The pinnacle of the New York food experience (in my ever-so-humble opinion) is a warm, fresh bagel schmeared thickly with whitefish salad. So delicious, and as guilt-free as Jewish food ever gets, since these days whitefish is Alaskan pollock, the sustainability posterfish. (Whitefish used to mean cod, haddock, or hake, but those fisheries are gone.)
So when Mark Powell and Jennifer Jacquet reported that Alaskan pollock stocks were down by half, I was extremely upset – until I realized that there’s no decent whitefish salad in San Diego anyway. But then I remembered that I will be in New York for Thanksgiving, got upset again at the loss of my precious whitefish salad, and then realized that I’m not ready to give up on the sustainability of the pollock fishery yet.
First, I want to point out that fish do go through huge natural populations swings caused by oceanographic conditions. The famous Cannery Row sardine crash may have been caused as much by the atmosphere as by overfishing. Though I certainly don’t dispute the worldwide problem with overfishing, the role that climatic conditions may be playing in the pollock decline shouldn’t be discounted.
But the cause of the decline actually doesn’t matter very much. This is an opportunity for managers to show that they care about sustainability and the latest buzzword, adaptive management. If fish populations are decreasing, management should allow significantly fewer fish to be taken (total allowable catch, or TAC), and they should move to protect spawning aggregations. (In the pollock fishery, it is legal to target winter spawning aggregations). In happy sustainable-land, this should all happen without lawsuits and rioting, because everyone wants to protect the fish stocks, right?
This will probably be financially challenging. But if fishermen and managers are serious about investing in a sustainable fishery, they’ve got to manage the fish through the bad years as well as the good, whether the decline is natural or man-made. Management wasn’t stringent enough in New England, and as a result there are no cod. I hope that Alaska is different. Because, dammit, I demand delicious toppings for my bagels, and tackling lox sustainability is WAY harder!