to a report on factory trawlers by Greenpeace, in less than a decade the Shelikof pollock fishery had declined from an estimated biomass of 3 million tons in 1981 to less than 300 thousand tons in 1988.

Every since the factory trawlers began flocking to the Alaskan waters the pollock season has closed earlier than planned. In the late 1970s, the pollock fishing season regularly ran for 10 months. In 1994, it closed after 70 days. It’s not surprising. The annual harvest capacity of the trawler fleet may well be greater than the entire Pollock population of the Bering Sea. The ramifications of this dire situation were contemplated in an internal assessment by executives at the American Seafood Company: “the catching capacity of vessels operating in the Bering Sea fishery appears to be double or triple the annual quota.” And these were quotas that most marine biologists considered to be dangerously inflated.

It’s not just the species targeted by the trawlers, such as pollock and sole, which are depleted. Crab, halibut and arrowtooth flounder are also in trouble. The consequences extend even to fish-eating seabirds, such as puffins, thick-billed murres and black-legged kittiwakes, as well as marine mammal, such as Stellar’s sea lions, fur seals, and sea otters. Pollock, for example, accounts for nearly 70 percent of the rare sea lion’s diet. A report by the National Research Council warns: “It seems extremely unlikely that the productivity of the Bering Sea ecosystem can sustain current rates of human exploitation, as well as the large populations of all marine mammals and bird species that existed before human exploitation—especially modern exploitation—began.”

The trend toward over-exploitation of the Alaskan fishery will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. For one thing, even the most stringent federal fishing laws have often served only to exacerbate the problem. Take the Magnuson Act, passed in 1976 as a way to protect American off-shore fishing grounds from growing incursions by foreign fishing fleets. The measure, rammed through Congress by the acerbic Senator Warren Magnuson, a Democrat from Washington, extended the federal government’s jurisdiction over fish matters from 3 miles to 200 miles off the US coastline, a move that was bitterly denounced as an act of ecological imperialism by the Japanese and Norwegians. In reality, it was simple economic protectionism.

The Magnuson Act established regional fish management councils to determine fishing seasons and allocate catch quotas. These councils, which soon came to be dominated by fishing industry lobbyists, were expressly exempted from federal conflict-of-interest laws, allowing industry flacks to direct as much of the haul back to their own companies and clients as they could get away with. And they did just that.

Exacerbating this situation is the archaic management philosophy of the federal agency charged with maintaining the health of ocean fish stocks: the National Marine Fisheries Service, which, curiously enough, is under the purview of the Commerce Department. Instead of viewing marine ecosystems as vibrant, diverse and inter-connected environments, NMFS attempts to manage ocean fish stocks through a species-by-species approach. This benefits the bottom lines of the fishing fleets, but flies in the face of current ecological thinking. By focusing only on the commercial fish stocks, NMFS ignores the toll industrial fishing methods exact on non-target species and on the marine habitat itself.

Medical researchers, backed by hefty grants from companies like Arctic-Alaska, continue to churn out reports touting the health-enhancing benefits of diets laden with Pollock, salmon and perch. Fish seems to lower bad cholesterol, reduce heart attack risks (especially for men) and suppresses the advance of free radicals, those frenzied compounds that stimulate cancer cell growth.

All this is undoubtedly true. Yet there are also health dangers associated with fish consumption. Fish can be contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other chemical toxins. One recent study estimated that consumption of PCB-laced fish from the Great Lakes may lead to 40,000 new cases of cancer over the next 25 years. Seafood products also carry a host of food-borne pathogens, including listeria, vibrio vulnifcus and, yes, salmonella. Testing for such dangers is even more lax and rudimentary than that in the beef industry. One local seafood merchant in Portland, Oregon told me: “What it comes down to is smell. When it starts to stink, we yank it off the shelf. What else can you do?”

But even the most accomplished sole sniffers would be unable to detect that there is something terribly wrong with many of the fish being hauled out of the Bering Sea. Thousands of tons of pollock, perch and black sole taken by ships like Gijon may—metaphorically, at least—glow; they may make Geiger counters erupt into a chilling stutter of clicks. In short, a considerable part of the haul from this last, great productive fishery may be radioactive.

What’s going on here? The story dates back to 1971, during the glory days of the Nixon administration and the nuclear sabre-rattling leading up to Henry Kissinger’s détente with the Soviets. In order to send a message of “American resolve,” Nixon ordered the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense to detonate the largest underground nuclear explosion in US history on Amchitka Island, a volcanic extrusion in the Bering Sea, halfway down Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

The five-megaton hydrogen “device” detonated on November 6, 1971 exploded with such shattering force that the middle of Amchitka Island fractured and collapsed, forming what the mad scientist Edward Teller delicately termed a “nuclear-excavated lake.” In the wake of the blast, hundreds of dead puffins were found with their legs driven through their chests, while sea lions, resting on sea rocks miles from the test site, were discovered with their eyes blown out of their sockets. Within months, there was ample of evidence that the test site, called Cannikan Lake, had begun to steadily leak radioactive waste, despite assurances from James Schlesinger, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, that it would take “a thousand years or more” for transuranic uranium to dribble into the sea.

Thousands of pages of recently declassified documents released by the Department of Energy to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reveal that Amchitka blast site began to leak Iodine 131 and Crypton 85 within two days of the nuclear explosion, draining into the groundwater and then to the sea through underground fissures in the island. Soon after the disclosure of these damaging documents, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens discreetly told Clinton’s Energy Secretary, Hazel O’Leary: “Madame Secretary, we’ve got a real problem up here. There’s leaking from the Amchitka test site and it might endanger our North Pacific fisheries.”

Now disturbing levels of Americum, Plutonium and Tritium are showing up in plants samples on the island. “If we’re finding these levels of radioactive waste, then the potential for severe harm is there,” said Pam Miller, a Greenpeace scientist who wrote a detailed report on the radioactive leakage on Amchitka. “This stuff appears to be leaking into the most important commercial fishery in the world.”

Even so executives at Arctic-Alaska Seafood remained tranquil. “We’ve never once found any radioactive fish,” a company spokesman told me. Moments later, however, the PR man admitted that the company had never tested its fish for radioactive waste and had no plans to start.

No wonder the surrealists adopted the fish as a symbol of their movement.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.   He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net