Alaskan pollock harvest cut due to sparser stocks

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Catches of Alaskan pollock, the lowly whitefish that make up the bulk of the nation’s fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches and imitation crab meat, will be drastically cut next year because of reduction in the stocks swimming in the Bering Sea, according to action taken by federal fishery managers.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council this weekend approved an 815,000 metric ton cap on the commercial harvest in 2009, an 18.5 percent cut from this year’s harvest limit of 1 million metric tons and about 40 percent less than the total harvest authorized in 2007.

Years of declining stocks in the Bering Sea prompted scientists to advise the steep cut, which the council approved unanimously.

The Alaskan pollock catch is the world's largest single-species commercial seafood harvest, supporting an industry worth about $1 billion a year and providing feedstock to the likes of McDonald's Corp MCD.N and Yum Brands Inc's YUM.N Long John Silver's.

The massive catch in the Bering Sea, alone with a smaller catch in the Gulf of Alaska, typically accounts for nearly 40 percent of all seafood landed by commercial fishermen in U.S. waters.

“I think it was a very easy decision,” said Sam Cotten, one of the council members. “Our council and the people involved in it have pretty strong confidence in the scientists that we rely on.”

Pollock stocks have declined 20 percent per year since 2003, dipping to their lowest level since the late 1970s, according to an assessment from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

Some environmentalists argued for a much smaller harvest quota, saying the Bering Sea is undergoing drastic changes that might cause fisheries to crash.

“So much pollock has been mined from the ocean that the entire ecosystem has been restructured. Even with that knowledge, along with all the other indicators of species declines, the Management Council is establishing a catch limit for pollock nearly double the amount that is sustainable,” George Pletnikoff, an Aleut from Alaska’s Pribilof Islands and a Greenpeace oceans campaigner, said in a statement.

Greenpeace has been running television advertisements in Alaska warning of potential overfishing of the fish.

Oceana, another environmental group, was seeking a quota of about 500,000 metric tons, saying that despite a large number of fish born in 2006, there is a lot of vulnerability.

Scientists advising the council, however, characterized the 815,000-metric-ton limit -- the smallest in decades -- as cautious and responsible. The Bering Sea stock is far above a level that would be considered overfished, they said. (Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Alaska; editing by Jim Marshall)