The Arctic’s pollock fishery is both ecologically and economically important.
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The rich Arctic ecosystem has long sustained life for the region’s small human population. Hunting and fishing is integral to Arctic indigenous culture, but now commercial fisheries are pulling from Alaska to supply the world. These fish populations support more than just human diets. They are a crucial part of the food web and directly interact with everything from plankton to seabirds and marine mammals.
A critical economic resource for Alaska, and the largest US fishery by volume is Alaska Pollock, also called walleye. Despite some concerns about the impacts of trawling, and recent fluctuations in the population, it is considered to be sustainably managed.
Alaska pollock. Photo by NOAA, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
Atlantic pollock, however, is a different story. It is only rarely sold in the US, and Atlantic pollock fisheries vary greatly in sustainability. Whereas Norwegian stocks and fishing methods are considered responsibly managed and Atlantic pollock from the US and Canada are labeled as somewhat well-managed, some (but not all) Icelandic fisheries are rated unsustainable because the fish population is small and they are caught by trawling, which causes a lot of bycatch – catch of unintended fish like salmon.
Some of the recent population fluctuations in Alaskan pollock have raised concerns about melting sea ice. The phytoplankton that depend on sea ice are food for zooplankton, which are juvenile pollock’s main prey. When these links change, the pollock population, which is monitored through annual surveys, may respond in unpredictable ways.
Conducting a population survey. Photo by NOAA Photo Library, Flickr, Creative Commons License.
Diminished sea ice will also allow fishing vessels further into the Arctic Ocean to exploit other fisheries that, so far, have hardly been touched. Precautionary management will be necessary to keep the ecosystem in balance. If harvested with care, this ecologically and economically important fish can continue to thrive and support animal life in the Arctic as well as human appetites.