WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stocks of Alaska pollock, a staple of the U.S. fast food industry, have shrunk 50 percent from last year to record low levels and put the world's largest food fishery on the brink of collapse, environmental group Greenpeace said on Friday.
Taina Honkalehto, a research fishery biologist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, said pollock biomass in U.S. waters was down to 940,000 tons from 1.8 million tons last year.
Pollock is used in McDonald's fish sandwiches, frozen fish sticks, fish and chips and imitation crabmeat. It also helps feed fur seals, whales and the endangered Steller sea lions.
Pollock stocks have been unable to reproduce quickly enough to recover from yearly catch of 1 million tons, environmentalists say.
"Just as the financial institutions on Wall Street collapsed due to poor oversight and mismanagement, the pollock fishery is on the fast-track to collapse as well," Greenpeace said.
A collapse of the fishery would have hurt Alaska's commercial fishermen and coastal communities that depend on the sea for income.
"Economic pressures to keep on fishing at such high levels have overwhelmed common sense," said Jeremy Jackson, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in a statement.
Jackson recommended a "far more precautionary, ecosystem-based approach" to fisheries management.
Greenpeace has called for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to cut the catch in half for pollock when it meets in December to set limits for 2009.
The 2008 catch limit was set at 1 million tons last December, a 28 percent cut from the 2007 limit.
"We are on the cusp of one of the largest fishery collapses in history," said John Hocevar, Greenpeace's oceans campaign director. "It may still be possible to prevent disaster."
The group also advised that fishing on spawning populations be suspended and marine reserves be created to protect pollock habitats as the fishery has seen poor juvenile survival rates for several years.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Marguerita Choy)