Pollock — it’s not something you put on your grocery list or order at a restaurant. But you’ve probably eaten a lot of pollock, which makes up the largest fishery for human consumption. Fake crabmeat in sushi rolls, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish Sandwich and Burger King’s Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich are all made up of pollock. And the same goes for just about every fish stick.

These silvery fish, which get to be shy of 5 pounds before they’re caught, supplies 40 percent of the world’s whitefish. Most of the people who bring this food to the table are Northwest fishermen, and their catch nets huge profits for Seattle-based companies.

Preparing for a new season

(Credit: Kevin Bailey, author of "Billion Dollar Fish")

(Credit: Kevin Bailey, author of “Billion Dollar Fish”)

These days, boats all around Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal are busy preparing for the new pollock season, which gets under way in January. The boats are being stocked with provisions, and the boats’ captains are checking their nets and sonar before they head north to the icy, rough waters of the East Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska where pollock live.

“Mainly all the companies try to catch, cut and sell Alaska pollock. That’s their thing,” said Ed Richardson, a resource economist with the trade group At Sea Processors Association, which represents the interests of six commercial-fishing companies. “But we have to try to work with the government to make sure all of the rules and regulations don’t take all of the profit out of our business.”

Usually, that isn’t a problem; pollock is a multi-billion dollar fishery. The government does set catch limits each season. But when the fish are plentiful, it can prove profitable, says Richardson.

“It’s a decent cash-flow business. There’s a little bit left over after we pay all of our bills,” he said.

Aboard the Seattle-based Starbound

The ships that bring in the big money are boats like the 240-foot Starbound docked in Salmon Bay just above the Ballard Locks. Operated by Aleutian Spray Fisheries, Inc., not only can the Starbound catch up to 330 tons of pollock a day, it also has an on-board factory equipped with German machinery that sorts the silver fish into different sizes, says Richardson.

“You’ve got these other machines that cut the head off and take out the entrails. Then the fish goes into another machine that cuts the fillets off, then the fillets go into another machine that takes the skin off…and then if the fillet is going to go into surimi [fish paste], it goes into another machine that makes it into mince,” he said.

On the Starbound, the factory is in the belly of the ship. A narrow, steep set of stairs leads you down.

‘It just takes one bad apple’: Working under close watch

Before the pollock get processed, the fish get weighed. This is where observers from the National Marine Fisheries Service keep an eye on things to make sure no one tinkers with the scales or takes any salmon that might get caught up in the nets. Most of the data are reported back to scientists in Seattle.

(Neil Giardino/KPLU)

(Neil Giardino/KPLU)

Craig Cross, who advises the owners of the Starbound, points up to the cameras that record everything.

“We are watched 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not only are we watched, we have films of what we are doing, films of every fish and computer back ups we have to turn into NMFS so they can keep it for 120 days just in case they hear of something bad. And when people say there are fishermen out there going willy-nilly, that’s not true,” Cross said.

Last spring, the federal government accused a different Seattle-based company, American Seafoods, of underreporting the amount of pollock it caught in 2007, 2008 and 2011. The workers in the factory are accused of fiddling with the scales and stealing large amounts of fish. The company is challenging the allegations.

Starbound’s captain Karl Bratvold just shakes his head when he hears about the allegations, saying it gives the whole industry a bad reputation.

“It doesn’t make us look very good,” Bratvold said. “It just takes one bad apple. We get fallout from that. The guys are trying to play by the rules. Everyone is trying to play by the rules.”

Future pollock markets: Spaghetti, stem cells and fish lips?

What is looking good is the upcoming pollock season in January. Some predict 2014 might prove to be a record-breaking year. Bratvold is excited to put his new $250,000 sonar equipment to use.

After crunching stacks of data on the health of the pollock population, Seattle-based stock assessment scientists as well as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council say fishing fleets will be allowed to go after more than 2.5 billion pounds of pollock, a slight increase from 2013.

Consumers around the world continue to enjoy fish sandwiches, fish sticks and sushi rolls, but Richardson says there is room for the pollock market to grow.

“We’re looking at funding a product to use the pollock skins to make a high-end dog chew. They’ve looked at using pollock skins as scaffolding where you would grow organs for transplantation and stem cells,” he said.

Richardson hopes one day to go to the grocery store and pull a package of pollock spaghetti off the shelf and serve it up for dinner. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, maybe someday, instead of eating it, pollock can become a part of you. Scientists are working on using the layer of fat in pollock skin to inject into lips for cosmetic procedures — yes, fish lips.

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