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Why do Seattle's homeless get to feast on Alaska's king salmon bycatch?

Craig Medred
Salmon heading for the kitchen. Loren Holmes

Trawlers dragging their nets in the Gulf of Alaska out-of-sight over the horizon from most state ports may be catching and killing more king salmon than the residents of the 49th state would like, but don't worry. The fish aren’t going to waste.

They’re going to feed the homeless in Seattle and elsewhere in the state of Washington.

Stephanie Madsen, executive director for the Seattle-based At-Sea Processors Association, explained to the state House Special Committee on Fisheries this past week that Alaska bycatch salmon are shipped south to SeaShare, an organization that bills itself as "The Seafood Industry's Answer to Hunger." Seashare passes the salmon on to Food LifeLine.

Washington food banks benefit

Food LifeLine, in turn, distributes food to 300 food banks and shelters in western Washington, including a considerable number in Seattle. "Food LifeLine, our local partner, moved almost 500,000 pounds of high-protein fish last year," the SeaShare website says.

"Currently, SeaShare in Seattle is signed up to get the fish because our ships go from Dutch Harbor to Seattle," Madsen told the committee.

Madsen's comments come in the wake of a summer of poor king salmon returns to most Alaska rivers. The low returns forced closures of subsistence, commercial and sport fisheries across the state. Commercial setnetters on the Kenai Peninsula went broke after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided king runs were so weak that those fishermen couldn't be allowed any king salmon bycatch. The setnetters target sockeye salmon -- of which there are millions -- but inevitably catch several hundred kings in the process.

Because they have yet to find a clean way to fish sockeye and not catch kings, the state shut them down, along with the in-river sport fishery for kings, which put a lot of fishing guides on the beach for the summer and sent impacts rippling through the Kenai tourism industry.

Angry Alaska protests 

Hundreds of miles away in Western Alaska, the situation was worse. Civil disobedience broke out there after the state ordered the closure of subsistence fisheries for kings on the Kuskokwim River. Arrests and trials followed. Many were left angry. Plenty since have blamed bycatch as the cause of faltering runs in Alaska rivers.

Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council presidents, has called for a boycott of McDonalds because its Fish McBites are made from pollock, the main catch of the trawl fishery that kills some kings as so-called "bycatch." McDonald's promotes the McBites as made from fish from a sustainable fishery.

"It's not sustainable because it is taking away another sustainable fishery that has been in existence for ages, and making criminals out of people fishing for food, not for profit," Naneng said.

Bethel is a largely Native community of about slightly more than 6,000 people on the banks of the Kuskokwim River about 400 miles west of Anchorage. People there were hard hit by the king salmon closure on the river last summer.

There is no scientific evidence to support the belief that bycatch in the trawl fisheries is to blame for the widespread decline in Alaska king salmon stocks. The number of kings reported as bycatch in the trawl fisheries barely puts a dent in the number of kings missing from Alaska streams this summer. But there is a widespread popular belief among all fishermen that bycatch is a problem for Alaska.

'Disturbing news' 

"Kings for the poor of Seattle while we're deciding if we want to play "catch and release" with barbless hooks in order to save the run?" asked Rod Arno of the Alaska Outdoor Council. "I wonder what Alaskan in-river anglers would think of this disturbing news?"

The AOC represents sport fishermen often at odds with Alaska commercial salmon fishermen and subsistence salmon fishermen like those Naneng represents. But on this issue they are all in agreement. Bycatch should be reduced, they say. Louie Flora, an aide to the House Fisheries Committee, said Madsen's comments did not go over so well in Juneau.

"It wasn't a great reaction," he said.

The fisheries committee, which had been working on a resolution calling on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to further reduce bycatch, amended it to say that any salmon bycatch distributed by factory trawlers should be used in the state. By federal law, the trawlers are required to catalog their bycatch and keep the salmon. The rest -- including halibut and other potential valuable species -- is rolled back into the sea, usually dead.

Trawling has been described as strip-mining of the ocean, but the trawler operators contend new technology and new behaviors have allowed them to clean up their act. Better sonar enables ships to target large schools of pollock that contain few other species. And a federal cap on the number of bycatch species allowed before fisheries will be ordered closed has encouraged trawler skippers to pull in their tents and move if they start catching too many thinly allocated bycatch species such as king salmon or halibut.

Reducing king bycatch 

Jim Gilmore, a spokesman for the At-Sea Processors Association, told the Fishermen's News that because of changes in the way pollock fisheries are prosecuted the bycatch of kings in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands pollock fleet has declined steadily since 2007. He said the December stock assessment and fishery evaluation report prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Fisheries Science Center put the 2012 Chinook bycatch at 10,157 kings -- a fraction of the 122,262 kings caught by that fleet five years earlier.

The annual king catch for the area was capped at 25,000 last August. Many Alaskans would like to see it reduced to zero, but they have little control over the federally managed trawl fisheries. Flora noted that the state House can pass all the resolutions it wants, but none of them have the power of law. They are purely advisory.

Still, he said, "We're making the statement."

Whether anyone will listen is questionable. Pollock are the cornerstone of what is estimated to be a billion-dollar fishery. There is little reason to believe changes will be made to a billion-dollar business to save a few thousands Alaska kings. Madsen and those like her are fighting further reductions in the cap on kings, and they have influence.

Along with being the executive director of At-Sea, Madsen is the former chair of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, an incestuous organization of interest groups set up to regulate the fisheries of the North Pacific under the not-always-so-watchful eyes of NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com