Alaska's Fishing Industry Is the Gold Standard of Sustainability
Consumers want to know from where their seafood is sourced, if it's safe to eat, if it is harmful to the environment and if it has been responsibly harvested. And because the subject of seafood sustainability is complex, it helps to understand why Alaskan seafood is, in fact, a responsible choice. Below you'll find resources and information that address many of the questions raised around seafood sustainability — with a specific focus on why and how Alaska is the global gold standard.
The negative effects of unregulated global fisheries — such as overfishing, bycatch and slave labor — are tragic and inexcusable. But such effects could be virtually eliminated or significantly decreased if the global industry and governments were to adopt the sustainable management practices that the State of Alaska has not only successfully pioneered, but also codified into state law. Sustainable seafood was woven into the state constitution more than 60 years ago and is the foundation of the primary federal fisheries law (Magnuson Stevens Act).
Today, fisheries managers of the state, federal and international management programs have a shared goal of sustainability. Each management program is committed to achieving optimum yield, or the harvest level that will provide the greatest overall ecological, economic, and social benefits, while also preventing overfishing and harm to ecosystems and fishing communities.
Wild seafood is one of Alaska's most precious resources, and the state is serious about ensuring its continued abundance. As an effective model for sustainable and healthy practices that allows its marine populations, ecosystems and the economy built around them to flourish, the state of Alaska has earned its reputation by supporting the most sustainably-managed fisheries on the planet.
Sadly, such practices are not yet commonplace in many parts of the world outside of Alaska, which is exactly why it's important to not only increase the accessibility of truly sustainable seafood and decrease consumption of unsustainable options — but to also accurately educate consumers who seek a responsible seafood source about how and why Alaska gets it right.
Its fishing industry leads the way forward with rigorous, science-based data collection and intensive fishery management that supports healthy, wild fish stocks (in layman terms, fish populations) year after year. And the important work the state does to ensure that sustainable Alaskan seafood is how you healthily and responsibly nourish your family.
Protection and Respect for a Precious Resource...as a Matter of Survival
The seafood industry itself is one of the largest private sector employers in Alaska. Small, rural towns and villages populate many of the parts of Alaska where commercial fishing is the primary economic opportunity.
Alaska's regulations balance conservation with the economic interests that create desirable jobs for nearly 60,000 people in the state. Some of those jobs go to the scientists and biologists who monitor the life cycles of sea life to ensure that they are allowed to reproduce, while fishery technicians literally count fish by hand with a clicker to see that enough return to their habitats. The data collected from this type of work is used to measure the health of marine populations and ultimately prevents the overfishing of Alaskan fisheries.
From fishermen and women and processors to scientists and law enforcement officials, sustainability is not only crucial to the livelihood and survival of Alaskans, but part of a deep-seated ethos.
These hard-working fishing families are the heart and soul of Alaska's seafood industry, handing down fishing practices from generation to generation and believing passionately in the importance of sustainability. In fact, our founder/CEO, Arron Kallenberg's own grandfather, Robert C. Kallenberg, who started fishing sockeye salmon in Alaska in 1926 out of a wooden sailboat, became so impassioned about the protection of the species that he wrote his master's thesis for Cornell University, entitled: A Study of the Red Salmon of Bristol Bay with Particular Reference to Teaching its Conservation. Because like so many Alaskans, he understood that the resource would only ever be as beneficial as our own ability to respect and conserve it.
Sustainable Fisheries Management
In Alaska, Sustainable fishing has been the law since 1959 when Alaska became the only state with sustainability written into its constitution. Article VIII institutes the practice of "Sustained Yield." It's important to point out that this is not a case of greenwashing, but rather a legal definition/mandate.
"Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses."
Alaska sets harvests to prioritize the stability of the marine ecosystem year after year, which allows the ecosystem and seafood species to continue to replenish. Managers conduct annual test fisheries or 'surveys' and use the data to determine the "total available" population, identify the "allowable catch" and set a lower "actual catch" limit to ensure that the wild population in Alaska's waters will always be sustainable.
For example — in the case of salmon, in order to allow for enough salmon escapement — to prioritize the stability of the marine ecosystem year after year. This approach to setting harvest levels is a cornerstone of sustainable fisheries management and means that harvesters catch far less than what scientists have determined to be sustainable, erring on the side of conservation and sound science.
All fisheries in Alaska are regulated, and there are 4 types:
- Subsistence - harvesting or possessing seafood by a resident of Alaska for subsistence, or noncommercial, customary and traditional uses.
- Personal use- the harvesting or possessing of seafood by a resident of Alaska for personal use and not for sale or barter
- Sport - fishing for personal use and not for sale or barter
- Commercial - harvesting seafood for commercial, non-personal or subsistence uses
Alaska fishery managers have closed over 50 marine areas for specific conservation or habitat protection objectives. Alaska has the most protected marine areas in nautical miles than the rest of the U.S. combined. This protects the marine ecosystem that helps sustain fish populations.
No species of commercially targeted Alaska seafood has ever been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
All aspects of fishing in the state of Alaska trace back to scientific data. This data is tracked and managed by a joint effort among state (Alaska Department of Fish and Game), federal (NOAA Fisheries) and international bodies (International Pacific Halibut Commission, Pacific Salmon Commission).
By monitoring stocks closely, and fishing responsibly, Alaska ensures its seafood can be enjoyed for generations to come. In fact, the state has never had a species of commercially harvested seafood on the endangered species list.
Full Resource Utilization
In Alaska, there has always been a strong tradition of utilizing the entire resource — using the whole fish — the constant striving for maximum use of Alaska's abundant supply.
For example, we proudly offer Captain Cuts, which is our term of endearment for the tail portions of premium species such as sockeye and coho. And we work closely with our community of members to not only appreciate the notion of working with the whole fish, but inspire them to cook simple and delicious recipes with some of these less familiar cuts.
Our ground salmon offering — which we sometimes offer as an add-on — is another example of full resource utilization. For all of the portion programs, similar to ours, where fish is cut into targeted weights, you will always be left with pieces that don't meet the weight range. This fish becomes perfect to utilize in other ways.
Bycatch, Non-Targeted Species Management and Trawling
Bycatch is a complicated challenge, but one that's taken very seriously in Alaska, where there is a program called SeaShare, for example, that collects bycatch from vessels and donates it to shelters and food insecure communities where access to quality food sources are limited. In Alaska, bycatch ends up serving as a solution for those who rely on good but inexpensive sources of clean protein. The state also has gear regulations in place to help minimize bycatch rates. NOAA is a great resource for this information and National Fisherman has an article on this topic.
Other bycatch avoidance measures utilized by the Alaska trawl fleet include the use of a salmon excluder device for trawl nets, test fishing in various areas, increasing fleet-wide communication, voluntary avoidance of rolling areas with higher salmon populations, area and time closures, and even observers that are physically on board vessels to help ensure that standards are met and/or exceeded. The industry continues to utilize the latest scientific data and a precautionary approach designed specifically to sustain a long-term population of Alaska's species and their natural habitat.
The harvest fleet in regions that use bottom trawls (most notably flatfish in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea) and government scientists have worked together for years to develop trawl harvesting technology resulting in minimal incidental catch and minimal impact to the seafloor. For example, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists partnered with harvesters to modify flatfish trawl gear which reduced seafloor contact by nearly 90 percent as well as incidental catch of other species. This modification is now required on all Bering Sea flatfish trawl gear.
Gear Restriction Benefits on Plastic Waste and Habitat Destruction
Gear restrictions are largely engaged on a per-species and area basis to ensure the most protection possible to the habitat. Just for a couple of bottom trawl-related examples, the Aleutian Islands are closed to bottom trawling to protect the sensitive habitat encircling the islands, and pollock fishing in the Bering Sea is restricted to pelagic (mid-water) trawl only. Restrictions and limitations are laid out by both ADF&G and NOAA Fishery Management Plans.
Farmed Fish vs. Wild Fish
If you want to know where Alaska stands on fish farming (aquaculture), just consider that finfish farming is illegal there, guaranteeing that all commercially harvested finfish from the state is wild, natural, and sustainably harvested. Finfish farming is defined as growing or cultivating finfish in captivity. Ocean ranching, on the other hand, involves releasing young fish into public waters and being available for harvest by fishermen upon their return to Alaskan waters as adults. As the state website explains on their FAQ page, "Alaska statute 16.40.210 prohibits finfish farming. However, Alaska does allow nonprofit ocean ranching." In fact, Alaska is doing some great work with kelp and oysters, and has developed an Alaska Mariculture Task Force (AMTF). The recommendations developed by the AMTF include details on public and private investments, regulatory issues, research and development needs, environmental changes, public education, and workforce development. Likewise, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation started a mariculture initiative.
There's a misconception that consuming fish from farms is a good solution to overfishing, since their wild relatives will be left in the sea. But there are hidden, unsustainable tolls to fish farms: Some species of farmed fish are fed fishmeal produced from wild prey fish, which has led to the overfishing of key resources that wild species rely on. This sets up wild fish to compete with farmed fish for the food they need to survive and procreate.
Farmed fish are generally kept in small, enclosed feedlots where they can be fed a processed diet of pellets that are designed to make them gain weight rapidly. This is inherently problematic from a biological standpoint, as wild fish are not built to live in these conditions.
Inevitably, fish farms become hotbeds of diseases and parasites that need to be managed with chemicals, which actually can end up putting wild species at risk when these contaminants — and sometimes even the farmed fish themselves — can make their way out of their pens and into the habitat of wild fish. A 2017 breakout in Washington of Atlantic salmon from open-pen farms was described as an "environmental nightmare."
The efficacy of these sustainable management systems is validated by third-party certification programs, such as Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM). Such certification shows that Alaska's fisheries meet the criteria of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which is the most comprehensive and respected fisheries management guidelines in the world. It was created with the participation of leading fishery biologists, environmental organizations and fishery managers representing more than seventy countries. Unlike other certification programs, RFM does not charge licensing fees for any use of the RFM logo. The Certified Sustainable RFM logo also communicates origin, providing further communication to consumers who want to know where their seafood comes from.
A Path to Restoring Sustainable Seas
Despite the understandably alarming concern that fish around the globe are currently being harvested to extinction, the data reveals a more optimistic reality: A 2020 study led by the University of Washington found that, on average, managed fisheries from a broad range of ecosystems are maintaining fish stocks at biologically sustainable levels or are successfully rebuilding stocks that had previously been overfished.
This is not to say that overfishing of our seas isn't a concern, but rather that it is a result of fishery mismanagement that can be corrected by putting sustainable models into action. The data in this study indicated that some fisheries are doing better than others, with intensively managed fisheries faring much better than those where management is less intense; fisheries that are poorly managed, on the other hand, were in "poor shape." (By the way, "overfishing" is a term that indicates fish are being harvested at a rate that is not optimal to the population; it doesn't necessarily suggest that a stock is being pushed to the brink of extinction.)
The data also revealed that although fish stocks cannot be rebuilt once they've been driven to collapse — in other words, harvested past the point of no return — stocks that have been overfished can be restored to healthy levels in just 10 years under effective fishery management.
"There is a narrative that fish stocks are declining around the world, that fisheries management is failing and we need new solutions — and it's totally wrong," Ray Hilborn, the study's lead author, emphasized to UW News when discussing its findings last January. "Fish stocks are not all declining around the world. They are increasing in many places, and we already know how to solve problems through effective fisheries management."
Paying it Forward
Even though we're a seafood company, one of our core values is to trust the fish. And this also means to protect the fish. To that end, Wild Alaskan Company is currently funding a research project to consider whether the presence of economically valuable mineral deposits in places like Bristol Bay — the biggest sockeye spawning ground on the planet — are critical to the species' survival. Led by Dr. Nathan Putnam, one of North America's leading experts on how animals use magnetic fields for migratory navigation, the study is considering how the magnetic fields around these minerals are tied to the life cycle of salmon, and if we must preserve these valuable mineral deposits in order to protect the salmon. You can read more about this project in our Q&A with Dr. Putnam.
As a company, we are also committed to reducing plastic and styrofoam everywhere we possibly can and replacing these materials with ocean-friendly options. At this time there is no alternative to using plastic vacuum sealed packaging, but we are actively looking for solutions and test options when they are available.
By increasing the accessibility of truly sustainable seafood and decreasing consumption of unsustainable options, we hope to play one small part in restoring the health of our oceans and building a viable future for the fishing industry.
Here at Wild Alaskan, we take seafood and sustainability very seriously and support the effort of anyone seeking to learn about and improve the seafood industry. Please feel free to read more about our story and our thoughts on Alaskan fishing and sustainability on our blog.
- Dr. Ray Hilborn, University of Washington: Sustainable Fisheries
- National Fisheries Institute: Seaspiracy: Recognizable Propaganda
- North Pacific Fishery Management Council: Overview of Transparent Public Process
- Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute: Full Transparen-sea
- Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute: 1. Alaska's Sustainability Story (web) 2. Brochure
- Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute: Fish For Alaska's Future
- Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation: Social Responsibility
- https://uploads.alaskaseafood.org/2021/03/Sustainability-White-Paper-final-rev2.pdf (See Incidental catch, p. 24)
- https://www.npfmc.org/wp-content/PDFdocuments/conservation_issues/trawlmods112.pdf (Trawl modification document)