Op-Ed: At-sea Processors Association rebuts notion pollock processing generates high carbon emissions


Matt Tinning

Published on
January 30, 2020

Matt Tinning is director of sustainability and public affairs for the At-sea Processors Association (APA), a trade association representing six member companies that own and operate 16 U.S.-flag catcher/processor vessels that participate principally in the Alaska pollock fishery and U.S. West Coast Pacific whiting fishery. 

The wild Alaska pollock industry has an incredible story to tell about its carbon footprint. As a growing number of consumers start to weigh climate impacts in decisions around their daily diet, our industry is proud to deliver a delicious and nutritious product that has a “global warming potential value” among the lowest of any protein on earth.

A new study provides yet more evidence for the strength of our industry’s performance. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz used literature derived values and other techniques to estimate the carbon footprint of the secondary processing phase of wild Alaska pollock products. Their conclusion is that such secondary processing contributes, on average, between 0.56 and 0.66 kg CO2e per kg of finished product—and that the complete global pollock supply chain, from harvesting through to retail shelves, amounts to less than 2 kg CO2e per kg of finished product. These are truly remarkable results against any reasonable benchmark.

The study’s lead author is urging those of us who are part of food production systems to “take a comprehensive approach” to analyzing climate impacts – considering not merely primary production but also transport, processing and other “downstream” factors. That perspective is a welcome contribution to the discussion. In the case of our industry, it has unfortunately led to some misguided reporting. An article run by SeafoodSource on 24 January, “Alaska pollock fish sticks, surimi processing generates ‘significant’ greenhouse gas emissions,” implies the processing of finished wild Alaska pollock products such as fish sticks and surimi generates high greenhouse gas emissions. Yet that is true only in a world where we judge the level of such emissions solely against emissions at the point of primary production. Surely no one would seriously argue that our industry should be judged harshly for having such incredibly low emissions at the point of harvest? For accessing an abundant natural resource with an efficiency of fuel burned to total catch that is arguably the best of any fishery on the planet? For our part, we believe that these are features of our industry worth celebrating.

It is also important to be accurate in descriptions of wild Alaska pollock supply chains. Our industry is proud to perform primary processing of wild Alaska pollock efficiently near the point of harvest—at sea and at shoreside plants. Product is then shipped for secondary processing and sale in domestic or export markets. The assertion in the 24 January article that “once pollock is caught, it’s often shipped abroad for processing, then shipped back to the United States and then finally exported overseas, actions that dramatically increase the carbon footprint of the fishery” is categorically false.

Our industry welcomes a continuing discussion about the climate impacts of wild Alaska pollock and other food production systems. Indeed, we are currently undertaking a self-funded life cycle assessment in order to more precisely measure the ecological footprint of our fishery. We hope the results of the study may show ways to reduce our ecological footprint even further.

Photo courtesy of Matt Tinning

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