Fish Drift from Familiar Alaska Waters The multibillion-dollar industry of pollock fishing may be in trouble. The fish have been abandoning areas where American fishermen normally catch them and have been popping up near where the Bering Sea becomes Russian territory.

Fish Drift from Familiar Alaska Waters

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

And now a story from NPR's Climate Connection Series, in association with National Geographic.

If you've eaten a fish stick or imitation crab meat recently, odds are, it was actually a pollock. Yes, a pollock. A cheap, anonymous, white fish caught in the Bering Sea off Alaska. There, every year, the biggest fishery in the world nets one and a half million tons of the fish and billions of dollars. But in recent years, the pollock had disappeared from many of the usual fishing grounds, and some fishermen wonder if climate change is at work.

Charles Homans of member station KIAL reports from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

CHARLES HOMANS: From the deck of the fishing vessel, Starlight, you can see the net rising up out of the deep. It's like a giant tail dragging a quarter of a mile behind the boat - 120 feet of rusty metal, slippery wood, and noisy machinery.

(Soundbite of fishing machinery)

HOMANS: The Starlight's (unintelligible) strain under the weight of fish in the net. It's filled with more than a hundred tons of pollock. Each silvery-speckled fish is about as long as the forearm of one of the deck hands who haul in the net. Among them is 41-year-old Scott Bingen(ph) who still remembers the first time he saw this happen as a greenhorn fisherman 20 years ago.

Mr. SCOTT BINGEN (Deck Hand, Starlight Fishing Vessel, Alaska): It's pretty exciting the first you see, like, 60 tons of, well, anything come up out of the water, you know. So I was hooked.

HOMANS: Two more hauls like this and the Starlight will be ready to return to Dutch Harbor, the main fishing port in the Aleutian Islands, off the southwestern coast of Alaska. But one thing is wrong here: the crew of the Starlight is dragging their net in a totally different area of the Bering Sea from where they fished just a few years ago.

Unidentified Male: (Unintelligible).

HOMANS: On the ship's radio, you can hear other skippers trading information about where the fish are and where they aren't.

Unidentified Male: I was out here last year looking for them, and (unintelligible).

HOMANS: The hunt for pollock is getting trickier. The fish used to hang out within a day's travel from Dutch Harbor, and they still do during the winter. But three years ago, pollock population started moving north during the summer fishing season. Now the only place fishermen can find that is almost 500 miles northwest of Dutch Harbor. Getting to the fish takes two day.

Unidentified Male: Five hundred freaking miles. This is crazy.

HOMANS: The new fishing grounds are just shy of where the Bering Sea becomes Russian territory.

Mr. DAVID JENSEN(ph) (Engineer, Starlight Fishing Vessel, Alaska): Last year, the first part of October, end of September, somewhere around there, we made a trip that was real far to the northwest.

HOMANS: David Jensen is the engineer onboard the Starlight.

Mr. JENSEN: We could hear the Russians talking on the VHFs so they were only about 30 miles away. That's kind of when you go, okay, this is too far.

HOMANS: These long trips cost the fishermen a lot of money. While the price of pollock hasn't changed much in recent years - it goes for about 10 cents a pound - diesel fuel has become more expensive, and the Starlight now has to use about twice as much of it as it used to to get to and from the fish. For Bingen and the other members of the ship's crew, that means smaller paychecks.

Mr. BINGEN: You could talk to any fisherman who's - had been participating in this fishery for a number of years, and they're going to voice some concern over what's happening.

HOMANS: No one is quite sure what is happening or why. The natural ebb and flow of the pollock population may be part of the explanation. The complex dynamics of the ocean's temperature could be playing a role as well. A large pool of especially cold water in the Bering Sea, which changes size from year to year, may be temporarily pushing pollock out of areas they've inhabited in the past. Some environmental groups have suggested that the sheer volume of fish taken out the Bering Sea could play a role in pollock movements as well. But all this is happening against the backdrop of warming temperatures in the Bering Sea, where sea ice is steadily retreating. Scientists have documented more than 50 species moving northward in Alaskan waters.

Mr. CAMUA MATO(ph) (Deck Hand, Starling Fishing Vessel, Alaska): You know, everybody's got the different opinions, you know. It's either a cycle, it's either global warming, you know. Or water…

HOMANS: Camua Mato is a deck hand on the Starling. He's fished in the Bering Sea since he was a teenager, and he says what's going on now is something new.

Mr. MATO: Yeah, I believe all those things, you know. Because the fish are way further north.

HOMANS: Some fishermen worry that the pollock may eventually follow warmer temperatures into Russian waters, where Americans can't fish. That hasn't happened yet, at least, according to Paul Whalin(ph), a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's in Dutch Harbor onboard the Oscar Dyson, a research vessel that just completed a survey of pollock on both sides of the international boundary line, also known as the convention line.

Mr. PAUL WHALIN (Marine Biologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Well, the Russian boats that we saw - fishing boats - were lined up actually on the convention line in a row, going back and forth, getting the stragglers that went over the border. And so we could have mainly guess just by seeing that, that the rest of the survey wasn't going to find commercial quantities of pollock.

HOMANS: Some fishermen chalk up the changes to a couple of lean seasons, but deck hand Scott Bingen thinks it's more than that. He worries that this last biggest fishery may be too good to last.

Mr. BINGEN: Basically, all I've ever done is catch fish. I'd like to see another generation of fishermen be able to do the same thing, but I think a lot of people are under the impression that we're probably the - potentially, the last group of people that are going to be harvesting pollock up here.

HOMANS: For NPR News, I'm Charles Homans.

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