Story last updated at 6/8/2011 - 5:20 pm
Alaska's "bycatch to food banks" program is expanding this summer to include fish caught in the Gulf of Alaska.
Since 1994, thanks to relentless pushing by the Alaska industry, boats targeting pollock in the Bering Sea have been allowed to retain bycatch of unwanted species for donation to national food banks. Prior to that, federal law required that accidentally caught salmon or halibut be discarded.
More than two million pounds of the wholesome fish has gone to hunger relief via Sea Share, the "seafood arm" of the Feeding America food bank network of 220 outlets nationwide. The fish are headed and gutted, frozen, packaged, held and shipped out from company freezers as directed by Sea Share, the only organization authorized to do so.
Starting in August, more fish will be delivered from the Gulf of Alaska.
"A lot of the processors who work in the Bering Sea also work in the Gulf," said Jim Harmon, Sea Share director. "They came to us earlier this year and said, 'We want to provide more fish to hunger relief, and we want to include the "prohibited species catch" we get in the Gulf pollock fishery.'"
The bycatch component is "high profile," Harmon said, but it is just a small part of the Sea Share pantry, which to date has supplied 25 million pounds of "first run" seafood to hunger relief. Most recently, van loads of canned salmon have gone to tornado ravaged regions in Joplin, Mo. and elsewhere.
"Whenever there is an emergency or a disaster, they call us and ask for protein, particularly shelf stable items for people who don't have refrigeration or feeding centers set up," Harmon said.
What began long ago in the Bering Sea now includes seafood donation partnerships across the nation.
"We are very proud of the fact that we supply some of the very best food the food banks can get," Harmon said. "Especially seafood protein that is so loaded with omega-threes and other essential nutrients. Nobody else focuses on seafood. And we provide it to the food banks at zero cost."
The donations also introduce Alaska seafood to a set of consumers who normally would not get it.
"Along with feeding people we also hope we are building customers, and promoting seafood consumption across the U.S. through the food bank system," Harmon said.
Sea Share is nominated for an Alaska Hero award at the June 8-10 Global Foods Collaborative in Soldotna. Learn more at wwww.seashare.org.
More salmon fisheries are coming on line in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay, following the lead of Southeast trollers and Copper River. Catches of sockeye and king salmon at Copper River have been strong since the fishery opened in mid-May, nearly double the forecast. Alaska salmon is filling a void due to a disappointing no show of Chinook for West Coast trollers where buyers are eager for fresh fish.
Likewise, fresh rules the day for Alaska halibut and prices to fishermen are holding at well over $6 a pound in most major ports. Longliners have taken 35 percent of the 30.3 million pound catch limit, with 19 million pounds to go till mid-November. Most of the fish is crossing the docks at Homer, followed by Seward, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Petersburg.
Alaska's biggest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay ended last week after a few weeks of stop and go fishing. Seiners and gillnetters took 92 percent of the 25,000 ton quota, considered above average.
Bad weather hampered the fishery, and processors had to close up shop, said Tim Sands, regional fishery manager.
"Every processor that participates in herring also participates in the salmon fishery, so they need to be ready to reposition for salmon," Sands told KDLG. "That is always a factor when we have these late herring fisheries."
Early reports peg the Togiak roe herring price at between $75 and $100 per ton. Next up is Norton Sound where Icicle Seafoods has four tenders on the grounds awaiting a fishery any day now. Prices will be on a sliding scale based on roe counts - it is $250 a ton for 10 percent roe. Last year 30 local boats fished for herring at Norton Sound.
A new project aims to find out where and how far Bering Sea crabs travel. About 300 adult male red king crab and snow crab were tagged and released on the Bering Sea fishing grounds from 2009 through this winter. The tags will track the crabs as they travel over one year.
"We want to try and get a better understanding of how the crabs migrate," said Anne Vanderhoeven, president of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance, an industry trade group. "We know where they are during the fishing season, but other than that, it's hard to tell what they do and where they go throughout the year."
The MCA is collaborating on the tagging project with ADF&G and NOAA Fisheries in hopes of getting enough information back to improve crab stock assessments. That's where fishermen and processing workers come in. They are being asked to be on watch for two kinds of tags: familiar spaghetti tags and newer archival tags that track bottom depth, location and other data.
"The crabbers are going to see them on the grounds as they are sorting the catch, observers will see them on the boat as they are monitoring catches, tagged crabs could turn up as bycatch in trawl or longline fisheries and some of them may show up at processing plants," Vanderhoeven said.
Anyone returning an archival tag gets a $200 reward. All finders get a crab ball cap. Tags can be turned in at Fish and Game offices.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.