The gloves are off in the fight over one of America's last healthy fishing grounds.
Using tactics similar to those of its successful campaign to save dolphins from drift-net fishers, Greenpeace is positioning for another fight - this time against massive "factory trawlers."
At stake, says the international environmental group, is the health of the North Pacific fishery. These waters encompass the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea north of a crescent-shaped wall formed by the Aleutian Islands - and they rank among the most productive fishing grounds in the world. The bread-and-butter species of the North Pacific fishery is Alaska pollock, representing one-third of all fish caught in the United States.
Charging that the area is being overfished, Greenpeace has called for the shutdown of US-based factory trawlers within five years. The huge ships represent "the strip mining of the fish industry," says spokesman Mark Floegel, and should be banned.
That's the kind of talk that would prompt a bare-knuckle fight if made in a fishermen's tavern in the seafaring Seattle neighborhood of Ballard.
Indeed, a spokesman for the industry says that Greenpeace's recent 55-page report on the North Pacific fishery constitutes "disinformation" and that the demand for phasing out factory trawlers is "Draconian." He suggests the group is just looking for a splashy way to raise funds.
Still, the dispute is drawing attention to fishing practices of the 55 to 60 domestic factory trawlers, which operate exclusively in the North Pacific. It is also picking up on ill will among Alaskans, many of whom resent that the Seattle-based trawlers net nearly two-thirds of the catch produced by the waters off their state.
Factory trawlers use giant nets and high-tech onboard equipment to capture huge hauls and to process fish expeditiously. But these advantages are offset because a large number of fish are wasted in the process - caught and then discarded, Greenpeace argues. The whole process, the group says, illustrates the dangers of "industrial-scale overfishing" - the kind of trouble that resulted in the closing of fisheries of Grand Banks off Newfoundland and Georges Bank off New England a few years ago.
For its part, the factory trawlers' trade group says that if a shutdown occurs, it would sink a $1.5 billion investment in equipment, $750 million a year in revenues, and 8,000 jobs at sea.
The industry may be heartened by the fact that few regulators, biologists, and academics in Washington State buy Greenpeace's argument or its scientific evidence.
"Of what I have seen and heard about the report, the most polite word for it is hogwash," says William Burke, a professor of law and marine affairs at the University of Washington. "There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that the targeted species are being depleted."
Greenpeace bases its overfishing arguments on circumstantial evidence: declines in the number of Stellar sea lions and seals that eat fish; collapses in subpopulations of pollock in some areas; and an absence of fish spawned in 1992 and expected to appear in 1995.
But many dismiss those arguments as unscientific and unproven. Fluctuations in pollock and other species are natural, they say. Most important, Mr. Burke says, the North Pacific fishery is being managed far more conservatively than either of the East Coast fisheries were.
Even Mr. Floegel concedes that banning the factory trawlers would not reduce the catch: Other vessels would move in to take their place. Instead, Greenpeace admits it aimed at the heart of the fish industry to provoke questions about overall fishery management. Borrowing from its 10-year campaign to ban drift nets, the group is taking the long-term approach, which involves public education and protest actions. Says Floegel: "We intend to make 'fish trawler' a household term."