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By John Sackton and Peggy Parker
Virtually all U.S. retailers have taken steps in recent years to articulate seafood-sourcing principles, sometimes via their seafood department, and others as part of an overall corporate responsibility commitment.
Whichever way these policies have been implemented, they have for the most part been positive for the seafood industry. Partnerships between retailers and suppliers have supported fishery improvements around the world, and have provided many examples of how large-scale seafood sales programs can rely on seafood that is sustainably harvested with minimal environmental impacts.
The common thread through most of these policies is the recognition that retailers are not in the business of science, and therefore have to rely on credible scientific evaluations by third parties to certify that the fisheries they buy from are meeting their commitments to sustainable practices.
In the United States, we are very fortunate in that many of the seafood sustainability principles are enshrined in federal law. Under the Magnuson Stevens Act, which governs all fisheries in federal waters, U.S. fishery managers are required to use the best available science in making decisions about harvest levels. They are required to identify essential fish habitat, and ensure that these habitats are protected, as well as being required to abide by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Act, both of which offer extensive protections from fishing activities that are detrimental to other species.
The experience of the Bering Sea, where over 50 percent of all U.S. seafood is harvested, bears out just how successful these conservation steps have been. Many of the principles in national fishery legislation were applied much earlier in the Bering Sea. For example, the North Pacific Council adopted a precautionary cap on total removals of groundfish in 1981, nearly 35 years ago.
The North Pacific Council has never since its inception in 1977, authorized harvests larger than the limits recommended by its science advisors, even though this did not become required by federal law until 2006.
But even more remarkable, the impact of these decisions can be measured by comparing the Bering Sea, where most U.S. pollock, cod, flatfish, halibut, salmon and crab are harvested, to other ocean basins around the world.
There are four areas of the world where there are major groundfish fisheries capable of supporting harvests of 2 million tons or more. We used United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) harvest data to compare four ocean basins: the Northwest Pacific, fished primarily by Russia; the Northeast Atlantic, fished primarily by Norway, Iceland and the E.U.; the Northwest Atlantic, fished primarily by Canada and New England; and the Bering Sea, or Northeast Pacific, fished primarily by the U.S. off Alaska.
The Northwest Pacific (Russia), from 1985 to 1989, averaged harvests of 5.2 million tons. Today those harvests are around 2 million tons, a drop of 60 percent.
In the Northwest Atlantic (Canada), from 1979 to 1990, groundfish harvests averaged more than 860,000 tons per year. In 2012 they were 88,000 tons, a drop of 90 percent.
In the Northeast Atlantic (Norway, Iceland, Russia), catches averaged more than 4 million tons annually for four years between 2003 and 2006. In 2012 that had dropped to 2.4 million tons, a decline of 40 percent.
In the Northeast Pacific (Alaska and the Bering Sea), since 1981, the five-year period with the highest landings averaged 2.06 million tons, while the latest FAO data from 2012 showed harvests of 1.85 million tons. In 2015 stock levels for pollock are again near record levels. The change from the period of the highest landings to now is less than 10 percent.
Naturally, there will be fluctuations from year to year, and well-managed fishery harvests are adjusted up and down to account for these fluctuations.
But fisheries collapses when harvests collapse over a sustained period, largely due to a previous period of drastic overfishing. Three major ocean basins all experienced heavy overfishing, and fisheries collapsed. The only exception was Alaska.