This paper was written as part of the 2010 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Affects of Receding Sea Ice and Pollock Industry in Unalaska


Patrick Trinidad
Sebastian Graves
Bethany Hladick
Sirahna Graves

The Pelagic Surimi Bombers

Unalaska City School
P.O. Box 570
Unalaska, AK 99685


In Unalaska there have been many problems happening with the affects of receding sea ice and the pollock industry. The affects of the sea ice can potentially turn our town into a small village again. Our group interviewed people in Unalaska to get information about what would happen to Unalaska if we were no longer able to catch pollock due to the receding sea ice. We interviewed key member of the community to include: the Mayor of Unalaska, Shirley Marquardt; resource analyst, Frank Kelty; long time resident, Wilma Adams; and the Unisea Production Manager, Don Graves. We used this information to synthesize the direct and indirect problems of climate change on the pollock fishery and the resultant impact on the community of Unalaska.


The general affects of receding sea ice

There are a lot of problems that have been arising in Alaska with the polar ice cap melting. With the sea ice melting there are many different animals that are being affected to include humans. Most people don't consider it, but Alaskan communities are an important part of the marine ecosystem. Many of the towns that are located on the Alaskan coast are having a big problem with sea ice melting for a wide variety of reasons. For some, its increased erosion, for others it's flooding and habitat loss.

One example in the current headlines is the polar bears. The polar bears are being affected by the polar ice cap melting because historically they live, hunt, and breed on the ice. Because of loss of habitat, these carnivores that eat seals, seal pups are being forced onto rocky headlands where ice seals are not habitually located. Without the ice the polar bears do not have one of their key food resources and might be forced to either move or adapt.

Another animal that is being affected by a changing climate is the walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma). With the sea ice receding, the cold pool is moving farther north which makes more area for pollock to survive in, but at the same time, makes it less efficient for fisherman to catch. Though many other fish and invertebrates are reacting to these changes like pollock, pollock may be one of the most important commercial fisheries in Alaska.

What is Pollock?

Walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) is one of the most sought out fish in Alaska. Walleye pollock are closely related to the cod family and are similar to its Atlantic counterpart, Atlantic pollock. Walleye pollock can be found in the waters of the Bering Sea, Okhotsk Sea, Southern Sea of Japan, near St. Lawrence Island, and the Asian coast to Kamchatka. Walleye pollock are considered to be schooling, pelagic fish that spawn in the late winter and early in the spring in the southeast Bering Sea. When they spawn, a female pollock can produce over 2 million eggs in the span of several weeks. Their life span has been recorded to be a maximum of 15 years. Pollock are a fast growing fish and that is one of the reasons why they are a good commercial fish (Figure 1). When pollock fully mature at around the age of four, they can weigh up to 1.4 kg and measure in 91 cm of length. At age four they can also be caught for commercial use. Walleye pollock feed primarily on euphausiids, small fishes, copepods, and amphipods.

Walleye pollock has been called, "The largest remaining source of palatable fish in the world." Although Walleye pollock fishing is considered "sustainable," they are currently on Greenpeace's "red list" of endangered species. In the beginning of Walleye pollock fishing, the fishing industry had caught over three million tons of walleye pollock. But in recent years, fisheries have had to reduce their catch by about half, or about 1.5 million tons.

The Pollock Industry

The pollock industry is the largest industry in the world. It is known to be the world's most sustainable fishery. The pollock industry is known for many different things that they produce in the world. There are three different stocks of pollock for the state of Alaska that are fished right now; they are the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Sea. There was another one at Bogoslof Island but there is not enough fish there to be caught by the fisheries.

One of the biggest products of pollock is surimi. Surimi is imitation fish that is used in various products such as imitation crab meat and other fish products. The fishing companies do this by chopping pollock into small of pieces using complex machinery, which then turns the creamy minced pollock into blocks of surimi.

Pollock is also sold as fish fillets on the fishing market. One of the most popular things that the fish is used for in America is found in fast food restaurants. You will see it is at McDonalds, Long John Silvers, and Gordons Seafoods (Don Graves pers. comm.)

The Affects of Sea Ice on the Pollock Industry

In the pollock industry there are many problems that are being caused by the receding sea ice. To make things more complicated, more and more salmon are starting to swim with the pollock causing more salmon bycatch with pollock trawling. Pollock are also moving farther northwest and causing even bigger problems for the state.

There have been many different problems occurring with the pollock fishery due to chinook and chum salmon. Pollock are a unique type of fish who usually don't group with other species of fish. The chinook salmon are starting to group up and become part of the pollock school. This makes it really hard on the fishermen who are catching them commercially. Fishermen have to try and catch as little salmon as possible when it comes to fishing for pollock. When salmon start to be caught excessively, boats have to stop fishing in certain areas. These fish though are staying in the same area, but the salmon are causing the different problems with catching the pollock.

When boats have to stop fishing in certain areas it causes them to have to start trawling in other areas for fish. The other areas for pollock trawling is farther northwest than where boats want to travel. With the fuel prices going up, the boats have spend more on fuel. Sometimes the boats will use up to 77 million gallons of fuel in a season. Spending that large amount of money for fuel is unbelievable and makes it really hard to make more money when they have to travel almost all the way to the international dateline.

The problem with the fish moving farther northwest for one of the main pollock fishing stocks is starting to move towards Russia. This is a really big problem because we are not allowed to fish in Russian waters, just like how they are not allowed to fish in Alaska waters.

In Alaskan waters, one of the problems we are seeing is that the fish that are being caught are too young and too small for seafood processing. In Alaska, fishermen are not allowed to catch pollock until they are at least three to four years old. In Russia, there are no age limits so they can harvest any size of pollock. This is bad because they will catch fish where they are not able to produce enough pollock for the future population biomass. People are predicting that the only fish that will go into Russian waters are the younger fish. The older fish will come back to where they once gathered in the Bering Sea. If the older fish keep moving into Russian waters along with the cold pool we would no longer be able to fish for pollock in our town. If this were to happen there would be no pollock industry in Unalaska. This would mean that the production companies would go to seasonal fishing only, where people would no longer have year round jobs. Companies would be laying off people because there isn't enough work for them.

If the cold pool keeps moving north but not any farther into Russian waters we would still have a few problems. One would be the fish might be too old when they reach the production companies. This can cause huge problems for the boats and production companies for Unalaska. The boats would have to pay more money for fuel because they were traveling farther north. This would eventually make the companies start losing money because they have to wait for fish that is bad, which they can't buy or process. These means the people who are being paid to work are getting paid to just stand around. The many different production companies might be hoping that the fish come back and researchers are saying that the pollock will be coming back. This might not be the case because science cannot predict everything that we want it to.

Affects and Importance of Pollock Fishing in Unalaska, Alaska

In Unalaska, our town is based on our fisheries. There are multiple different production companies that our town uses to employ people from across the country and locally. Three of the companies that are here in Unalaska are some of the top employers in the state of Alaska. There is Unisea Incorporated, Alyeska Seafoods, and Westward Seafoods who are all some of the top 50 employers in Alaska. Unalaska is recognized as the "#1 Port in the United States" since 1992, with one exception being the year 2000. The city of Unalaska in 2008 had 7.4% of the nation's fishery landings. This is a huge number of fish at 612.7 million pounds that have been landed in Unalaska (Figure 2). Catching this much fish makes Unalaska the number one port in the nation by far. In 2008, 85.94% of the fish that were caught in Unalaska was pollock (Figure 3). Pollock is very important to our town in many different ways other than the fishing industry. If pollock were no longer obtainable for boats to catch, it would be a disaster for Unalaska economically. Though Unalaska receives money from onshore processors, the loss of the pollock would mean a drop of almost $2 million that the city uses for capital projects, supporting local organizations, and capacity building (Figure 4 and 5).

One reason why it would be disastrous is because the first thing that would disappear in Unalaska is the schools travel budget for students to compete. This would affect all of the kids because they wouldn't be able to compete in any sports or academics. The only thing that the kids in the school would get to do is compete with each other because it would cost too much for them to go anywhere. There would also be a lot less scholarship money for the graduating class. The school would also have the problem with a decline in kids that are attending school here. If there wasn't a pollock industry all kinds of families would be disappearing because there would no longer be work for them in Unalaska.

The next thing would be all the utility prices would go up and taxes would too. This is for a couple of different reasons. There are mandatory updates that the city has to follow through on before they do anything else. This means that there would be budget cuts from somewhere else. The budget cuts would be coming from public services, like a decrease in staff for the Unalaska recreation center. It would also mean a decrease in the amount of activities that go on in town.

The population of Unalaska would be affected significantly. People would be moving somewhere else because of job decreases. The town wouldn't have enough tax money to help support the people of Unalaska and other places in Alaska. "The town would return to a village again without the fishery" said Mayor Shirley Marquardt (pers. comm.).

Importance of Pollock fishing in Alaska

Alaska pollock is the largest fishery in the world. The Aleutian Islands make up 37 % of the Alaska's fish harvest. In the entire nation Alaska lands approximately 54.4% of the nation's total fishery landings. The average pollock catch is approximately 2.5 billion pounds a year and it is supposedly a sustainable rate of catch. The state of Alaska makes up most of the fish landings compared to other fisheries pollock is a sustainable and safe fishery that should last forever. The pollock fishery has been looked at by 13 different environmental groups and all of them said that the pollock fishery meets all of the requirements in the code of conduct set by the Food and Agricultural Organization.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has also made sure that the pollock aren't over fished and they have put the quotas on the safe side so it stays sustainable. The NPFMC also made the quotas so that the harvest is only 15 to 20 percent of the total biomass of adult pollock. This is because the pollock are still reproducing at different ages and the next year there is supposedly just as many to harvest. They also put quotas on ground fish so that all of the ecosystems are safe and stay fishable. In the last couple of years the catch of juvenile fish has been decreasing because of the scientists monitoring the fishery so closely. The scientists have been trying to get the quotas to be smaller so the juveniles are not being caught. Instead the scientists want the juvenile pollock to live so they can reproduce for future years.

The Community Development Quotas (CDQ's) have provided western villages with money not just to develop stuff but to build things for the villages. For example, CDQ's have helped buy trawlers and catcher processors in towns to help bring more money into the village. When something like this is done it creates boats that are owned by Alaskans and help keep money in the state. The CDQ's go to about 65 Western Alaska villages for projects to help there community.

Which makes the pollock industry have a huge impact on western Alaska. Without the pollock fishery there wouldn't be as much tax money to help communities. This would make an indent in the Alaska state budget for projects.

Recommendations and Conclusion

As we continue to evaluate possible effects and solutions of receding sea ice in our community, many scientists try to come to conclusions. Since science can't indefinitely predict the future, some say that we should close the Arctic until we understand what the effects are going to be in the environment.

The plan from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was to close waters within 345 miles of the Alaska coast to all fishing except subsistence and small-scale commercial crab fisheries. This again is pending according to further study on the potential dangers to the variety of fish species already present and those that might migrate into the region. This solution might also to protect the changing ecosystems that would serve as a refuge. In light of the fact that new fish are coming in, it would allow them to perhaps thrive if we don't over fish the species. In the end, this refuge would most likely be small unless we convince other arctic regions to do the same. If we did this though, it would potentially cause the shut down of the city of Unalaska.

When it comes to the salmon integrating with the pollock schools there are other ways to solve this problem. Federal scientists are looking at a way to make the pollock trawling nets. They do this by looking at the difference of how chinook salmon and the pollock. The scientists are making escape routes in the net so that the salmon can escape and the pollock are still caught. This would make it so that fisherman can catch all the pollock they can in their quotas and there becomes less by catch of the salmon.

With the fish moving farther northwest the problem of not being able to catch any fish is a problem too. This is because the farther the fish travel northwest the farther they migrate into international waters. The problem with international waters is that the United States is not allowed to fish there. For this problem the only thing that can come out of it is bad. The fisheries would lose their money maker and then they wouldn't be able to operate any longer.

We asked City Manager, Chris Hladick, what the effects on the economy of our town would be if the pollock keep on traveling north.

"If the pollock move farther North, the cost of the fishing companies will increase and also it will affect the quality of fish. In light of the fact that the fish would have to be in the holds of boats longer, the quality is reduced. If it lasts for a long period of time, fishing companies would need to consider moving their processing plants farther north of shift more product to being processed on factory processors. All of which impacts costs for processing fish. In the end revenues from fish taxes could be negatively impacted. Alternatively, fish currently that range south of Unalaska could move into the Bering Sea ecosystem providing other opportunities that currently are not predictable."

If the pollock industry were to disappear in Unalaska there would be a huge economic crisis for the population of Unalaska. The fisheries are based on the pollock fishery and couldn't survive without it. "If we were to no longer be able to catch pollock our company and everything in it would disappear real fast" said Don Graves (pers. comm.). Unalaska would inevitable return to a small village without pollock.


average pollock weight as it ages

Figure 1. The chart above shows the average weight of pollock as it grows older, (table provide by Unisea Inc.)

graph of metric tons of fish caught between 2006 and 2010

Figure 2. The figure shows the amount of fish that are caught by the fishing companies in Alaska. It shows the total amount able to catch and then it shows how much was caught in each season. (Figure above provided by Unisea Inc., 2009)

in 2008 pollock represented 85.94% of all the fish processed in Unalaska

Figure 3. This figure shows how much pollock is caught in Unalaska out of all the fish caught in Unalaska. (The figure was provided by the City of Unalaska.)

pie chart showing the taxes collected from each of the fisheries in Unalaska

Figure 4. This shows how city tax money is received from the fishing industries. (Figure is provide by the City of Unalaska.)

in 2009 the pollock industry has generated 49.6 million dollars for Unalaska

Figure 5. This figure shows how much money the town has earned since the pollock industry has started up and increased through the years. (The figure was provided by the City of Unalaska.)