ANCHORAGE, Alaska Dec 16 The United States' biggest commercial seafood harvest will get a little smaller next year under catch limits set this week by federal fisheries managers, as they seek to keep fish stocks sustainable.
The Bering Sea and Aleutian Island harvest of Alaskan pollock -- the ubiquitous whitefish that is formed into most of the fish sticks, fast-food fish burgers and imitation crab meat sold in U.S. markets -- was capped at its lowest level in three decades.
The move may not immediately affect big buyers like McDonald's Corp (MCD.N), which can source fish products widely, but if the trend of smaller catches continues, it could eventually undermine the dominance of Bering Sea pollock and put a squeeze on world seafood markets.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which wrapped up a week-long Anchorage meeting on Tuesday, has recommended that no more than 813,000 metric tons of pollock be harvested in 2010 from the Bering Sea and nearby North Pacific waters off Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
That's a 2,000-metric ton reduction from last year's limit and a far cry from the annual harvests of about 1.5 million metric tons that were allowed earlier in the decade, when stocks were booming.
It's a potentially worrying sign for companies that buy Alaskan pollock, such as Pinnacle Foods, which owns the Mrs. Paul's and Van de Kamp's brands; international conglomerates such as Japan's Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd (1332.T), a big player in the Alaska fishing industry and owner of Gorton's; and fast-food chains such as McDonald's and Dairy Queen, as well as smaller firms like Seattle-based Trident Seafoods.
The good news for fish buyers is that increased production from Russia is offsetting cutbacks in Alaska, said Gunnar Knapp, a University of Alaska Anchorage economist who specializes in fisheries issues. There has also been a boom in production of farmed whitefish substitutes, particularly pangasius, considered similar to catfish, said Knapp.
Food industry representatives said the harvest limit, while much lower than in past years, is acceptable because it reflects careful management of the resource.
"The thing is, it's not overfished," said David Benton, a former Alaska state fisheries manager who heads the Marine Conservation Alliance, a coalition of fishermen and fishing-dependent communities. "It's not in bad shape. It's just in a low-harvest cycle."
But some environmentalists fear that the council is relying on overly optimistic assumptions about a rapidly changing ocean ecosystem. Environmental group Oceana recommended that the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island 2010 harvest should be no more than 433,000 metric tons.
"There is kind of a measured gamble going on here," said Jon Warrenchuk, an ocean scientist with Oceana.
Several experts have cited the Alaska pollock harvest as one of the world's best-managed fisheries. It has been certified "sustainable" by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit organization that evaluates and guides fishery practices.
Knapp said the "sustainable" label for Alaskan pollock might give it an edge as a premium product in some markets. (Reporting by Yereth Rosen; editing by Bill Rigby, Gary Hill)