If you have purchased Halibut recently, or with some frequency over the past five years, you know that the price tag for the popular fish has increased dramatically. Many customers are looking for answers, and rightfully so. Halibut has been touted as a sustainable "best choice" for over a decade and the fishery is considered one of the best managed in the nation. So if we are being good stewards of the fishery then why is there such a scarcity?
Ten years ago the Alaskan halibut quota was 74 million pounds. Recently the quota was slashed to 27 million pounds, and by all accounts will continue shrinking in the near future. Is this dramatic drop in biomass and, subsequently, quota, a result of poor management? No, not necessarily.
There is a major threat to halibut out at sea and it has big wallets and big interests behind it. This devouring monster is the factory trawler. Factory trawlers are commercial fishing vessels that operate by dragging monstrous nets and snaring everything in their path. Pillager of species worldwide, enormous trawlers have been responsible for the decimation of many ground fish species including cod from our eastern shores. Most trawlers operating in the Bering Sea are catching pollock for fast food icons such as McDonalds. Pollock is a ground fish that makes it's living as the standard component of fish sandwiches offered by fast food restaurants worldwide. Though McDonalds and other chains can boast that the pollock fishery is sustainable, it comes at a cost. Factory trawlers fishing for pollock and other lucrative species in the Bering Sea are responsible for killing six million pounds of halibut as bycatch every year. Most of these fish will simply be thrown overboard as garbage. Thirteen out of every fourteen halibut caught as by catch in another fishery will be discarded at sea. Not only are trawlers responsible for robbing the Bering Sea of its halibut, they are also stealing fish from dinner plates. How can this operation be considered a sustainable one?
If history tells us anything, its that an insatiable greed coupled with gross neglect and backed by an unconscientious bankroll will always win out. That is, until the fish are gone. That's really always been the bottom line. We get to a point were the catch is no longer profitable and only then does the social conscious swoop in to put the pieces back together. The next time you are enjoying your sustainable and fast fish sandwich, keep in mind that, although it may seem quite affordable, halibut are paying the price. The cost of sustainability has possibly never been this high.