By Craig Medred - May 14, 2018

Kodiak halibut headed for the fish grinder/Erik Velsko, Facebook

Kodiak halibut headed for the fish grinder/Erik Velsko, Facebook

Only in Alaska, which likes to claim title to the world’s “best-managed fisheries,” would halibut now retailing at prices in excess of $20 per poundbe ground into fish meal to feed animals, shrimp and maybe even farmed salmon – the bane of Alaska commercial fishermen.
Photos of halibut and other, trawl-caught bottomfish headed for the grinder emerged from Kodiak this weekend as Alaska fishermen started into a fishing season where the targeted harvest of halibut by both commercial fishermen and anglers has been seriously restricted because of conservation concerns.

The commercial season opened in March with commercial fishermen in the north Gulf of Alaska restricted to 7,350,000 pounds – down from 10 million last year – and the sport charter catch slashed to 1.8 million pounds.
Most sport fishing in Alaska takes place in the north Gulf where the catch limit is now down to less than half the trawl, bycatch cap of 1,706 metric tons – 3.8 million pounds – the North Pacific Fishery Management Council,a federal regulatory body controlled by commercial fishing interests, imposed on the trawl fishery.

The council “family” has sometimes attracted public criticism, but a Byzantine federal regulatory system has allowed it to function largely free of public pressure.

“With all the papers, people and scheduling, Council meetings can be pretty confusing to those who are new to the process,” the organization concedes on its website, but the Council has never made any real effort to make the meetings less so.

To keep the charter harvest down this year, charter anglers were banned from fishing on Wednesdays and some Tuesdays and further restricted to a seasonal catch limit of four fish. The restrictions are expected to take a significant bite out of the tourist economy in Homer and other south Kenai Peninsula communities.

The new rules come on top of a fish-and-a-half-limit previously imposed to limit anglers to one halibut of any size and one under 28 inches.

Angry anglers

The internet was lighting up over the weekend after Kodiak’s Erik Velsko posted on Facebook the photos of not only a tote full of the flatfish, but a video of the tote being unceremoniously dumped into a Trident Seafoods truck. He added this comment: “Anyone who cares about our natural resources right outside our door should be appalled at this. Yes, that’s a Trident truck and yes, those are baby halibut from one of their boats. It’s getting ridiculous, and it’s time to stop.”

The fish were what is called trawl “bycatch.” Federal regulations intended to remove the financial incentive for trawlers to target especially valuable fish such as halibut and salmon prevent the sale of that bycatch, but trawlers can still legally hand the fish over to processors to be ground into fish meal. 

Fish meal is now big business.

The Marine Ingredients Organization in 2015 estimated “2,332,000 metric tons of fish meal can be shipped in a year from more than 30 countries in Europe, North and South America and Asia.”

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a body funded in part by the state, has been pushing for expansion of fish meal operations to dispose of both the waste of heads and organs from salmon processing and to use unmarketable fish species and bycatch.

“The pet food market is large, but secures most of its protein from terrestrial sources. The top seven pet food companies in the United States have combined revenues of $38 billion,” the Institute noted in a 2017 report.“Most of these sales come from dog and cat food. The dog treat market is estimated at $8 billion. Alaska fish heads and other fish meat products can be a marketable ingredient for pet food manufacturers.”

Were Alaska processors doing a better job of marketing their fish meal, some Americans would, no doubt, be happy to learn their pets were eating the fish the owner couldn’t afford.

The ASMI report, however, notes the slim margins on which the pet food industry operates: “Alaska seafood is a highly marketable ingredient and processors can supply pet food manufacturers with several product forms made from waste streams: frozen/ground blocks, hydrolysates, or meals/powders. However, these products generally sell for very low prices, barely enough to cover the cost of shipping the frozen product. Raising the value of these minimally processed products by 10-20 cents/lb. or more could convert a significant volume of Alaska seafood waste into saleable product.”

Big, big business

Seattle-based Trident Seafoods is the biggest fish business in the country. It is heavily invested in Alaska, but also has plants in Washington state, Georgia and Minnesota, along with operations in China, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.

The company made founder and chief shareholder Chunk Bundrant a billionaire.

Bundrant built his business on the back of the walleye pollock, a white-fleshed fish once considered trash in Alaska. Bundrant recognized that pollock flesh made for perfectly fine fish sticks, and the rest is history.

Trident last year inked a deal to sell those pollock fish sticks to Walmart, under the company’s “Great Value,” in-house label. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer.

Those pollock circle back to halibut in that halibut is bycatch in the efficient but indiscriminate trawl fisheries. And there are hints bycatch and fish parts ground into meal could be the pollock of the future.
“…The company invests in research and development aimed at extracting every bit of value from the fish, and it has been diversifying its markets to create better use of the byproducts, such as for fish meal and animal feed and food,” Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine reported in October 2016.

Trawlers have been accused by some of “strip-mining” the sea, but they have in some cases shown they can fish pretty clean.

The Canadians in 1997 established individual, by-catch quotas for trawlers to reward those who managed to avoid non-target species, such as halibut. Overall halibut bycatch remained capped, but trawlers that finished the season below their cap were allowed to carry it over to the next season or sell it to a trawler that had gone over the cap.

“Prior to the implementation of the halibut mortality limit in the trawl fishery, annual mortality was estimated to range from 1.2 million pounds to 2 million pounds,” NOAA said in report prepared for the NPFMC in 2011.“To achieve halibut mortality reduction in the fishery, the trawl mortality limit was set by the Department Fisheries and Oceans (Canada) at 1 million pounds.

“Since the program was implemented, annual halibut mortality in the fishery has not exceeded 500,000 pounds, and has typically been approximately 250,000. This reduction likely stems from both the individual accountability for halibut mortality and the individual accountability for groundfish catches.”

Despite Canada’s success, the U.S. has refused to follow suit.

“We’ve been avoiding doing anything,” commercial fisherman Joe Mackino, a trawling critic messaged from Kodiak on Sunday. “Current management has a perverse incentive which reward those with the worse bycatch performance.

“The reduction plant is owned by the processors and municipalities and the state get no fish tax from these discards. Imagine a business where you get your raw material for free! Delivered even.

“…The trawl fishery is destroying the halibut and crab resource. And the state is helping them by doing nothing.”