Russia is poised to open the first-ever commercial pollock fishery in Chukchi Sea

The fish have been moving north from their habitat in the Bering Sea as waters there warm.

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Pollock from Alaska’s Bering Sea are a major commercial fishery. Now those fish are moving in the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea, and Russia in eyeing a commercial fishery there. (NOAA)

Pollock, the ubiquitous whitefish that are made into frozen sticks, fast-food fish burgers, imitation crab meat and a range of other inexpensive food products, have thrived and moved north as the Bering Sea has warmed.

Now, Russian officials want to take advantage of the change.

Russian fishery managers are poised to open the first-ever commercial harvest of pollock north of the Bering Strait — in the Chukchi Sea, a new Arctic frontier for commercial fishing. The fishery would open this year, according to the plan.

A survey conducted last year showed that a significant amount of pollock has moved north from the Bering Sea above the Arctic Circle into the Chukchi, the Russian Federal Research Institute for Fisheries and Oceanography said in a report evaluating upcoming seafood harvest.

Warming conditions are believed to be behind the large numbers of Chukchi pollock found in the 2019 survey, said the harvest document.

“As a hypothesis, it can be assumed that the warming of the Bering Sea, which has been observed since 2015, has affected the temperature background of the southern part of the Chukchi Sea, the removal of zooplankton (the main food objects for pollock) and, as a consequence, the expansion of the range of pollock in the north,” the document said.

Along with pollock that passed north through the Bering Strait, it is likely that some pollock now in the Chukchi came north from the Sea of Anadyr, the document said.

The recommended total allowable catch, or TAC, for the Russian side of the Chukchi is 68,000 metric tons, according to the document. Given the measured Chukchi biomass of 890,000 metric tons, that is “a very gentle fishing load,” the report said.

The proposed pollock harvest would not harm the environment, the document said.

Russia’s expansion of commercial fishing in Arctic waters bucks an international conservation trend.

U.S. officials in 2009 closed off U.S. Arctic waters to any new commercial fishing. There is a longstanding but relatively small commercial salmon harvest in Kotzebue Sound, which is north of the Arctic Circle, but no further commercial harvests will be allowed in federal marine waters of the Arctic for the foreseeable future, under action taken by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

In 2017, 10 governments agreed to put the international waters of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to commercial fishing. That 1.1 million-acre “Arctic donut hole,” which lies beyond any nation’s territorial waters, in the past was reliably covered by ice year-round. Sea ice retreat has made the area vulnerable to new commercial harvests; the international agreement bans such exploitation for 16 years, allowing time to better understand and properly manage the ecosystem. Environmental advocates argue that Russia should take the same cautious approach with its Chukchi Sea waters.

A lot more study, analysis should be conducted and new protections put in place before any commercial pollock fishing starts in the Chukchi, the World Wildlife Fund of Russia said in its formal comments to the Russian Federal Research Institute for Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO).

A pollock harvest poses big risks for the large number of marine mammal and bird species that depend on the Bering Strait and southern Chukchi Sea ecosystem, such as walruses, whales and rare bird species.

“The unique geographical position at the junction of two continents and two oceans has turned the region into a habitat for about 20 million seabirds and hundreds of thousands of mammals,” WWF-Russia’s comment statement said. There could be pollution, including air emissions, chemicals and sewage waste in the water, industrial noise and lost fishing nets that can entangle marine animals, the statement said. Trawling could damage sensitive seafloor habitats, and ships create risks of collision with marine mammals, the statement said.

“We consider it necessary to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the intended economic activity for pollock fishing in the Chukchi Sea, including an assessment of the impact of both fishing operations and related shipping on these areas, which are of great importance for biodiversity conservation,” the WWF-Russia statement said.

The Chukchi pollock harvest is not yet a sure thing, said Sergey Rafanov, director of WWF Kamchatka’s program. Final approval has yet to come, he said in an email.

“After that the auction should take place, but there is no guarantee that fishing companies would be willing to buy stakes in the TAC,” he said.

The majority of the world’s pollock harvest takes place in the southern Bering Sea. The Alaska Bering Sea harvest has accounted for up to 30 percent of the total U.S. commercial seafood catch in recent years; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council set the 2020 Bering Sea harvest cap at 1.425 million metric tons. Other big harvests are conducted on the Russian side, in both the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. There are pollock in other waters, such as the Gulf of Alaska, where the North Pacific Fishery Management Council set the 2020 harvest level at 115,930 metric tons.

But there is clear evidence that pollock are swimming north of those traditional harvest locations.

On the U.S. side of the Northern Bering Sea, surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found staggering increases in pollock biomass from 2010 to 2019, along with huge increases in biomass for another boreal species – Pacific cod – and crashes for two biologically important far-north forage fish species. Pollock biomass in 2019 was about 1.17 metric tons, up 5,421 percent from what was measured in the area in 2010. Pacific cod biomass was up 1,153 percent from 2010 levels. Arctic cod biomass in that region, measured at 37,861 metric tons in 2010, had almost entirely disappeared by 2019, while 2019 biomass for smelts was down 70 percent from 20190 levels, according to the surveys.

Even though there has been scientific cooperation in the past on fishery surveys in the Bering Sea, there has not been recent collaboration, and little is known about movements across the border, said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

It is not surprising that U.S. officials know little about the Russian harvest plans, Rafanov said in his email.

“I doubt there are any discussions with US government since there is no mechanism for this and no formal requirement,” he said.

The new fishery is expected to open in August or perhaps later in the year, said Yuri Kislyak, the press officer for WWF-Russia’s Kamchatka/Bering Sea Ecoregion Office.

(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Maggie Mooney-Seus’ name and clarify her statement about knowledge of pollock in the Russian waters.)