Bycatch helping to feed Alaskans

Bycatch in Alaska’s commercial fisheries is a touchy subject.

Discussions at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council about capping bycatch for salmon and halibut in various federal fisheries over the past few years have been contentious.

Declining returns of king salmon in rivers throughout the state and subsistence-dependent residents having trouble catching enough fish for the winter, have added urgency to the issue.

The council passed caps for king salmon on Bering Sea pollock in 2009, and for the Gulf of Alaska pollock and groundfish fleets in 2011 and 2013, respectively. In 2012, the council reduced the allowable bycatch of halibut in the Gulf of Alaska by 15 percent, with the cut to be phased in over three years.

While many direct users of the halibut and salmon feel the council actions to limit or reduce bycatch haven’t gone far enough, for the Food Bank of Alaska the fish taken as bycatch can be a benefit, said Executive Director Michael Miller.

“It’s a great boost in the nutrition side of things,” Miller said. “It’s a part of who we are as Alaskans.”

Bycatch is the prohibited species catch, or PSC, taken incidentally in other fisheries and it cannot be sold. Under the Bering Sea king salmon limits, though, all bycatch must be retained rather than discarded overboard as it was in the past to ensure a full census of the fish by on-board observers.

SeaShare, a Washington-based nonprofit, gets the fish processed and distributed.

The food bank is the recipient of much of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska bycatch, as well as some additional donated fish.

In 2012, SeaShare returned 211,827 pounds of fish to Alaska, including more than 100,000 pounds of PSC bycatch. That year, 100 percent of the retained bycatch in Alaska was distributed in Alaska.

All the bycatch that makes it to shore goes to SeaShare, but not all bycatch is in good enough condition to be retained, SeaShare Executive Director Jim Harmon explained. If the fish is still alive and likely to survive, vessels are encouraged to return it to water.

Harmon said the organization has been involved in Alaska’s fisheries for about 20 years. PSC is about 10 percent of the volume SeaShare handles — the rest is other donated fish from throughout the country. The non-Alaska fish is distributed to affiliates of Feeding America, a national organization.

More than half of the PSC fish goes to Food Bank of Alaska, or FBA.

FBA’s recent SeaShare donations included about 40,000 pounds of canned salmon, 16,000 pounds of salmon steaks, 2,000 pounds of halibut steaks, 27,000 pounds of headed and gutted, or H&G, salmon, 4,000 pounds of H&G halibut and 6,000 pounds of breaded cod, according to Jason Lessard, director of operations.

That’s stored at the FBA Anchorage warehouse until an affiliate is ready to take it. H&G fish is the most difficult to distribute, while steaks and patties go more quickly, Lessard said.

It’s hard to estimate how much of FBA’s protein comes from SeaShare, but it makes a dent in feeding Alaskans, he said.

The cans, which arrived in July, were donated fish, not PSC.

Dennis Richardson, who picked up food to take back to the food pantry at Mountain View Baptist Church, said the cans would help the 80 families that visit that pantry twice a month.

“To be able to give good red fish, that usually doesn’t happen,” Richardson said as he loaded up 327 pounds of canned salmon for the church Aug. 2.

The church is one of several FBA affiliates that visits the warehouse to pick up food for distribution, usually through a food pantry or meal program.

An estimated 106,000 Alaskans were considered “food insecure” in the most recent study, Miller said. The food bank serves affiliates across the entire state. But getting fish from the warehouse to hungry communities in rural areas can be difficult, in part because of transportation costs, and in part because of strict regulations about criteria for distributing the food.

This summer, FEMA helped ship salmon to Galena, and FBA planned to ship some of the cans to Yukon River villages.

SeaShare also helps distribute the fish elsewhere in the state. In addition to the fish that stays in Kodiak, Harmon said the nonprofit has shipped seafood to Fairbanks, the Pribilof Islands and other far-flung destinations.

This summer, the Coast Guard also transported 14,000 pounds of fish to 11 northwest Alaska villages on a trip to Kotzebue.

When the fish isn’t donated canned, SeaShare’s usual model is to take raw fish and add donated services to make a product useful for recipients, Harmon said.

SeaShare has a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, to retain the fish. Then it is inspected, sorted, trimmed, repacked and distributed.

Sometimes operation is simple — like in Kodiak, where processors agreed to retain the bycatch, process it, and then distribute it to the local food bank and shelter. Fish is collected throughout the year, and stored at each processing plant. When the island doesn’t need more fish, it is shipped to Seward and trucked to Anchorage.

It gets more difficult when vessels offload at Dutch Harbor. Shipping routes generally go from Dutch to Seattle, Harmon said, so it is easier to ship it south for free, and more costly to get it to Alaska.

It’s also easier to process in Seattle. Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Glenn Reed said that Alaska’s processing plants aren’t set up to do small amounts of retail-type salmon and halibut.

But Harmon is working with Bering Fisheries, and looking for other partners, in an effort to process more of the fish in Dutch.

In 2012, Harmon said the program included 122 fishing boats, 18 at-sea processors, 15 shore plants, nine financial donors, six Alaska receiving agencies and more than 20 other companies that assisted with storage, freight and other components of the program.

SeaShare hasn’t always returned all the Alaskan fish to Alaska because of transportation and cost issues.

The cost to transport and process bycatch is up to 50 cents per pound.

When Alaska’s bycatch was staying out of state, it was largely because food banks on the west coast could afford to pay for transportation and processing, while Alaskan organizations couldn’t.

Reed said a collaboration with the Western Alaska Community Development Association, which represents the Community Development Quota entities, helped change the numbers. WACDA asked how to get the fish back to Alaska two years ago, Harmon said. The holdup was money. The association has provided that, as have other organizations in the state.

Now, Harmon is working on other expansions, like the processing effort in Dutch Harbor. 

He’s also working with the Rasmuson Foundation on ways to improve distribution capacity in state. Freezer capacity is a major issue, he said.

“Seafood has a long tradition and culture in those villages, and we’re trying to find ways to make that work again,” Harmon said.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at