| ANCHORAGE, Alaska
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
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
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)