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Originally published Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘Billion-Dollar Fish’: high profits from the lowly pollock

Seattle author Kevin Bailey’s “Billion-Dollar Fish” chronicles the race among fishermen from different countries to exploit the immense stocks of pollock in the North Pacific.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaskan Pollock”

by Kevin M. Bailey

University of Chicago Press, 271 pp., $25

Alaska pollock is the stuff of fish sticks, fish oil and artificial crab. It is a lowly fish, not emblematic of Native American culture or particularly prized by chefs. But it amounts to 40 percent of the U.S. commercial fish catch, and feeds a billion-dollar industry based in Seattle.

In “Billion Dollar Fish,” the story of the pollock boom of the 1980s and 1990s is told by Kevin Bailey, who for three decades was a fisheries scientist at Seattle’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Bailey has written dozens of scientific papers about pollock. The penalty for the reader is that in his chapter on biology he delves into the science more deeply than some will want to go. But he knows his fish, and comes at the topic neither in the pocket of the industry nor its environmental critics.

Much of his book is a business story. In economic terms, pollock is a latecomer, a species known for decades before Americans figured out how to exploit it. The fishing grounds in the Bering Sea are remote and dangerous, and per pound the fish is far less valuable than crab or salmon.

The Japanese, who prize pollock for its roe, were the first to go after it. They, the Koreans and Russians would have eventually wiped it out. Bailey recounts how they fished out the pollock in the Doughnut Hole, the part of the Bering¡ Sea not in any country’s 200-mile limit. Bailey begins his book describing his time on a foreign boat two years before that limit, a young American welcomed with big smiles as long as he didn’t look too carefully.

Congress passed the 200-mile limit in 1976. Sovereignty brought regulation, but the fleets catching the pollock were still foreign-flag. Legally, U.S.-flag boats could be first in line — if there were any.

The first was the Seafreeze Atlantic, a factory trawler built by the U.S. government and tied up on the East Coast. John Sjong and Konrad Uri, Norwegian-Americans, bought it for 38 cents on the dollar and renamed it the Arctic Trawler.

From there it began. Their bosun was Kjell Inge Røkke, a high-school dropout from Molde, Norway, who would go on to found the American Seafoods Co. Most of the pioneers of the U.S.-flag fleet came from Norway, some with U.S. citizenship and some not, and many of the boats were built (legally “rebuilt”) there.

In the 1990s came a political fight over the Norwegian-built boats, and between the companies that processed at sea and the ones that processed on land. There was a “race for fish,” too many boats and processing plants were built, and a settlement was reached that assigned shares to different owners.

For industrial and maritime Seattle, pollock was a great boon. Bailey’s story leaves open whether the harvest will continue indefinitely or, as with so many other fisheries, collapse. “The major stocks ... in the Eastern Bering Sea seem to be maintaining,” he writes, “but there is a nervous anticipation each new year ...”

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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