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An Aleutian Island Booms And Busts Over Bottomfish

The rise of the pollock has spawned an era of economic vitality, and a raft of political and environmental disputes between those who depend on the Bering Sea fisheries

WHAT the Canadian Klondike was to mining, this windblown, treeless island in the Aleutian archipelago is to commercial fishing. The once-lowly pollock and other bottomfish species have become undersea treasures. In 1984, 4,469 metric tons of pollock were landed in Alaskan waters by domestic vessels; in 1990 the total hit 1.4 million metric tons.

Two catalysts caused the bottomfish boom off Unalaska: Americanization of the vast Bering Sea fisheries; and surimi, a seafood paste used to make imitation crab meat and other foods.

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But gold-rush economics clash with sound management of the ocean resources here.

The 1976 Maguson Act, amended in 1987, established a 200-mile US zone, pushing foreign vessels out and giving American ships free rein. But while this has removed foreign competition, it has irritated relations within the US industry, and has created new environmental pressures in the Bering Sea.

Factory trawlers, ships 100 feet to 350 feet long with compact processing plants aboard, take more than 85 percent of the annual Bering Sea bottomfish catch allowed by the US Commerce Department's North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Owners of the Bering Sea factory trawler fleet, totaling some 70 vessels, take credit for creating the surimi market and say they are entitled to all they can catch. With a capital investment exceeding $1.1 billion, they cannot afford policy changes that would limit their catch, they say.

``This is absolute life or death,'' says Bruce Buls, spokesman for the Seattle-based American Factory Trawler Association.

But onshore seafood processors, now pressing the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to reserve half the Bering Sea pollock catch for them, say the mostly Seattle-based trawler fleet will lay waste to Alaska's resources. Only the shore-based operations, they argue, are dedicated to preserving Alaska's fish stocks. Their supporters, including state and local officials, this week are pleading their case before the council in Kodiak.

``I don't think we can sit idly by and see [the local industry] all destroyed and, after the factory fleet has taken all of the resources, watch them drive off and go somewhere else,'' says Frank Kelty, an Unalaska city councilman and seafood manager at Alyeska Seafoods Inc.

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Meanwhile, fish stocks are threatened. Uncontrolled fishing in international waters just outside the 200-mile zone, where Alaska-bound fish are harvested by foreign fleets, is another threat, says North Pacific council member Henry Mitchell.

``The problems are not just the factory trawlers. The problems are, in general, fishermen and factory trawlers - there's too many of them and there's too few fish,'' Mr. Mitchell says.

The crash of the Stellar sea lion, designated last year as a threatened species, suggests strains on the pollock stocks. From the Kenai Peninsula to the Aleutians, sea lion counts plummeted 75 percent in the past 15 years. Biologists say the animals, which feed on juvenile pollock, are starving.

SHEER waste is one of the worst practices in the frenzied fishery, critics say. A 10th the trawl-caught Bering Sea bottomfish is tossed overboard, usually dead. The wrong-size fish slows the efficient on-board processing system; the wrong species is without value to the offshore operation.

This year, the first that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) observers have counted discards, factory trawlers threw 73,784 metric tons of whole fish overboard from Jan. 1 to April 7.

Of the fish processed aboard the ships, up to two-thirds of the mass is tossed back after the most valuable parts are made into surimi or filets.

Sometimes the whole fish is discarded, usually dead, after the valuable roe - a delicacy in the Japanese market - is stripped from the females. Pollock roe-stripping is outlawed, but the practice continues for rock sole.

And concentrated waste dumping has ``soured'' areas of the Bering Sea, altering its ecosystems, says Larry Cotter, chairman of the North Pacific council's bycatch committee. ``The ground is completely covered with decaying carcasses, and the oxygen is depleted.''

Shore-based plants, in contrast, have an incentive to process all that is delivered to them because they pay for all of it. At the Alyeska complex, where a new $12 million fish-meal plant opened last August, a use is found for nearly every part of the fish.

State-of-the-art computer technology produces surimi. Cod for the Portuguese market is split, salted, and stacked in an ancient technique. Fish heads and cheeks are processed for the Norwegian market. Cod stomachs, used for soup, are packaged for the Koreans. Fish meal is turned into livestock feed; bone meal is also crushed and bagged. Fish oil is burned to heat the plant's steamers.

But Mr. Buls, tired of the trawler industry being ``villified,'' says fishermen delivering to processors also can be wasteful. The newest factory trawlers have fish-meal plants and other equipment to capture the value of now-discarded fish sections, he says.

The trawl fleet's growing bycatch of untargeted species also looms over the Bering Sea. Trawl nets that sweep the ocean floor are indiscriminate, gathering halibut, herring, crab, and salmon. Elderly Yup'ik Eskimos have complained that their nets, once heavy with herring, now come up empty. Some 65,000 chinook salmon, a species dwindling in the Pacific Northwest, were snared in trawl nets from Jan. 1 to April 7, NMFS reports.

Mr. Cotter says factory trawlers are eroding all West Coast halibut stocks by fishing in a Bering Sea zone formerly set aside as an incubator area. ``We're robbing the North American coast of its future recruitment,'' he says.

Enforcement is indeed a challenge in this largely unregulated fishery that reaches into the Bering Sea's unpoliced ``Donut Hole,'' the gap between US and Soviet zones.

Skeptics say the NMFS observers posted on trawlers are often inexperienced, susceptible to bribery, and victims of intimidation, violence, and rape. A fisheries police force is largely absent here. Only the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which oversees shellfish harvests, has a full-time presence. The US Coast Guard has no Unalaska office.

Back on land, onshore processors also pose problems. Even before March, when the new $70 million Westward Seafoods plant opened, processors were gulping 83 percent of the island's freshwater supply. Processors have been cited for air and water pollution violations. Unattributed fuel spills and trash dumps now taint the sea and beaches.

Just who owns the Bering Sea fisheries is at the heart of the debate here. The factory trawler association has branded the mostly Japanese-owned shore-based plants, ``Japan Inc.'' An onshore preference would concentrate power in the hands of two Japanese giants, Nippon Suisan and Taiyo Fisheries, the association warns.

But onshore advocates, pointing to substantial foreign ownership in the factory trawler fleet, say investors' nationalities matter little. Resource-conserving Japanese companies are better for Alaskans than resource-wasting Seattle companies, they say.

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