Pollock, cowboys, mega-ships and managing the historically unmanageable…

 A review by Orlay Johnson of  Kevin M. Bailey’s book “Billion Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaskan Pollock” published by University of Chicago Press, 271 pp., $25

Pollock bookKevin BaileyPhoto: Kevin Bailey and pollock-burger on red cover of “Billion Dollar Fish – The Untiled Story of Alaska Pollock”

Bottom-line (for those who don’t want to read the whole review):  This is a excellent book, readable, technically sound as far as I can tell, a bit heavy on the fisheries management, but also full of exciting tales of Norse cowboys, native peoples, fish biologists, and a multitude of fishers battling the mighty North Pacific with plenty of heroics, risk, stupidity, and adventures.  Of the various books I’ve reviewed so far, I’d have to give it my highest rating of 10 fish.

Full Review:  Two points about this book immediately jump out at you.  First, regardless of anything else, the first thing you notice about “Billion-Dollar Fish” is its bright red cover with a silver pollock sitting in a hamburger bun.  It is stunning, grabbing your eye and making it easy to find the book on a bookshelf.  My first take, before I even knew who wrote it or what it was about, was that this must be a comedic satire on the pollock industry.  In that sense the cover is misleading, sort of.  The book delves deeply into fisheries management, politics, science, economics, and the nuts and bolts of trawling the North Pacific, but it is written by a fishery biologist with a great sense of humor and a fantastic ability to tell stories, so it is light hearted and for me a non-stop first read.

The second item is that the book’s publication seems very timely – as in many ways parts of it seemed ripped from the “pages” of CNN or the Seattle Times.  One of the major players in this book is Kjell Inge Røkke a wealthy Norwegian whose story weaves in and out of Billion Dollar Fish as well as the pollock fishery.  Røkke started fishing in Alaska as a Norwegian high school drop out and today is the founder of American Seafoods, which is the largest harvester of fish in the Bering Sea with a 45% processor market share (http://www.americanseafoods.com/).  Bailey discusses American Seafoods extensively, and on June 1st, the Times reported “American Seafoods [was] slapped with big fine over claims that crews misreported their catch by many tons” (Seattle Times June 1, 2013).  This book gives you a strong background to understand a bit of why the company is in legal trouble.

Caveats in my review are that I have known Kevin for many years as we were both NOAA biologists in Seattle, although worked for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center and I was at the Northwest FSC.  One small quirk I think is worth mentioning is that Kevin wrote the book while working for the federal government and he does not receive any royalties or income from the book.  He wrote it as a NOAA employee, and profits go to the government.

The book has a dual personality — it is a personal account of Kevin’s experiences as a fishery biologist who served as an observer at the birth of the pollock fishery and is continuing observations as it into the productive and very profitable giant it is today.  However, the book is also a primer on the history of deep water trawling, pollock biology, and the evolutionary development of managing a new multi-billion dollar fishery.  Underlying this is the continual awareness that many feel the fishery contains fatal flaws that already portend its crash and destruction.

For most of us who have worked in the fisheries, this sense of impending doom is a familiar and prophetic feeling.  Probably everyone reading this review has been involved in one sense or another in some a great new fisheries or research enterprise that someone felt was the “wave of the future” (e.g. aquaculture, netpens, sea urchin harvest, ESA deliberations dam renovation, fish passage, PIT tags, fyke nets, and so on).  We saw it develop, mature, sometimes be successful (PIT tags and genetics), but in many cases decline into oblivion.   The question Kevin addresses is whether the fishery for pollock will also decline, or has the fishing industry and its regulators matured to a point where we can maintain a sustainable and profitable oceanic fishery?

The best parts of the book, far and away, are Dr. Bailey’s personal interviews or biographical anecdotes of the players, such as his fellow NOAA bios, but especially the antics of the early pioneers, Røkke and other so-called Norwegian cowboys.  Among the many stories are several involving riding cod-ends in the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska (two vastly different experiences), but the result was that these fearless Vikings eventually dominated the playing field, at least for a time.

NOAA codend
NOAA photo of pollock being loaded aboard

While the massive pollock fishery is indeed something brand new in the world (it did not exist just a few years ago) its roots go back  to the earliest fishers.  Bailey starts off his book with a brief history of deep water fishing, beginning in Paleolithic times as humans regulate fish resources by such methods as vast migrations (e.g.  Basque’s fishing the Grand Banks), bloody wars, and Native American and First Nations gift giving potlatches.  However, there was always the continued belief that the ocean was inexhaustible at least till present day fishing collided with the extent of human domination of the ocean.

Keep in mind that Kevin was a NOAA biologist and this is reflected in the book – he well represents the philosophy that active fishery management, based on scientific surveys and biologically sound population models is the best way to manage a sustainable fishery.  He also shows how the implement of this philosophy has not been easy, nor is it cheap, and that it is not still accepted my many in the fisheries or any other industry.

Without a doubt, the best parts of the book are his accounts of the players in the fishery, stories that enlighten us, humanize a huge commercial enterprise, and make it seem we are actually a player in this giant and complex fishery.  As an example he describes a NOAA biologist Jim Ianelli as “a razor-thin man with close-cropped hair.  He sometimes sports a grizzly stubble beard.  He rides an oversized mountain bike with knobby tires that announce his presence with a “whrrr” as he speeds by.”

As this point you might be imagining a geeky math guy detached from reality, however Kevin goes on:  “He has a deep history in the ocean and in fisheries.  He used to deliver sailboats from Florida to Europe…. He got a job tuna fishing in the South Pacific and later signed on with an international agency tagging tuna for research.  He notes that he once held the record for tagging more tuna than anyone….”

Suddenly the Jim Ianelli seems like a real person who probably brings real world expertise to his calculations and evaluation of the year’s pollock catch such that a bit more insight into Jim seems natural: “Ianelli has been in charge of stock assessments of Bering Sea pollock for the AFSC since 1997.  He says that his job is stressful, and I believe him.  “The worst part is the uncertainty.”  That if things are really worst than his models tell him?  That causes him to lose sleep at night. “  Now you want to read on and find out more about Ianelli and even more, see how he creates his models and what the track record is.”

1_kjellinge
Kjell Inge Røkke- owner of American Seafoods Company.

However, all the other the stories in Billion Dollar fish fade in comparison to the stories about Kjell Inge Røkke, beginning on the first few pages and winding through the book.  We are first introduced to this unruly young high school drop out working on one of the first pollock trawlers in the Gulf when he earned the

accolade” Norwegian Cowboy”.  The tales continue today where, he is both a villain extraordinaire and a winner of international environmental awards — However, it is not my place to tell these tales — get the book and read them.   Skål