Skip to main content

Billion-Dollar Fish

The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock

Alaska pollock is everywhere. If you’re eating fish but you don’t know what kind it is, it’s almost certainly pollock. Prized for its generic fish taste, pollock masquerades as crab meat in california rolls and seafood salads, and it feeds millions as fish sticks in school cafeterias and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at McDonald’s. That ubiquity has made pollock the most lucrative fish harvest in America—the fishery in the United States alone has an annual value of over one billion dollars. But even as the money rolls in, pollock is in trouble: in the last few years, the pollock population has declined by more than half, and some scientists are predicting the fishery’s eventual collapse.

In Billion-Dollar Fish, Kevin M. Bailey combines his years of firsthand pollock research with a remarkable talent for storytelling to offer the first natural history of Alaska pollock. Crucial to understanding the pollock fishery, he shows, is recognizing what aspects of its natural history make pollock so very desirable to fish, while at the same time making it resilient, yet highly vulnerable to overfishing. Bailey delves into the science, politics, and economics surrounding Alaska pollock in the Bering Sea, detailing the development of the fishery, the various political machinations that have led to its current management, and, perhaps most important, its impending demise. He approaches his subject from multiple angles, bringing in the perspectives of fishermen, politicians, environmentalists, and biologists, and drawing on revealing interviews with players who range from Greenpeace activists to fishing industry lawyers.

Seamlessly weaving the biology and ecology of pollock with the history and politics of the fishery, as well as Bailey’s own often raucous tales about life at sea, Billion-Dollar Fish is a book for every person interested in the troubled relationship between fish and humans, from the depths of the sea to the dinner plate.

288 pages | 33 halftones, 7 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Biological Sciences: Conservation, Natural History

Earth Sciences: Oceanography and Hydrology

Economics and Business: Business--Industry and Labor


“Few would be accused of romanticising the pollock—a fish about which only the most devoted marine biologists would use the word ‘charismatic.’ But the fishermen’s tales of its hunting to near extinction are no less fantastical. . . . [Bailey’s] book isn’t really about the fish at all. It is about a modern-day gold rush, a Wild West of the high seas, and an environmental catastrophe.”

Tom Whipple | Times (UK)

“Bailey blends science with competitive fighting over a substantial pile of money. . . . Never boring or entangled in scientific jargon, Billion-Dollar Fish practically makes pollock fishing out to be The Old Man and the Sea.”

Shelf Awareness

“[T]he first natural history of this ubiquitous fish and an analysis of its population. Although the market for pollock—worth more than a billion dollars a year in the United States alone—seems buoyant compared with some others, Bailey unveils a familiar tale of steep decline.”

Barbara Kiser | Nature

“Not that it’s a bad thing, but sometimes Billion-Dollar Fish reads like two different books: one a compelling history of the Alaska pollock fishery, the other an excellent primer on the development of fisheries science and resource strategy.”

Tyrone Burke | Canadian Geographic

Billion-Dollar Fish is an eye-opener for those who have caught themselves pondering the origins of their fried fish sandwiches.”

Erin Wayman | ScienceNews

“[Bailey] writes in a workmanlike style but lightens his account with sporadic portraits of colorful and powerful personalities from the commercial fishing business and its environmentalist antagonists. . . . Billion-Dollar Fish conveys the story of pollock with his skeptical, but affectionate, eye for industrial and environmental claims alike.”

Elizabeth Lester | Science

“[Bailey] paints a revealing picture of the colourful personalities at sea and ashore whose economic imperatives raised rates of fishing mortality to levels which, experience was to show, made little long-term biological or even economic sense.”

Richard Shelton | Times Literary Supplement

“Bailey is more than a fishery biologist specializing in Alaskan pollock. He is also a talented writer with a graceful style who can casually deliver a wealth of unusual insights and enliven his topic. . . . Bailey is one of those aristocrats among science writers whose work illuminates his field, rewarding general readers as well as professionals. Billion-Dollar Fish is the most authoritative source of information on the US’s most important fish. Essential.”

F. T. Manheim, George Mason University | Choice

"Bailey’s account of the fishery and its management is a closely-argued narrative. He has a gift for storytelling and introduces a stream of colorful characters… Billion-Dollar Fish is a beautifully written essay on a very complex subject, from an author with prolonged first-hand experience of Bering Sea fisheries.”

Book Post

"Bailey takes a deep dive into the astonishing complexities involved in commercial fisheries and how they have been managed in the United States since the industrial revolution, and how this management converges with international politics, socioeconomics and business, and affects the ecology of these fish and the other animals that depend upon them. . . . This educational story is an important and well-documented case study that will be appreciated by fisheries students and scientists and others who work in the Bering Sea, as well as those who want to learn more about the uncertain future of our environment and its living resources."


“An engaging, knowledgeable, and entertaining book. . . . Bailey’s book is an eloquent illustration of the ways in which human institutions, useful at first, can run out of control and do more harm than good.”

Paul J. B. Hart, University of Leicester | Fish and Fisheries

“Bailey has written a very personal account of the Alaska pollock as an industry, a food source, and a species. His ability to see multiple viewpoints comes from a career on commercial boats, aboard research vessels, with Alaskan communities, and in laboratories. . . . [Bailey] sheds light on the complex ways that industry figures, politicians, and scientists use their different stores of money, power, and knowledge to influence the decisions that affect pollock populations, the fisheries, and their management. The wide scope of Billion-Dollar Fish means that every reader, regardless of his or her background, will learn new things from this book.”

Jake Rice, Fisheries and Oceans Canada | BioScience

“This is a excellent book, . . . full of exciting tales of Norse cowboys, native peoples, fish biologists, and a multitude of fishers battling the mighty North Pacific with plenty of heroics, risk, stupidity, and adventures.  Of the various books I’ve reviewed so far, I’d have to give it my highest rating of 10 fish.”

Orlay Johnson | American Fisheries Society, Washington-British Columbia Chapter

“A modern-day tale of an aquatic gold rush. . . . Bailey is an accomplished fisheries scientist, yet he does a remarkable job of providing insightful social and economic viewpoints. His breadth of discussion and the historical context throughout the book is rich and multifaceted with diverse perspectives from environmentalists, businessmen, scientists, and even popular culture. . . . Billion-Dollar Fish should be required reading for students of conservation and the environment, anyone involved in the fishing industry, or general readers with a healthy curiosity of humanity’s relationship with the natural world.”

David D. Huff, University of California, Santa Cruz | Quarterly Review of Biology

“Bailey does an excellent job describing the biology and ecology of the species has spent much time researching, but he does well beyond these topics. Bailey describes the fishery from the perspectives of the fishermen, politicians, environmentalists, and scientists. These perspectives are pieced together from books, scientific papers, popular press articles, and Bailey’s recollections. Additionally, these perspectives are masterfully brought to life through in-depth interviews, and Bailey’s descriptions give the reader a sense of being present at the interview while experiencing the emotions of interviewer and interviewee. . . . Given its interdisciplinary range, this book would be appropriate for readers interested in the environment, conservation, history, politics, policy, biology, oceans, and fishing. Readers will appreciate the pictures, figures, and sidebars throughout the book. . . . Billion-Dollar Fish could be used as a case study in undergraduate or graduate courses in fisheries and conservation biology or in other disciplines such as economics, management, and social sciences.”


“It is remarkable that a book describing one of our nation’s largest fisheries has never been written—until now. Lucky for us, Kevin M. Bailey, a well-respected fisheries scientist who knows the fish and fishery better than anyone, tells the story of the billion-dollar fish that few know by name—Alaska pollock. Bailey creates an anticipation of ‘what happens next’ to the fish, fishermen, environmentalists, politicians, and scientists that makes it hard to put this book down.”

Jeffrey Buckel, North Carolina State University

“With the clear eye of a scientist and firsthand experience out on the high seas, Kevin M. Bailey presents the explosive rise and potential collapse of America’s most valuable fishery. Surprising and disconcerting, beautifully written and thoroughly researched, Kevin M. Bailey’s Billion-Dollar Fish gets to the bottom of how and why we decimate what could continuously provide substantial sustenance and wealth. With compassion and clarity, he points a way out of this difficult and inexcusable mess. All of us who eat fish will want to know this story.”

Deborah Cramer, author of Great Waters and Smithsonian Ocean

“Kevin M. Bailey turns his well-honed research and writing skills to explain how science, international economics, and national politics turned the lowly walleye pollock into the billion-dollar fish. This story will inform, entertain, and astonish its readers with the complexities of managing the removal of protein from the sea for human consumption.”

Jeffrey Napp, Fisheries Oceanographer

“Kevin M. Bailey’s Billion-Dollar Fish captures the high-stakes international battles over the business and biology of Alaska pollock fishing, the most valuable food fishery in the world. Bailey’s perspective is as a noncombatant giving scientific advice in a battle for money conducted on the battleground of the sea. Such battles have been and continue to be fought over many other species in all parts of the sea—for example, codfish, whales, tuna, and squid. This book provides an accessible and entertaining description of decades of hidden financial and scientific battles over a fish that most of us have eaten, unaware of this war.”

Tim D. Smith, author of Scaling Fisheries: The Science of Measuring the Effects of Fishing, 1855–1955

Table of Contents

Prologue: Fishing Lessons

1 Introduction: White Gold Fever
2 A Historical Background: From an Inexhaustible Ocean to the Three-Mile Limit
3 Fishing the High Seas: Japan and the Soviet Union Develop the Harvest of Pollock in the Bering Sea
4 Americanization! The Rush for White Gold and the Developing Fishery
5 An Empty Donut Hole: The Great Collapse of a North Pacific Pollock Stock
6 Viking Invasion: Norway’s Link to the Pollock Industry
7 A New Fish on the Block: Advancing Knowledge of Pollock Biology
8 A New Ocean: Changing Concepts of Ocean Production and Management of Fisheries
9 Factories of Doom: The Pollock Fishing Industry Clashes with the Environment
10 All in the Family: Olympic Fishing and Domestic Strife in the Industry
11 Bridge over Troubled Water: Tranquility after the American Fisheries Act
12 Alaska Pollock’s Challenging Future

Appendix A: Terminology
Appendix B: Other Abbreviations



Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press