- The Washington Times
Sunday, November 22, 2020

THE BIG TALK

An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.


There isn’t a hospital in Akutan, Alaska. Nor are there office buildings, parks, or scores of grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants and the like.

What Akutan has is a fish-processing plant.

The entire community exists because of and for that plant, which sits hard against the Bering Sea, beneath slopes that in the summertime are as green as Ireland.

Akutan is a speck in the Aleutian Islands, the archipelago that extends southwest off the Alaska coast, about as far removed from Capitol Hill as you can get.

But this remote outpost and others like it are imperiled by proposed environmental legislation now percolating in the House that would lower a regulatory boom on America’s saltwater fishing, said Joe Bundrant.

“You’re talking about the livelihood of tens of thousands of people. These are robust, vibrant communities, and in Washington they are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said.

The fishing trade is in Mr. Bundrant’s blood. He built Trident Seafoods, the largest seafood company in the United States, from a humble fishing boat his father launched in 1973.

Environmentalists rang alarm bells about overfishing for decades from pole to pole. Whether it’s wild Alaska pollock, Mr. Bundrant’s main catch, or Patagonian toothfish, which appears on restaurant menus as “Chilean sea bass.”

The activists warn that fish populations are dangerously depleted.

Mr. Bundrant disagrees.

“Have you ever had a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish or a California roll?” he asked. “Then you’ve had wild Alaska Pollock.”

The legislation heard last week by the House National Resources Committee is dubbed the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act. Environmentalists herald it as a savior; the seafood industry regards it as a death sentence for thousands of small fishing businesses.

The bill would extend a muscular regulatory arm over the seas, creating massive Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that would ban commercial fishing across almost one-third of America’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by 2030.

It is part of an international campaign for the conservation of 30% of land and water habitats aimed at protecting biodiversity and mitigating the impact of climate change.

Proponents refer to it as “30 by 30.” Critics say the bill draws arbitrary lines across the ocean and takes claims of depleted fishing stock as fact, despite the absence of hard evidence.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s officials “are the best fishery managers in the world,” Mr. Bundrant said.

What’s more, the Alaskan constitution requires that sustainability of fisheries be the top priority for the state’s Fish and Game Department, which polices the first three miles of salt water from the coast.

“That’s not if an individual fisherman makes money as a priority, and that’s not if a processor makes money as a priority,” Mr. Bundrant said. “That’s the salmon and the other fish’s sustainability as the No. 1 priority.”

Given the remote locale, the weather and the single focus of life — fishing — the crews in Alaska become an extended family, Mr. Bundrant said.

The way Trident handled the COVID-19 crisis and the 9,000 people it employs at peak season is indicative of those ties, he said.

In a feat akin to the dome the federal government erected over the imaginary town of Springfield in “The Simpsons Movie,” Trident effectively sealed off the Alaska communities where it operates. Hundreds of people were quarantined in Anchorage hotels. Flights were monitored, and security guards and cameras ensured no one broke the April seal.

“There’s no hospital in Akutan, there’s no real infrastructure for getting people out quickly,” he said. “It simply wasn’t an option to introduce COVID there.”

The intense effort worked. The quarantine included federal inspectors who accompany every fishing vessel at sea.

“There is basically a cop on board every trip, making sure we aren’t violating fishing rules or regs,” Mr. Bundrant said.

How many times has Trident been ticketed for such activity? “Zero,” he said.

As it stands now, fishers can take 2 million metric tons out of the Bering Sea each year. That is the total for the entire industry. It includes all the wild Alaska pollock the boats net and all the King Crab trapped by the crews of the “Deadliest Catch” or any other fishing expedition.

The first three miles of salt water off the Alaska coast are policed by the state Fish and Game Department and that is where most of the salmon is caught.

Mr. Bundrant says fishers take roughly 20% of the sea’s biomass each year, and the abundance of wild Alaska pollock remains obvious. The same fish schools are also caught by Russian fishers on the other side of the Bering Sea, and the fish is often sent to China and then imported to the United States, he said.

“We’ve been doing this for 100 years and the populations are strong. They just had the fifth consecutive record haul of sockeye salmon,” he said.

Trident is now headquartered in Seattle, but Mr. Bundrant said he still feels roots stretching back to the state where he was born. It’s one reason he feels especially attached to the name, “wild Alaska pollock,” which he said is recognized by fishermen around the world.

That’s thanks to Alaska officials from the dock to Washington, and Mr. Bundrant said he doesn’t have to spend a nickel lobbying Alaska’s three federal officials about the “30 by 30” bill.

“Oh, no, they get it,” he said. “They know this could literally destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people who work in their state.”

The fishing community bristles at what it calls alarmist science behind the legislation. The NOAA website declares that wild Alaska pollock “is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.”

Furthermore, the industry “is one of the cleanest in terms of incidental catch of other species (less than 1%),” and “uses midwater trawl nets that, although sometimes making contact with the bottom, have minimal impact on habitat,” according to the NOAA.

“There is no legitimate science that is saying we should lock down this space,” Mr. Bundrant said. “This all about human beings. When you have fished for your whole life and your whole life is fishing, and they suddenly say you can’t fish here with no good science? It’s devastating.”


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