As the Bering Sea warms, this skipper is chasing pollock to new places

Crew members on the fishing vessel Commodore empty a trawl net of pollock on the Bering Sea in January. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The pollock fishing in the Bering Sea was “about as good as it gets,” skipper Dan Martin said as he steered his 133-foot trawler, the Commodore, over a dense school of the fish last month.

From the bridge, Martin watched as his sonar showed the fish streaming into his net – so thick that his instruments couldn’t distinguish the pollock from the ocean floor.

After just a few hours of fishing, Martin had filled the Commodore with more than 200 tons of pollock. As the wind and waves picked up, he started the nine-hour run back to Dutch Harbor, the Aleutian Island port.

Dan Martin, the Commodore’s captain, drives the boat out of Dutch Harbor in January. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The trip was what Martin called “classic” winter fishing: The pollock could be easily found at their traditional spawning grounds. But that’s not the case year-round, Martin said.

In the separate summer season, the pollock have become more erratic, Martin added, and he’s been forced to chase them into areas he hasn’t fished before. Those experiences – supported by recent scientific observations – show how climate change is casting uncertainty over the future of the billion-dollar pollock industry.

“As the fish change their behavior, you don’t have any historical values to weigh things against,” Martin said, standing at the wheel. “Across the board, everybody has a story about something that they haven’t seen before.”

Martin has been commercial fishing for more than three decades, and he’s gotten a pretty good feel for where to find pollock. He now manages a fleet of nine pollock boats for a company called Evening Star Fisheries.

Pollock are low-value fish — they sell for about 30 cents apiece. But more than 100,000 fit into a single netload on the Commodore, and some three billion pounds were hauled out of the Bering Sea last year by the fishing fleet, which is largely based in Washington state.

Roughly half the fish is set aside for so-called “catcher boats” like the Commodore – vessels that haul pollock in at sea, then deliver them, whole, to a processing plant on shore.

From his perch on the Commodore’s bridge, Martin, surrounded by monitors and instruments, worked with a crew of four on the deck below. Clad in helmets, lifejackets and rain gear, they helped set the quarter-mile-long trawl net behind the boat. Then they wrangled the massive, fish-filled tube back on board and flushed the pollock into the hold with water.

Crew members Joe Johnson, left, and Derrick Justice shovel pollock on the deck of the Commodore as another crew member, Brian Hagen, holds the hose. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The other half of the pollock catch is set aside for larger trawlers that then process and freeze the pollock in an onboard factory. They’re supported by crews that can be more than 100 people.

Products made from pollock include fish sticks, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and surimi — the crab substitute sometimes tucked into sushi rolls. Much of the harvest is exported to Asia.

Pollock fishing is a major industry, responsible for more than 13,000 jobs, according to an estimate by the research firm McDowell Group.

But it’s also directly dependent on the stability of the Bering Sea ecosystem. And lately, both pollock fishermen and scientists have been noticing changes in the way that the ecosystem is behaving, especially during the summer fishing season.

The fishing vessel Commodore sits in port in Dutch Harbor next to its floating processing ship, the Northern Victor. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Temperatures in the Bering Sea last summer were as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal.

And federal researchers have been making some surprising fish-related discoveries – specifically, they’ve found significant numbers of pollock and cod to the north of their typical ranges, said Jim Ianelli, a federal scientist.

“That area’s not being fished, and it’s not generally associated with being prime pollock habitat,” Ianelli said in a phone interview.

Scientists last year also found “really unusual” concentrations of pollock to the east, in the interior of Bristol Bay, Ianelli said. Those findings were buttressed by anecdotal reports of dead pollock from Bristol Bay commercial fishermen.

Ianelli said he thinks some of the Bering Sea’s fundamental features will help keep it a productive ecosystem, like the ample sun it gets during the summer and the way its geology allows for nutrients to circulate. But he also said that scientists still have lots of questions about how, exactly, climate change will affect the fish.

“We’re not very good at short-term forecasts,” he said. “We’re even worse at long-term questions.”

Martin, the Commodore captain, had his own unsettling experience last summer when he was fishing in an area called “the Horseshoe.”

Typically, the fish stay close to an underwater shelf there, and Martin knew it as a relatively safe spot where he wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally catching king salmon — a huge no-no for pollock trawlers.

But this time, Martin found himself chasing the fish nearly 10 miles off the edge, and he hedged his bets by dropping his net for a short test.

Crew members Joe Johnson, left, and Derrick Justice work to unload a trawl net full of pollock from on board the fishing vessel Commodore on Thursday, January 24, 2019. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“I just kept following my sonar farther and farther and farther off. It was like getting to the deep end of the pool. You’re like, ‘Well, don’t have my water wings, and I haven’t been this deep before,’” he said.

Even if pollock continue to fare well in the Bering Sea, they could pose problems for boats like Martin’s if they start straying too far from their normal areas.

That could make them too expensive to reach from Dutch Harbor, Martin said, since catcher boats are limited in how long they can fish and how much pollock they can store before it has to be delivered to a processor on shore.

If the pollock end up too far from port in the summer in the long term, Martin said it’s possible that his section of the industry would have to make major structural changes – like using floating processing vessels to handle fish from boats like the Commodore. Operators of the larger factory boats, meanwhile, said they can more easily adapt, since they can process fish onboard.

“These boats are more equipped to go further away and still be efficient,” said Jeff Garrison, captain on a factory vessel called the Starbound. “This fish is most ideal when it’s cut after a few hours, not after having 70-hour-old fish brought down from that far up.”

Martin is 53, and he’s already made a good living from the Bering Sea. But younger fishermen are staking their careers on pollock sticking around for decades longer.

Crew member Derrick Justice relaxes during a break from working on board the fishing vessel Commodore in January, 2019. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz, Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Derrick Justice, a deckhand on the Commodore from Washington, originally started fishing to pay his way through school. But during an interview in the boat’s galley, he said he “didn’t even make it” to college after earning $40,000 over the course of a few months in a fishing job.

“Earning my honest living was greater than what I was going to achieve by going to college, so I just stuck out with the hard work,” he said.

Justice, 24, is already making more than $100,000 a year. Veteran pollock fisherman can make $200,000 a year or more.

Justice said he wants to work his way up to being captain of a pollock boat. And he said he doesn’t worry too much about what’s happening in the ocean, or about how climate change and warming temperatures could affect fish populations.

Justice grew up in a family of fishermen and, he said, he loves to fish. But if the industry won’t give him a viable career, he said he could transfer his skills to a similar job, like on a cruise ship or tugboat.

“Mother Nature’s going to take its course, I suppose, just like it has since the beginning of time,” Justice said. “As far as I’m concerned, I just come up here, kill fish, make money, go home.”