Category Archives: Book Reviews

2 New Book Reviews by Dr. Fred Utter


The Sixth Extinction
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Book Reviewer: Dr. Fred Utter
Publisher: Henry Holt
Year: 2014

This book is properly focused in the prologue by the author’s emphasis of the present being a truly extraordinary moment of history to be viewed with fascination and horror. The story is expertly developed from onsite visits and authoritative interviews that bring the reader directly in touch with the scientists and the resources in question. These elements are continually interwoven in a tapestry combining history and mystery and ever reinforcing the truth of Pogo “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US”.

Through the fourth chapter, we are reminded that this wisdom regarding our destructive nature is recent, given that even the concept of extinction is barely 200 years old – expanding from the insights of Cuvier. Even as fossils accumulated, uncertainty persisted regarding possibly still-extant forms in unexplored regions, as can be seen in the written records of the Lewis and Clark expedition. With the certainty of earlier extinctions (end Ordovician 450 my, late Devonian 360 my, end Permian 220 my, late Triassic 200 my, end Cretaceous 65 my), questions persisted regarding their cause. While the meteoric driven end of the dinosaurs has only recently been accepted, some more speculative explanations for earlier extinctions include ice ages precipitated by CO2 assimilations (late Ordovician), and conversely, high carbon-induced warming, reduced pH, and high H2S. This latter explanation is, by the way, the prominent theory behind the Permian-era extinctions that resulted in 90% of life on Earth becoming extinct and, frighteningly, significantly parallels our present situation.

Interestingly, even Darwin failed to give special status to humans as agents of the current wave of extinctions, which is termed the Anthropocene. The “evil twins” of ocean acidification and warming are vividly displayed in the microcosm of marine thermal vents. When one approaches a marine thermal vent, one can see healthy biological communities gradually yielding to lifeless environments (need a more detailed explanation here – in author’s own words – of how ocean acidification/warming correlate with marine thermal vents). The dynamics of this current wave of extinctions are exacerbated by the “new Pangea” where non-native organisms invade new environments, disrupting stable ecosystems and sometimes generating massive die offs, as seen with the incredibly high, fungal-induced mortality rates experienced by bat species in North America and amphibian species throughout the world. Conversely, but also exacerbating the dynamics of extinction today, fragmented ecosystems prevent gene flow among formerly connected meta populations, putting populations on downward trajectories toward extinction. Species rescue programs, such as zoos, terraria and gene banks, are heroic but perhaps futile gestures for saving near-extinct taxa as circumstances in the wild continue to deteriorate.

Perhaps most disheartening is the chilling implication that our present course is “written in our genes”. Everywhere Homo sapiens has colonized, mega fauna have disappeared. Even our Neanderthal cousins coexisted with such life forms in Europe for over 100,000 years until our arrival, which eliminated the mega fauna and themselves (after assimilating portions of their genome).

Are we in the process of “sawing off the limb where we are perched”? In spite of the bleak picture, predicting the future remains a futile exercise. Perhaps technology will trump ecology. Despite our past failures in prescribing quick fixes for complex messes (think salmon hatchery complexes for lost ecosystems), a new order may yet emerge from the inevitable and pending chaos.

I try to remain an optimist, and a good point of departure from my own reading of this book is to encourage all responsible readers to assimilate its message. Perhaps a widespread and profound understanding of our self-induced and impending tragedy can generate the will and action necessary for generating effective remedial measures.

Catching a Deckload of Dreams:
Chuck Bundrant and the story of Trident Seafoods
Author: John van Amerongen
Book Reviewer: Dr. Fred Utter
Publisher: Documentary Media
Year: 2013

True to its title, this book is centered on Chuck Bundrant’s leading role in the development and direction of Trident Seafoods. Excepting entire segments written in the first person by family members, the text consists of vignettes from extensive interviews with Bundrant himself and many others. These statements are interconnected more or less chronologically by the author within and among 33 chapters plus prefatory and concluding materials (and all worth reading).

The author, hired by Bundrant in 2006 to write the book, develops a complex and very human personality starting with his youthful migration westward and northward just a year out of high school in 1961. With underlying determination, independence and a strong work ethic, Bundrant had little trouble getting entry-level work on Alaskan king crab processors, gaining experience including – by necessity due to a drunken skipper – sharing the running of a boat back to Seattle; he wasn’t necessarily against partying, just not on work time. Using his savings, he invested in his first boat, a broken down gill-netter in Seward. This misadventure didn’t pan out but led to a series of serendipitous events including saving the life of Clem Tillion (who, as an influential legislator returned the favor 10 years later by saving Trident’s financial life), and – again by pure coincidence, assisting and ultimately crewing with the prospering Burch brothers, which guided him towards obtaining his own fleet.

These stories, and those that follow are mostly flavored with salt air, testosterone, ever-present danger, sometimes blue language, and just good story telling reminiscent of the wild west and “The Deadliest Catch”. Particularly memorable were the stories:
1) of FV Bountiful’s construction (in an Indiana shipyard where Bundrant ended up buying the bankrupt yard for $5!);
2) the entire Akutan adventures including the fire, rebuilding and present operation with the present manager being “mayor of a town of 1,200 workers”;
3) the aerial adventures including the Grumman Goose (reminiscent of my first Bristol Bay adventure in 1953) and float plane takeoff failures (and once again the fortuitous arrival of Chuck Bundrant);
4) ultimate vindication in the class action efforts and other political and legal struggles leading to full American sovereignty in the Alaskan Exclusive Economic Zones and
5) the long-term negotiations with Tyson and the ultimate assumption of its fleet.

But the underlying message goes far beyond excitement, adventure and danger. It speaks to the character, indeed the soul, of the corporation itself as epitomized by its founder (and with providential guidance as Bundrant might profess). There is ambition without greed, toughness without cruelty, choosing and listening to strong associates without cronyism (but still the ability to make unpopular decisions when warranted), vision to face setbacks as challenges rather that defeats, and particularly – viewing all involved personnel as members of a team akin to a family.

A down side of these characteristics is a perceived isolation implied in each of the statements of the Bundrant children Joe, Jill and Julie. Each of their writings reflected deep love and respect for their dad, but an absence of intimacy that would come from a – perhaps less authoritarian parent with similar attributes and a job that permitted more home time during their formative years. Indeed, I missed on first reading that their birth mother (Mary) was around at least through 1980 (according to Joe), but by 1982 Chuck was married to present wife Diane. The author stipulated that some stories he chose not to print and I will not speculate beyond noting that by “treating everyone the same (p. 14)”, there may have been a domestic penalty to be paid.

Some final notes, in addition to the Alaska map (preceding chapter 1), a chart of the current corporate structure and staffing would have clarified some confusion regarding who’s doing what and where. As a biologist, I appreciated the doubled efficiency achieved in Pollock processing by Trident, but was disappointed that nothing was mentioned about crashing king crab populations other than it promoted a new fishery of smaller snow crab. These are minor quibbles. It was a long book, but I’m glad I committed to its review. It was worth the effort and promises to make fascinating reading for a diverse audience interested in corporate growth, Alaskan wilderness, and particularly, human nature.

Book Cover In The Book Nook Section of this issue, our focus is on pollock with two books published this year by prestigious publishers.  The first book review is for Fishing for Pollock in a Sea of Change.  The book is written by James Strong and Keith R. Criddle, and reviewed by  UW professor Fred Utter.  The second book reviewed is month is published by the University of Chicago Press and  is reviewed by Orlay Johnson Billion-Dollar Fish – The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock written by Kevin Bailey.  Orlay’s review of Kevin’s book is here.

Fishing for Pollock in a Sea of Change – A historical analysis of the Bering Sea Pollock Fishery, reviewed by Dr. Fred Utter, University of Washington

True to its title, this book contains abundant historical information about the Bering Sea Pollock fishery.   Its release concurs with Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock (Bailey 2013), a book I intentionally postponed reading prior to preparing this review.

pollocK NOAA photo creditPollock – photo credit NOAA

Although the present volume should attract a wide interest given the fishery’s great economic, political and biological interest, potential readers need to be aware that it is an unnecessarily difficult read.  Following the first chapter’s clarity (through the mid-1970s), the ability to follow a linear thread of developments becomes challenging.  Too many relevant details required mining from a text that is excessively burdened with inconsistently applied acronyms.   A guide through this “alphabet soup” ultimately came at the end of the book, and I advise printing out this information (my ultimate strategy) as a guide to reading.   Further distractions included sometimes excessive verbatim references from documents or interviews (seemingly indiscriminately given either as indented subtexts or as within-text quotations) that would have benefited from abbreviated summary statements.   Thick and often redundant text arising from such diversions masked a valuable story.

The Table of Contents presents a logical and largely acronym free outline of the relevant information.  The potential readership would be well served by preparation and description of these primary issues in the form of an extended executive summary.   In such a streamlined format, the necessary details could be presented more generically, where the present book could serve as a point of reference for the entire story.

Pollock_sorting_noaaSorting pollock in the Aleutian Islands. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Despite the above challenges, the history and status of the Pollock fishery ultimately emerged from my reading.  A map relating the 200-mile limit to the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island was particularly valuable in understanding the Americanization of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island Pollock fishery.   The underlying politics and economics of this process over the past 40 years are indeed complex and certainly warrant the broader understanding that I gained.   Similarly complex and presently regulated under the American Fisheries Act are the harvest management and distributions of the inshore/offshore sectors of what has evolved from the dynamics of a gold rush towards a stable and very profitable fishery.   Among fishers, processors and communities, long term tensions have eased through actions including mandated (and compensated) fleet reductions and widespread cooperatives facilitated through anti-trust exemptions.  The annual distribution and investment of roughly 10% of the total allowable Pollock fishery to six coastal community development entities within the economic zone is in itself a fascinating narrative of empowerment to largely impoverished areas, and an enlightened model for other areas and industries.

Except for the by-catch of salmon and fishery interactions with Stellar sea lions (briefly considered and presently unresolved), biological and ecological effects of the Pollock fishery were not addressed.   Such historical analyses are also needed for adequate monitoring, evaluation, and responses.  Is this fishery a model for sustainability or is it destined for ultimate collapse as occurred with Northwest Atlantic cod?  Perhaps I will gain further insights from my reading of Bailey (2013).

Authors biography from “Fishing for Pollock in Sea of Change”: Photo Credits, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

james_strong-240James Strong completed his M.S. in fisheries under Dr. Keith Criddle from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2011. His master’s thesis–Fishing for Pollock in a Sea of Change: A Historical Analysis of the Bering Sea Pollock Fishery–documents the evolution and history of the Alaska pollock fishery.


criddleDr. Keith Criddle, professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks: My research focuses on the intersection between the natural sciences and economics and is driven by an interest in the sustainable management of marine resources. My particular focus has been on the management of commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries in the North Pacific. My focus will be expanding to consider a broader array of marine policy issues.


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 (  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.”

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