ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A seafood trade association is seeking a green label for Bering Sea pollock to assure consumers that the largest volume fishery in the United States is not harming the environment.
Certification by the Marine Stewardship Council would verify that the $750 million pollock industry off Alaska's coast is sustainable and well-managed, said Trevor McCabe, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, whose members account for approximately 40 percent of the annual Bering Sea pollock harvest of more than 2 billion pounds.
The pollock industry is an excellent example of what can happen when good science and conservative catch limits are enforced, McCabe said Thursday.
''We believe the pollock fishery will pass muster with the MSC's standards and provide further assurance to consumers that U.S. pollock products come from a responsibly managed fishery,'' he said.
Environmental groups have charged that the huge fishery has caused endangered Steller sea lions off Alaska's coast to plummet by 90 percent, from 140,000 in 1960 to about 16,000 today.
The certification process, similar to a scientific audit, could take anywhere from six to 18 months, said Jim Humphreys, director of MSC. Scientific Certification Services of Oakland, Calif., has been chosen to put a team together to look at pollock stocks, the impact of the fishery and how effectively it is managed, he said.
The fight over Steller sea lions took center stage in Washington last month when Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, insisted that a final budget package block new fishing restrictions aimed at protecting sea lions.
A compromise was struck in which the National Marine Fisheries Service would be allowed to go forward with its management plan but the total fish catch could not be reduced by more than 10 percent.
Jim Gilmore, spokesman for the At-sea Processors Association, said environmental groups have been rash with their claims of overfishing.
''The pollock fishery is really booming up there in the Bering Sea,'' Gilmore said.
He credited its success to accurate estimates of stock size, conservative catch limits and good enforcement, including federal observers on board processing boats and at onshore plants.
The Alaska salmon fishery last September became the first fishery in the United States to earn MSC certification.
Jack Sterne with Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm representing several environmental groups in the battle to protect sea lions, said the move by the At-sea Processors Association is absurd.
''There may be some scientific panel but we have every confidence ... that there is increasing evidence to support the conclusion that these fisheries are contributing to the decline of Steller sea lions,'' he said.
Last summer, in response to the lawsuit by Greenpeace, the American Oceans Campaign and the Sierra Club, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge banned trawling within critical sea lion habitat until the National Marine Fisheries Service came up with a plan that adequately addressed the effects of commercial fisheries on sea lions.
NMFS released a report in December that would have closed year-round commercial fishing for three species, including pollock, in critical Steller sea lion habitat areas. NMFS had been prepared to impose the strict new limits on pollock and the other species this month before Stevens won the concessions.
Stevens said the restrictions as originally planned would have economically devastated some fishing communities.
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