Wild Alaska seafood?


This ad campaign is going to have some troubles, I suspect. It’s saying something I want to hear: they’re marketing wild seafood from Alaska, and they’re trying to convince me that it is a sustainable fishery. I have my doubts; but they are about to start a series of ads to tell me that it is, and they’re pushing salmon and king crab. Mmmmm. I want to believe. Delude me, baby, I want to taste your sweet, sweet lies.

The slogan is “Grab a fork, and eat all you want. There’s a lot more out there,” though, which I find appalling. And worse, far worse, I watched the ads. Who is mouthing that slogan? Ben Stein. I heard it, and my brain instantly clicked into full cynic mode. “He’s freakin’ lying,” my brain whispered to me, “Don’t trust a word he says.” And now I’m convinced that evil goons are chumming the North Pacific with baby seal blood and killing the fish with dynamite. So, DON’T BUY WILD ALASKA SEAFOOD. It’s evil.

Ah, the power of advertising.

For all the facts on fisheries, check out blogfish—in particular, you can find out more on the topic of Alaska at this link.


  1. Ichthyic says

    As far as Alaskan fisheries go, they actually at least have the potential to be sustainable fisheries, as the major breeding streams and rivers (er, for salmon, not king crab :P ) have not been completely destroyed by bad agriculture and damming like in the lower 48.

    However, suggesting that the seas bounty is limitless is just as bad as the timber industry trying to convince us that there are limitless numbers of trees to harvest.

    the only way the Alaskan fisheries will be sustainable is if continuing efforts at strict regulation bear more fruit than they are right now.

    so, yes PZ, they are lying to you, and your indignation is well founded.

    I wonder exactly when Ben Stein decided to become a corporate schill for idiots? When his game show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money” ran out of money?

  2. Ken Mareld says

    Ben Stein became a corporate shill for idiots the day he ceased being a political shill for idiots (Nixon).

  3. gecko1 says

    “There’s a lot more out there” has pretty much always been the state motto of Alaska. :-/

    Wild Alaska Salmon is still a better choice than farmed though.

    Regarding Stein – I wonder how long he would last on a commercial fishing boat? I think an experiment is in order.

  4. David Marjanović says

    That font… is that just me, or is this the Star Wars font on every computer?

    Yoda your brain in full cynic mode is!

  5. David Marjanović says

    That font… is that just me, or is this the Star Wars font on every computer?

    Yoda your brain in full cynic mode is!

  6. skyotter says

    heh, works for North Slope oil, too: “Grab a Hummer and burn all you want! There’s a lot more out there!”

    anyway, i hardly every buy Alaska seafood. i just walk down to the water and catch some

  7. says

    Most of the fisheries are in pretty big trouble right now. If we had any sense at all, the big scombrids would all be right off the menu, as would anything remotely resembling cod, shark, sturgeon, herring, anchovy, sardine, halibut, etc. There are certainly sustainable fisheries, but those are mostly small coastal percomorphs and, of course, trout (although trout farming has its own environmental issues, specifically downstream eutrophication).

    Of course, these fisheries are simply receiving more pressure due to food fashion trends, and there exist significant problems with the enforcement of necessary fishing moratoriums, especially considering that several key countries (cough Japan cough) tend to view moratoriums as a guarantee that they can corner the market on a fish species.

    Blue crab are fine, though. They’re not as delicious as king crab, but they’re certainly more environmentally friendly.

  8. Jen says

    I’ve been seeing these commercials for about a year now, and I was equally appalled the first time I heard “Grab a fork! There’s lots more out there!” This was before I knew Ben Stein was a huge idiot shill, but this was one of the things which gave me a clue–which is perhaps why I was not too surprised when I discovered he’s the star of “Expelled.”

    I mean, seriously! There’s lots more out there, so eat all you want? And this guy fancies himself an economist? It’s like something a five-year-old would say (and believe). So, what happens when there’s not “plenty more out there,” Mr. Stein? What then? Then we start implementing responsible, sustainable strategies? Why not just start that now, while there’s (allegedly) still “plenty more out there” (debatable), instead of waiting until the populations near total collapse?

    I like how the advertising specifically mentions its target audience–which pretty much describes me to a T (well, except that whole “making over $75,000” thing…I could only wish). I was able to immediately see the idiocy of the statement, so I can hope that perhaps their entire marketing campaign will fail. Maybe. Probably not. Sigh.

  9. says

    Well, the last time I looked at (and worked in) the AK salmon fishery, it was very well managed. AK Fish & Game tries to make sure enough salmon get to the rivers that the next run (typically 3 to 4 years out) is as big as or bigger than the current run. And the rivers are almost all free-flowing, so no dam problemsI haven’t looked at the King Crab fishery, but I do know that it is also pretty closely managed, and the weather when the boats go out is bad enough that it’s a bit self-regulating as well.

  10. Ichthyic says

    Blue crab are fine, though. They’re not as delicious as king crab, but they’re certainly more environmentally friendly.

    what’s really funny is that while the Alaskan Seafood “promotion board” is busily lying about the state of the king crab fishery, anyone with half a brain can see how the crab fishery in alaska has shifted to “snow crab” (species of Chionoecetes )

    in fact, if you’ve ever seen “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel, the crabs they fish for (Opilio) are not king crabs, but Chionoecetes .

    when you see a major shift in the species being focused on in a fishery, it’s a good indication that the species being shifted away FROM is in trouble. Not that there of course isn’t still a fishery for king crab, it’s just not nearly as large as it once was, for good reason.

    btw, worldwide fisheries are in serious trouble:


    Moreover, people often forget, or did not know, that marine ecosystems in general are in far more trouble than most terrestrial ones. As an example, far more coral reef habitat has been lost over the last 40 years (well over 80%) than tropical rainforest.

    As someone who has studied marine ecosystems for 25 years, things appear to be quite bad, and too little is being done to repair or even mitigate the damage.

    The US Sanctuary program has produced some excellent results in management issues (especially wrt producing results showing how restriction of fishing in areas of breeding interest can help restore populations in other areas), but it has too little impact overall to significantly slow the habitat loss worldwide.

  11. says

    OK, now you’re in MY area. If you want the straight scoop on seafood and fishing, go to blogfish. I won’t bore you with the details here. Although maybe you would like a list of the overfishing problems with Alaskan crab. Sadly, Alaska with all it’s problems is better off than most places.

    If you want to eat crab, don’t switch to blue crab, they’re in even worse shape than king crab, check blogfish here for the real story.

    Now I’ll go back to my little corner of the blogosphere, content in the knowledge that fish were, for one brief moment, in the BIG BLOG limelight.

  12. Carlie says

    Yep. Read Cod (Mark Kurlansky), then read “Fishing down aquatic food webs” (American Scientist, available online in pdf, a popularized summary but a good one), then weep and vow to never eat fish again. Then go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium site and download your region’s fish scorecard so you can eat some of it, at least. It’s frightening the state we’ve let the oceans get into.

  13. says

    Regarding Stein – I wonder how long he would last on a commercial fishing boat? I think an experiment is in order.

    After the first couple days he spent with the crew, he’d be everyone’s chum.

  14. Grumpy says

    The state of Alaska is bankrolling the seafood marketing campaign partly to counteract sticky memes like a line from The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase in 1997, when Marge urged her family to be more concerned about “the endangered Alaskan salmon.” Salmon in Alaska are not endangered, much as people may think so.

  15. Caledonian says

    After the first couple days he spent with the crew, he’d be everyone’s chum.

    Gentlefolk, we have another Molly candidate.

  16. Ichthyic says

    The state of Alaska is bankrolling the seafood marketing campaign partly to counteract sticky memes like a line from The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase in 1997, when Marge urged her family to be more concerned about “the endangered Alaskan salmon.” Salmon in Alaska are not endangered, much as people may think so.

    justifying blatant lies about how fisheries work (the “limitless bounty” notion) does NOT correct public misconceptions.

    seriously, I truly hope you are not trying to defend the approach of this ad campaign.

    It’s hopelessly backward.

  17. says

    The governing body for the Alaskan fisheries have determined that Opilio and Tanner crab are in sufficient numbers to allow twice the amount of fishing as last year. The Alaskan King crabs quotas/allotments are going to go up as well. Or, at least, so goes the rumor around the producers of Deadliest Catch. ;)

  18. says

    Wow, I was not under the impression that blue crab were under such significant pressure. Is this pressure only in the Chesapeake, or is it throughout the entire range?

  19. Ichthyic says

    The Alaskan King crabs quotas/allotments are going to go up as well. Or, at least, so goes the rumor around the producers of Deadliest Catch. ;)

    all true, however…

    one, don’t expect the disco channel to be a great source of scientific information (that isn’t their mandate).

    two, they only put quotas on fisheries that are in trouble to begin with.

    what it shows is that strict regulation was (and still is) needed, and gladly in this case, has resulted in limited recovery. The Oplio fishery itself is what is known as a “secondary” fishery, and is the direct result of king crab numbers drastically declining over the last few decades.

    three, if you look at the history of fisheries regulation by government bodies, you’ll often find them ignoring the best advice from the fisheries biologists themselves (not saying that’s happening in this case, but it often does), so you need to take the reports of regulatory agencies with a grain of salt.

    ask Canada about what happens when you allow unlimited commercial fishing of cod, for example.

    last I checked, the government was still in for providing a living for the thousands of fisherman put out of a livelihood due to the collapse of the cod fishery because of massive overfishing by government sponsored commercial fishing fleets.

    point is, if you want to really learn what’s happening within a given population of a commercially fished species, you have to go to the primary literature; don’t rely on the regulatory bodies themselves, as they often are completely wrong in their conclusions and recommendations.

    The fishery encouraged in CA for Angel Sharks in the 80’s by not one but two regulatory agencies is a perfect case in point.

    all the science pointed to the slow breeding rates and localized populations essentially being unsustainable as a commercial fishery, and this was unfortunately proven correct when just a few years later, the fishery collapsed.

    I got to watch that one happen personally, in “real time”, meaning that from the release of the recommendation to open a fishery for angel sharks, to complete collapse of that fishery took less than 10 years (less than 5, really, to the recognition the fishery was unsustainable).

    It’s not that I deny that Alaska has commercially viable fisheries that they can advertise for, it’s simply the approach of the advertising:

    The slogan is “Grab a fork, and eat all you want. There’s a lot more out there,” though, which I find appalling.

    not just appalling, but entirely backwards, and it’s really an attitude that the whole concept of “sustainable fishery” cannot support.

  20. foxfire says

    Yeah. Oregon had wild salmon a couple of years ago, in abundance. Now I see “wild Alaskan Salmon” offered in grocery stores on the Oregon Coast. Good luck Alaska…:-(

  21. Ichthyic says

    Save those Alaskan critters, but by all means– kill them zebrafish!

    that’s right, take your inane ramblings into unrelated threads.

    that’ll convince everyone.

  22. Ichthyic says

    when will we ever learn?

    are you sure you want to know the answer to that?

    ’cause as far as I can tell, watching it happen over and over and over again, the answer might be never.

    OTOH, like i said earlier, there are some promising things coming out of the Sanctuary program that might allow a future for small-scale sustainable fisheries (excluding trawlers and drift lines/netters, though). some of the participants in smaller fisheries are at least starting to recognize the value of working with scientists to understand their own resources better.

    might be too little, too late however for most large fisheries.

    we’ve already gone well past the point where even moratoria would be helpful for many species, even if it were not an almost impossible thing to get various commercial interests to agree with.

    It’s truly tragic that as our understanding of how trophic interactions and breeding populations and larval dispersal has gotten to the point where sensible management decisions can be made, it’s already too late for that knowledge to do any good in many cases.

    that’s about as positive a spin as I can put on it, really.

    It’s that bad.

  23. Ichthyic says

    this too, is a sad commentary…

    The primary target customer is female, age 35 to 54 with an annual household income of $75,000 or above and she has a college degree.

    so the primary audience for the message that fisheries are a source of limitless abundance is college educated females?

    *shakes head sadly*

  24. Caledonian says

    We can avoid reality, but we cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.

    It’s not the fishermen I feel sorry for, it’s the fish. It may well be hundreds of years before some of those areas recover – if they ever do. Sometimes the new balance of nature is fundamentally different from the one it replaced.

  25. Randy says

    To echo what has been said above, Alaksan fisheries are very closely regulated and in much better shape than the rest of the country. To quote Mark Powell from his blog: “In Alaska, where state and federal management do the best job of protecting fish, both fish and fishermen are thriving. Too few fishermen and managers around the U.S. have learned these lessons”

    It is far more important to avoid purchasing farmed fish, since they represent a much more severe threat to marine ecosystems

  26. JohnnieCanuck, FCD says

    Note also that the way the salmon fleets are regulated is by openings. The capacity of the fleet is so far in excess of the size of the return that some openings are for less than a day.

    Amongst other things, this can be very bad for the fishermen. Everything is condensed into a panic mode. Bad weather must be ignored. This leads to accidents and deaths.

    Things get worse in some ways when the opening is for, say 60 hours. That often means 60 sleepless hours.

    When a run for a large, commercially important river is fished before it separates from one or a few smaller runs, the regulators are under commercial pressure to allow the small runs to go extinct.

    Sometimes the run consists of fish destined for Canadian rivers. Alaskan regulators get to decide how many will be left once the run crosses the boundary and reaches the Canadian fleet.

    With the huge uncertainties faced by the biologists in estimating the success of a return and the commercial pressures on the regulators, it only takes one error to critically damage a run.

    Now that we are fishing down the food chain, right through the herring and down to the krill, everything is endangered. Salmon, penguins, whales, everything.

  27. Luna_the_cat says

    Errgh. An issue near and dear to my heart, this — not the Alaskan fisheries specifically, but fisheries in general. Parked as I am on the shore of the North Sea, I’ve been getting to watch the collapse of the fisheries here in real time, and have a permanent bruise on my forehead from having to watch the political stupidity surrounding it.

    With the collapse of the Canadian Grand Banks cod stocks and the collapse of the Icelandic fisheries both providing perfect examples of what happens, and both happening within living memory, there is still a lot of “Oh no, we can’t restrict the fishing too much, it will drive the fishermen out of business” — as if not having a fishery at all won’t do that anyway.

    There is also a degree of simply stupid legislation, such as allowing boats to fish in sensitive areas with nets that will capture threatened species even if the threatened species is not the target. They are required to throw the “unwanted bycatch” back in, but by the time the nets have been hauled in and the bycatch thrown back, the fish are already dead, so what exactly is the point? And added to that there is a profound lack of enforcement of regulation anyway, so there is a huge market in “black fish”. The fishermen know that they both can and will catch the threatened species while going after legal targets, they know the bycatch is dead anyway, and they know that they can make money off selling it, and there is absolutely no motivation to throw that money overboard. So the “official” catch of a threatened species is, in my own experience, probably less than a third of the blackfish that end up on the market.

    I’ve been watching the fishing down the foodchain as well; and I’ve seen all the marketing for farmed salmon and its supposed “sustainability” here, without mention of the fact that they fish out sandeels to feed all their farmed salmon, and that the crash in sandeels has resulted in mass seabird die-offs. (Of course, shifting currents from climate change contribute to the sandeel crash too, just to complicate the issue.) And there are some EU countries who *still* feel no need to rein in their boats at all, because their immediate economies depend too much on the market for fish — Spain springs to mind. So they just fish an area out entirely, then move to the African fisheries. My prediction is that you will see a Grand Banks-style collapse of the African fisheries within 15 years at the most optimistic.

    The myth of the infinite resource has NEVER worked, ever, in the history of humankind. What kind of blindness does it take not to see this?

  28. Peter Ashby says

    Fish are a classic poverty of the commons scenario. When we figure out how to robustly manage those in general, then maybe we can manage fisheries.

    Here in Scotland the farmed Salmon are harming the wild ones by massively boosting salmon louse numbers in the sea lochs. They latch onto the young salmon as they exit the rivers and head out to sea and decimate the numbers. I can see the day when there are no wild fish left and we simply farm the sea.

  29. Ichthyic says

    I can see the day when there are no wild fish left and we simply farm the sea.

    I wish I could disagree, but as it stands now, at least on a large scale, you are probably right. That day is not far off.

    there is still hope for localized, well managed fisheries, though. Small scale fisheries like that for Rockfish off the Northern CA coast can be maintained through the use of breeding stock sanctuaries, for example. However, any of the larger fisheries, especially for the open ocean pelagics, is doomed to die the death of a thousand cuts, as many countries vie for limited stocks that migrate thousands of miles across many different territories with vastly different ideas of what constitutes conservation.

    …and don’t even get me started on the damage the benthic trawler fisheries have done to entire ecosystems, or what the shark fin industry has done to entire species of sharks.

    damn, this is just too depressing to think about.

    I remember when I was very young, say around 8 or so, my Dad used to take me on the half-day boats to fish the waters around Southern California. In just a few hours, on most days, we could count on catching at least our limit (10 fish each) of a mixture of decent sized bonita, yellowtail, halibut, kelp and sand bass (with some rockfish thrown in for good measure). The Dory fishing fleet in Newport Beach was always a great place to go and get some fresh fish on days we couldn’t go fishing ourselves.

    That was in the 70’s. By the time I graduated high school, the same trip would produce 5 or 6 tomcod (a small, bony species of croaker), and a handful of scrawny mackerel. The Dory fishing fleet was now mostly just a tourist attraction.

    It was due to a combination of factors, from destruction of breeding/juvenile habitat as tidal wetlands and marshes were drained to build condos, pollution from point (industrial, agricultural, sewage) and non-point sources (runoff from storm drains), combined with simply too many private and commercial fishermen.

    We stopped going fishing, and haven’t been since.

    I don’t know for sure if the kinds of management practices being studied up in the Monterey area would help restore at least some of the fish populations in the more southern coastal reef areas. I think with some hard work maybe some species have a decent chance of recovery (calico bass have shown some signs of recovery in some areas, and some grouper have started to reappear in a few areas too), but regardless, the Southern California Bight will never again be what it once was (all that wetland habitat is gone forever), and it all happened so very, very quickly.

    Unlike my Dad, I will likely never have the opportunity to show any of my kids what it was like “fishing in the day”.
    I’ll tell them about all the halibut, and grouper, and calico bass, and sheephead, and big fish that were everywhere, and they’ll respond with:

    “Suuuuurre, pop, whatever you say”, and roll their eyes at their crazy old man.

  30. Luna_the_cat says

    Peter Ashby says:

    Here in Scotland the farmed Salmon are harming the wild ones by massively boosting salmon louse numbers in the sea lochs.

    Oh yes, that too. Definitely.

    You say “here in Scotland” — I’m just south of Aberdeen, where are you?

  31. LizVens says

    Well, as a member of the ad’s target audience (female, age 35 to 54 with an annual household income of $75,000 and a college degree), once I’d gotten past my initial reaction of “whadidhesay?” I sought out more info and was led to you people…thanks for the info; I’ll be modifying my fish-eating habits, for sure. Do you think that was what they had in mind? :)

  32. aratina says

    PZ, Apparently I missed this post of yours when it happened. Now, I want you to know that I love your blog for many reasons, and was quite happy to stumble on it years ago, but I really take offense at you calling Alaskan seafood evil because some marketing group hired that a-hole Stein to star in a commercial about Alaskan salmon.

    The people whose livelihood depends on Alaskan salmon did not make the calls on that advertisement, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute did. And that is highly related to the reason that Alaskan commercial salmon fishers are not doing so well economically–they are not one big dreadnought company. Instead, the people who depend on Alaskan salmon being consumed are diverse individuals who for one short window of time from June to August can make just enough money to survive on for a large part of the year.

    Alaskan salmon are also a well-managed resource. The blogfish website you link to discusses that at length. Because of that, the Alaskan salmon are sustainable. In fact, if commercial salmon fishing were to be stopped, the salmon would flood the rivers and the stock would suffer a crippling blow. The way it is now, the salmon stock requires a balancing act. Sometimes the fishers get to take more, sometimes they get to take less. The state also does not just give all the salmon to the commercial fishers, but instead allows anyone in Alaska to fish salmon for sport in the rivers.

    The bottom line is that Stein has nothing to do with Alaskan salmon other than some marketing IDiot’s ill-conceived idea, and I don’t see how you can say that Alaskan seafood is evil because of that. The Alaskan fisheries depend on consumers, but too many are turning to farmed Atlantic salmon (there is a true horror story if you care to look into it). Ya, I get the point, they should never have put Stein in their commercials, should never had acted so brazen about salmon as if the supply were endless (but they do need to motivate people to buy the end product in face of charges that the salmon will all be fished out) and I am calling the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute tomorrow as a fisherman to lodge a complaint about them using Stein, but did you have to be so repugnant in the way you made that point?

  33. aratina says

    I just finished talking with Laura Fleming, the Media Relations contact at Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and she said that particular ad campaign had already ended and that I was not the only one from the “fleet” who called in to express their disappointment over the choice of Ben Stein as a representative of Alaskan salmon and the misguided point of view that Alaskan salmon are “abundant so eat as many as you can”. She was not sure who hired Stein but said that he would not have been her choice. I’m just glad that is over and hope Alaskan salmon are never so disparaged again by the presence of Stein or the notion that they are in endless supply.

  34. Kseniya says

    When Stein’s involved, there’s always something that’s in endless supply.

    Interesting comments, Aratina. I admit, I’d forgotten all about this issue.