By Barbara Kessler

Remember the global food crisis of earlier this year? Unfortunately, the intervening mortgage, energy and banking crises have not solved it.

The next food shortages are headed our way in waves – from the oceans, where overfishing has led to the steep decline of shark populations worldwide, the closing of West Coast salmon fisheries and now, the potential slide of the Alaskan Pollock.

This latest fish-in-trouble was once so prolific that it became the world’s most omnipresent, affordable everyman’s seafood, sliced into faux crab, minced and pressed into fish sticks and filleted into fast food McFishwiches.

Now, the workhorse Pollock, once vastly abundant, is experiencing a sudden unanticipated population decline of about 50 percent, jeopardizing the world’s supply of fish sticks (which may or may not alarm you), the survival of the Stellar Sea Lions of and countless Alaskan fishing jobs, according to a survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The findings have conservationists calling for a reassessment fishing limits in the seas along the Bering Strait. They want the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to set new reasonable catch limits on the Pollock that consider sustainability when the council meets in December.

Without a reassessment, they say, the entire Bering Strait ecosystem, where seals and whales also depend on the Pollock for food, could collapse.

Ocean and marine life experts say that the focus on single species management – with catch quotas based on estimates of what the fish can “sustain” – are missing the mark. More sophisticated models that look at the entire ecosystem, which includes the Pollock’s natural predators, are needed.

“Economic pressures to keep on fishing at such high levels have overwhelmed common sense,” said Dr. Jeremy Jackson, Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in a press release.

“With the huge uncertainties inherent in fisheries models, a far more precautionary, ecosystem-based approach is required. Otherwise, fisheries managers are gambling with the health of our oceans and coastal communities,” Jackson said.

A report by Greenpeace, the Alaska Oceans Program, the Center for Biological Diversity and Trustees for Alaska concluded that urgent action is needed to ensure adequate Pollock, which are largely caught off Alaska’s vast coastline. Marine managers must rebuild fish stocks at higher levels to “preserve the ecological relationships between the exploited, dependent, and related species in the food web” and establish a network of marine reserves to conserve fish and wildlife habitats, according to the report called Rethinking Sustainability: A New Paradigm for Fisheries Management.

The extensive continental shelf in the eastern Bering Sea accounts for about half of the marine fish and shellfish caught in the entire United States annually, the report said.

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