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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bering Sea Ecosystem in Trouble

Air Date: Week of

Steve Heimel of the Alaska Public Radio Network reports on the decline in an array of wildlife species in the Bering Sea. Some in the area say the trouble is due to overfishing of pollock by the region's factory trawler fleet. A possible downgrading of the northern sea lion from threatened to endangered status could force a sharp cut in pollock harvests and a new battle over the Endangered Species Act.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The Bering Sea. . . the icy waters that lie between Alaska and Siberia. . . have in recent years become home to a huge factory fishing industry. Their target is pollock, a relative of the cod. But the Bering's pollock are also a principal prey for the threatened northern sea lion, fur seal and a number of other mammals and birds. With a recent decline in the numbers of pollock, and a corresponding drop in the counts of sea lions and other species, some are saying commercial fishing should be restricted to protect the Bering's ecosystem. From Saint Paul Island in Alaska, Steve Heimel has our story.

(Ocean sound under)

HEIMEL: When you stand at a seabird rookery on the coast of St. Paul Island, in the middle of the triangle of ocean formed by Siberia, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, the abundance of the wildlife is overwhelming. Thousands of seabirds are nesting on the cliffs, and in the green of each wave that breaks offshore, you can see the grey forms of fur seals. It takes the eye of a scientist to spot the signs of biological decline.

GOLOVKIN: Look at the nest of the kittiwakes. This one, this, and this -- three nests and this -- fourth -- and this fifth -- and in only one nest you can see a chick, here one.

HEIMEL: Dr. Alexander Golovkin heads a group of Russian and American scientists examining the bird population on St. Paul to see what it can tell them about the overall health of the Bering Sea ecosystem. A decrease in the bird population can forecast the effects of overfishing. In Peru, for instance, the seabird population crashed from lack of food in the mid-Sixties. It was 1970 before the anchovy fishery went the same way. Now Dr. Golovkin says the birds in many areas of the Arctic are showing those symptoms.

GOLOVKIN: In many seas around the Pole the colony of seabirds declined so steeply and so abruptly that many scientists decided that it is a result of lackage of the food for seabirds.

HEIMEL: Here on St. Paul, not all bird species are declining. Studies show that those that eat plankton, like the least auklet, are doing fine. But birds like the black-legged kittiwake, which needs pollock to feed its young, are reproducing at the depressed rate of about ten percent this year.

(Sound of fish processing plant)

People see pollock in the form of surimi, imitation crab meat. It's made in plants onshore, and right aboard large factory ships, which send most of it to Japan. Originally developed by the Japanese, Bering Sea factory trawlers are now owned in the US. Wonders of efficiency, they have fish-finding sonar, and even television cameras inside their huge trawl nets. Below decks are as many as five production lines, each running as much as 250 tons of pollock a day. Charlie Jacobsen is captain of the Arctic Trawler, at 296 feet far from the largest factory ship in the fleet.

JACOBSEN: We've got fish-finding equipment, we've got navigation equipment up here. We have the latest trawl surveillance equipment and navigational equipment here for the safety of the boat and catching fish, and a lot of it is standard on the big trawlers and we have all of that. We do catch our share of fish, fortunately.

HEIMEL: If you count the entire Bering Sea, the factory trawler's share has been as much as four million metric tons of pollock a year. It's lower this year, but there are some who believe the pollock catch is still so large that it's depriving other creatures of food. Larry Merculief, the city manager at St. Paul, says they're seeing population numbers falling for more than a dozen species depending on pollock: from birds to mammals, from murres to fur seals to sea lions.

MERCULIEF: Major catastrophic declines of multiple species , to the point now that there's not enough food for the animals in the higher levels of the food chain. So, in effect, overfishing is occurring now.

HEIMEL: According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the population of northern sea lions in the Bering Sea area has dropped by more than 80%. The Greenpeace Foundation says it's clear that overfishing is to blame. But other scientists contacted for this report were unwilling to say for sure that that's the problem. The Bering Sea is so large and the data so skimpy that most want more study and won't hazard a guess. Biologist Vidar Wespestad at the National Marine Fisheries Service doesn't have any choice about guessing. Sitting at his computer in Seattle, he's the person who decides how much pollock fishermen can catch each year in US waters. While he's quick to agree that there's not enough data, he also points out that the quota he sets for pollock is very conservative, about a quarter of the adult fish he estimates are in the area.

WESPESTAD: I think we're fairly safe, I mean, what's happening isn't because of the fishery, it's because of factors beyond our control, primarily environmental factors.

HEIMEL: A recently discovered 18 year temperature cycle is the latest suspect in the pollock mystery. The whole Bering Sea apparently warms and cools to match a moon cycle. Some scientists think pollock abundance follows this curve of temperatures up and down. The temperature is headed down for another three years or so. But whatever the cause, all agree that the pollock population is down, and this is especially true of the juvenile fish that are used as prey by birds and mammals. Natives on St. Paul and in other communities along the Bering Sea coast have begun to press for conservation measures. They're calling for a broader ecosystem approach to the way the pollock fishery is managed -- an approach that would take other species into account. St. Paul city manager Larry Merculief says the Bering Sea's pollock stock should be budgeted for all species, not just the fishing industry.

MERCULIEF : Instead of just determining how much humans can take, we have to set up a budget for all the primary constituents in the Bering Sea. So, for example, fur seals take so much metric tons, 100 million metric tons of pollock, sea lions take so much of pollock, birds take so much of pollock -- they need a budget to make sure that we set aside enough for them to survive while we're trying to do our thing economically. And that's not being done now.

HEIMEL: Of all the animals threatened by pollock decline, it's the northern sea lion which may push the issue to a decision. Already listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, its population numbers are continuing to decline in spite of some actions taken to protect them. If new population counts taken this fall trigger an endangered listing for the sea lion, the government may be forced to severely restrict the pollock harvest. That could virtually end a $200 million dollar fishery. The Alaska Factory Trawler Association says five thousand jobs hang in the balance. The sea lions could become the spotted owl of the fishing industry. On St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, I'm Steve Heimel for Living on Earth.



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