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Alaska Fish Factor: Is Alaskan Pollock Really Alaskan Pollock?

12 October 2015
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - When is Alaska pollock not really Alaska pollock? When it is listed as such by the Food and Drug Administration, which governs what every seafood product will be called in U.S. commerce.

For pollock, one of the most widely eaten seafoods in the U.S., the FDA applies the “Alaska” moniker to all fish of that species on its market list, regardless of where it is caught.

“So if the fish is caught in Korea or Japan or Russia, it still can be sold as Alaska pollock in the United States. And that’s not the case with Alaska salmon or halibut or Alaska crab,” said Pat Shanahan, Program Director for the trade group Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.

“That’s why we are called the Genuine Alaska Pollock producers,” she quipped. “It’s not enough to say we’re just the Alaska pollock producers, because we could be from Russia.

The FDA’s Seafood List guidelines discourage use of ‘geographic descriptors’ in market names, but for more than 30 years that standard has not been applied to Alaska pollock. No one is quite sure how that came to be, but it likely stemmed from the boom in the Bering Sea pollock fishery that began in the early 1980’s, and the flood of new fish was simply tagged “Alaska” by federal bureaucrats.

Pollock from Alaska has grown to be the nation’s largest food fishery, accounting for 11 percent of fresh and frozen fish consumption. Recent surveys by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute showed that the “Alaska” logo is the second most recognizable brand at the nation’s top casual dining and fast food sectors. (Oreo is #1.)

But when you eat a fish sandwich at a favorite restaurant, or serve up a batch of fish sticks to the kids, it might say Alaska Pollock on the menu or packaging – but between 40 to 50 percent of the fish likely comes from Russia.

A nationwide GAPP survey revealed that the “vast majority said they would feel misled if their fish was labeled from Alaska and it wasn’t,” Shanahan said.

“People want to know where their food is coming from. They want to support well managed U.S. fisheries, and have confidence in product safety and quality. Right now they don’t have that choice.”

The Alaskan and Russian fisheries are held to very different standards, pointed out market expert John Sackton of

“The Alaska Bering Sea pollock fishery is recognized as one of the best managed and closely monitored fisheries in the world,” Sackton said. “All kinds of bycatch, habitat and eco-system protections are in place; that is not the case for the Russian fishery.”

Likewise for fish processing. Russian caught pollock often is of inferior quality because chemicals and water are frequently added to the final products, which are then frozen several times before going to markets.

“It enters the U.S. market at a lower price, and the damage is done,” Sackton said. “It turns consumers off to the genuine Alaskan article.”

The GAPP group has been pushing the labeling change with the FDA for a year.

“Our request is to remove the name Alaska from the FDA market name. If they do that, only fish that is from Alaska would be able to be labeled Alaska pollock. It really is a no brainer,” Shanahan said.

The FDA list of acceptable market names is updated continuously, Sackton said, adding that 19 changes have been made over the past year. “There is no legal reason the FDA cannot make the change in the Alaska pollock market name as requested,” he said.

The fish issue picked up steam this month with a bipartisan bill introduced by Alaska and Washington Senators that officially requests the pollock name change on federal seafood rosters.

Also included in the same bill is a request for the FDA to change the name of Alaska “brown” king crab to “golden” on its seafood list.

“Golden is the legal name used by the managing agencies and the marketers, and the State and industry petitioned the FDA a year ago for the correction,” said Linda Kozak, a consultant from Kodiak.

As with Alaska pollock, the name change would provide more clarity and consistency in the market, and in the case of golden king crab, more appeal.

“It’s like the difference between labeling it ‘dog’ salmon and ‘Kita,’ which is a chum’s real name. Which do you think a customer would prefer?” Kozak added.

Crab catches – The catch numbers for Bering Sea crabbers are a mix of good and bad news. For Bristol Bay red king crab, crabbers were anticipating a cut, but the catch quota of nearly 10 million pounds is down just six percent from last year.

Tanner crab catches continued on an upswing to nearly 20 million pounds, an increase of five million pounds.

The bad news is the harvest quota for snow crab – 40.6 million pounds is a 40 percent drop from last season. The Bering Sea crab fisheries open on October 15th.

Crab shares clarification – The new “active participant” rules for owning catch shares of Bering Sea crab applies to crew/skippers only and does not affect vessel shares, as I implied last week.

“In the past there were no restrictions as far as participation and future ownership. But a federal requirement went into place this year that says if you are not participating now and don’t participate in the future, a revocation of crew quota could occur by July 1, 2019,” said Jeff Osborn at Dock Street Brokers in Seattle.

That has prompted an uptick in listings of crew shares and pushed down prices by roughly 20 percent.

Vessel shares represent 97 percent of the crab quota market which remains strong, Osborn said, adding that “there are no new (participation) requirements at this time.”

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