Heat’s on hoki, pollock

There was a time when a 20,000-metric-ton fishing quota increase drew little, if any, fanfare. But in today’s eco-conscious society, where sustainability influences the purchasing decisions of the world’s largest seafood buyers — from Wal-Mart to Tesco to Carrefour — such a quota increase is hardly overlooked.

On Tuesday, New Zealand Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley set the country’s hoki quota for the 2009-10 fishing year, which begins on Thursday, at 110,000 metric tons, up 20,000 metric tons from 2008-09.

The increase ignited outcry from the environmental camp. New Zealand’s Green Party, for example, said the hoki fishery “needs to prove its sustainability and clean up its environmental act.”

New Zealand’s government defended the quota increase, citing a 2009 stock assessment that found the eastern hoki stock remains “strong” and is well within sustainable target levels, and that the western hoki stock is back to sustainable target levels after years of low recruitment (the number of young fish surviving to adulthood and entering a fishery). In fact, a larger quota increase was justified, but Heatley said he erred on the side of caution.

Perhaps the quota increase wouldn’t garner so much attention if New Zealand’s hoki fishery hadn’t peaked at 250,000 metric tons in 2000-01 and hadn’t been certified as well managed and sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council since 2001.

Alaska’s Bering Sea pollock fishery, which also has been certified by the MSC since 2005, is in a similar boat. After reaching 1.5 million metric tons in 2004, the quota dropped to 1 million metric tons by 2008 and 815,000 metric tons this year, and another quota cut is likely next year after scientists revealed two weeks ago that the pollock stock is lower than expected and recruitment may be down.

Setting quotas is a complex task — fisheries managers pour over piles of data from stock assessments to ensure a quota doesn’t compromise a stock’s long-term health. Fish stocks are cyclical, they argue, so they fluctuate naturally. But environmentalists contend that there’s much more than nature at play, pointing to fishing pressure and climate change as significant factors in a stock’s demise.

For New Zealand hoki and Alaska pollock, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. But let’s not forget, New Zealand and Alaska, in addition to Iceland, are widely regarded for responsible fisheries management, cited as shining examples in the highly touted Boris Worm-Ray Hilborn study published in late July.

If New Zealand and Alaska aren’t getting it right, then aren’t all sizable fish stocks in trouble?

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund

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