One of the most contentious fisheries in the waters off the Alaska coast is now making claims to being one of the world’s climate-friendliest sources of protein.
Citing research from the University of California, Santa Cruz, the At-Sea Processors Association Thursday claimed that its secondary processing activities aboard so-called “factory” trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea produces “on average, between 0.56 and 0.66 kilograms (kg) of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kg of finished product—and that the complete global pollock supply chain, from harvesting through to retail shelves, amounts to less than 2 kg CO2e per kg of finished product.”
That is a startlingly low number.
“Typical nonorganic beef production in the United States results in…22 kg of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef,” according to a 2008 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and the CO2 emissions only increase when the cattle are raised organically.
“Unusual and resource-intensive Kobe beef production in Japan” raises greenhouse gas emissions to 36.4 kg of CO2e per kg, according to that study.
If the UC, Santa Cruz research is valid, or even close to valid, the catching and processing of pollock at sea would demonstrate “truly remarkable results against any reasonable benchmark” as At-Sea’s Matt Tining, the director of sustainability and public relations, claimed in an op-ed published by Seafood Source.
Tining’s conclusions were drawn from a peer-reviewed study published in Elementa – Science of the Anthropocene in December. In that study a team of scientists led by Brandi McKuin from the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, Merced, concluded that previous assessments on the greenhouse gas production of the ships that mine the sea for pollock were over-estimated because previous researchers failed to account for the “contribution from cooling emissions (sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and organic carbon) (that) offset a significant portion of the climate forcing from warming emissions.”
The study also noted that “previous studies have placed an emphasis on fishing activities, overlooking the contribution of the processing phase in the seafood supply chain” and the emissions involved in shipping products to retailers.
In the fishing study, McKuin and her colleagues drew no comparisons to the kg CO2e emissions involved in the production of other forms of protein, which led a publicist at UC-Davis to report that “a new study of the climate impacts of seafood products reveals that the processing of Alaskan pollock into fish sticks, imitation crab, and fish fillets generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
“Post-catch processing generates nearly twice the emissions produced by fishing itself, which is typically where the analysis of the climate impact of seafood ends, according to the findings by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.”
Various media picked up on the UC-Davis press release and some international media went a little crazy.
“Producing Fish Sticks And Fillets For Consumption May Harm The Environment: Study,” headlined NDTV Food, the website of New Delhi TV and the number one food site in India. “Transforming ‘Alaskan pollock’ into fish sticks, imitation crab and fish fillets may generate nearly twice the greenhouse gas emissions produced by fishing itself.”
Seafood Source itself ran with a story headlined “Alaska pollock fish sticks, surimi processing generates ‘significant’ greenhouse gas emissions.”
The story failed to note that most agriculture produces greenhouse gases in significant amounts. The Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change + Health published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts lamb at the high end of the scale at 39.2 CO2e per kg and lentils at the low end at .09.
Scoring pollock protein
Pollock at 2 CO2e per kg would come in tied with tofu, broccoli and dry beans for climate goodness. They are bested only by tomatoes (1.1 CO2e per kg) and 2 percent milk (1.9 CO2e per kg) on the EWG chart.
Chicken is at 6.9, farmed salmon at 11.9, pork at 12.1 and cheese at 13.5. Alaska wild salmon, which comprises only 10 to 15 percent of salmon consumption today, doesn’t warrant a listing.
If it did, it would likely score worse than farmed salmon given that most Alaska salmon fisheries are inefficient by design with many fishermen and many boats doing the work that could be done by a few.
This is tied to political decisions dating back to territorial days. Fishermen in Bristol Bay, the state’s most valuable fishery, were restricted to gillnetting from sailboats until 1949. Once motors were allowed, boat lengths were restricted to 32 feet – a restriction that remains in effect today.
The intent there as elsewhere in the state was to try to maximize the number of fishermen to increase the number of jobs. Energy efficiency was not a consideration 60 to 70 years ago.
On the other side of the Pacific, the Russians operate a little more efficiently.
“Russian salmon producers typically use fish traps located near the mouths of rivers,” notes the McDowell Group, a U.S. consultancy. “Trap sites are leased by salmon processors, who employ laborers to harvest, transport, and process salmon. Due
to the differences in harvest gear, Russian salmon companies are capable of producing high-quality sockeye.”
Quality has been the big issue in markets for Alaska fish in previous decades. Climate friendliness is a new arrival pulled into the picture as the climate lobby steadily amps up.
“The wild Alaska pollock industry has an incredible story to tell about its carbon footprint,” Tinning wrote in the Seafood op-ed. “As a growing number of consumers start to weigh climate impacts in decisions around their daily diet, our industry is proud to deliver a delicious and nutritious product that has a “global warming potential value” among the lowest of any protein on earth.”
At-Sea Processors is a trade association that represents six companies fishing 16 catcher-processor vessels off the Alaska and U.S. West coasts. The controversy surrounding them to date is, as with all trawlers, by-catch.
Your Dictionary, which offers how to use words in a sentence, contains this example for trawlers: “Trawlers, the strip miners of the sea, often precipitate the collapse of fish stocks from years of over-harvesting.”
Fisheries managers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have done a good job of preventing any permanent fishery collapses due to trawling off Alaska, but when halibut and salmon fisheries struggle, trawl by-catch of those species is often blamed for the problems.
Given that this is about 400,000 pounds more than was caught and kept in guided and unguided Alaska sport fisheries for halibut in the same year, bycatch has become a hot button issue with the halibut stock in decline and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council considering cuts in bag limits for halibut anglers.
Dominated by commercial fishing interests, the Council in 2013 slashed the charter fishery for halibut and cost the tourism business an estimated $85 million. Climate friendliness did not come up. The move was pure power politics. Commercial fishing interests had the power and used it.
The climate friendliness of the recreational fishery has not been studied, but it would probably not score well.
Many anglers involved in the guided fishery fly to Alaska to fish, drive hundreds of miles from Anchorage to reach ports with halibut fleets, and then charters boats that travel tens of miles to the fishing grounds where the people aboard the boats lower hooks in hopes of catching a limit of two halibut.
For the Alaska economy, this hugely inefficient operation is a good thing. Studies have shown the state gets a far more value out of someone spending a lot of money to come to Alaska to catch a fish than in having a few Alaskans more efficiently catch a lot of fish to ship out of the state.
But from the standpoint of a died-in-the-wool climate activist, it would be hard to impossible to deny Tinning’s argument that his business delivers “a delicious and nutritious product that has a ‘global warming potential value’ among the lowest of any protein on earth.”
Then again, from the standpoint of a died-in-the-wool climate activist, tourism – which involves flying or driving people all over the world solely for their selfish pleasures – might simply be considered a climate evil.