BERLIN — Captain Timothy Thomas, an American, trawls for Alaskan pollock, a type of fish loved by Germans, off the Alaskan coast in the northeast Pacific.
His vehicle is a 103-meter-long ship called "Northern Jaeger" that can fit a crew of 135 and swish by at 26 kilometers per hour.
The Northern Jaeger catches 150 tons of pollock everyday with strict specifications — each fish has to be at least 3 years old and weigh at least 700 grams — while battling waves that Thomas says can be as high as skyscrapers for several weeks of the year.
As soon as the fish is caught, it is cut into fillets by machines before being frozen at -18 °C. The catch usually ends up as fish fingers or filets in the freezers of our local supermarket.
Just a few hundred nautical miles west of Thomas are Russian and Japanese trawlers that use large nets to catch pollock in the Bering and Okhotsk seas. Unlike him, they do not process the fish in its entirety on board the trawlers. They just gut the fish and freeze them at -12 °C. The trawlers then travel to China, where the fish is defrosted and plant workers filet the fish and freeze them again.
Weeks later the products are found in supermarket freezers labeled as Alaskan pollock — this fish is more sought after than Peruvian anchovy.
All fish from the northern Pacific is called Alaskan pollock regardless of where the fish was caught and processed. It's not clear to consumers whether the fish they're eating is actually Alaskan pollock.
Adult pollock — Photo: NOAA FishWatch
Debate about the labeling of pollock is one of the biggest points of contention in the European Union regulatory system.
Lawyers are confident that is possible to legally protect the "Alaskan" label. Germany has a branding law that applies to delicacies like Black Forest Ham. There are agreements between European countries pertaining to labeling the place of origin. For instance, only champagne from the French region of Champagne can be called that.
"It makes perfect sense for producers as well as consumers to legally protect the geographical denomination," says Ulrich Hildebrandt of law firm Lubberger Lehment.
Fishermen in Alaska are now trying to protect their product through their organization Genuine Alaskan Pollock Producers (GAPP). They recently managed to get a law passed in the U.S. that stipulates that only fish caught in a 200-mile radius off the Alaskan coast would be allowed to call itself Alaskan pollock.
Pat Shanahan, the director of GAPP, says that she has already spoken with authorities in Brussels about legal protections in Europe for the group's product, and expects a positive result. "We have already been able to prove to the FDA in the U.S. that consumers feel cheated," she says, referring to the food and drug administration, the U.S. agency responsible for regulating food and medicine.
Canned Alaskan pollock roe served in Russia — Photo: Upsidedowninatown
If GAPP's efforts are successful, the German fishing and processing industry would be affected as pollock accounts for 20% of all fish sales in Germany. About 40% of the Alaskan pollock processed in the country is from fishing grounds off the Alaskan coast while the remainder comes from Russian or Japanese fishermen.
If consumers feel they aren't getting good quality fish, there could be a severe impact on the turnover for the German fishing industry.
"The name given to a fish doesn't have anything to do with the origin of the fish," says Matthias Keller, head of the Fish Information Centre in Hamburg. "What Alaskan fishermen are trying to do is just a marketing strategy, pure and simple."
Philipp Kanstinger of the World Wildlife Fund says that there is no genetic difference between fish caught in the Alaskan coast and the Bering sea.
"This particular type of fish is called Alaskan pollock in more than one language, no matter in which region it has been caught," he says.
Captain Timothy Thomas, who has been fishing off the Alaskan coast for more than 30 years, says he can't imagine eating anything but Alaskan pollock. But even he says he can't eat it if it's coming from a Chinese factory.
*A previous version of this story, including the headline, mistakenly refered to pollock as "cod." Though they belong to the same family, they are two distinct species.