North America's biggest fishery, the Bering Sea pollock catch that's largely harvested by Seattle-based fleets, may need to be sharply cut next year, according to a federal science team.

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North America’s biggest fishery, the Bering Sea pollock catch that’s largely harvested by Seattle-based fleets, may need to be sharply cut next year, according to a draft report released this week by a federal science team.

The report says Bering Sea pollock stocks in 2009 could sustain an 815,000 metric ton harvest, which would be about 18 percent lower than this year’s catch. But it forecasts that next year will be the low point, and harvests likely will be able to increase in 2010.

Pollock is a major fishery for Seattle-based trawlers, generating fillets, surimi paste and other products with a processed value that exceeds $1 billion. The pollock industry supports several thousand jobs in Alaska and the Puget Sound region.

Harvests have been in decline since a record catch of nearly 1.5 million metric tons in 2005. The trend has caused unease among industry officials, who have pointed to the giant pollock harvest as a bright spot in an era of global declines of many fishery stocks.

In an earlier interview, Jim Ianelli, a fisheries scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the pollock decline is due to unfavorable ocean conditions that caused below-average survival rates for young pollock from 2001 through 2005.

The draft report will be reviewed by a science team Monday in Seattle, and a final harvest level will be set in December by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Environmental-advocacy group Greenpeace recommends cutting the 2009 harvest substantially below the 800,000 metric ton level.

The draft report indicates pollock will rebound in the years ahead, buoyed by a strong class of young pollock born in 2006. If projections are accurate, the harvest could climb back up to 1.2 million metric tons by 2010, according to the draft document.

“We’ve known this downturn was coming because a large age class of fish that dominated the population was getting older, but we believe this to be only cyclic,” said David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance. “Scientists are projecting that pollock biomass may increase by perhaps as much as 51 percent in 2010.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com