The decadeslong "bycatch to food banks" program has grown far beyond its Alaska origins.
Today, only 10 percent of the fish going to hunger-relief programs is bycatch — primarily halibut and salmon taken accidentally in other fisheries. The remainder is first-run products donated to Sea Share, the nation's only nonprofit that donates fish through a network of fishermen, processors, packagers and transporters.
Sea Share began in 1993 when Bering Sea fishermen pushed to be allowed to send fish taken as bycatch to food banks — instead of tossing them back, as required by law.
"Back then, that was the only thing that we were set up to do, and we are the only entity authorized to retain such fish. It became a rallying point for a lot of stakeholders, and from that beginning we've expanded to the Gulf of Alaska, and grown to 28 states and over 200 million fish meals a year," said Jim Harmon, Sea Share director.
Some seafood companies commit a portion of their sales or donate products to Sea Share. Vessels in the At-sea Processors Association have donated 250,000 pounds of whitefish each year for 15 years, which are turned into breaded portions. Sea Share's roster also has grown to include tilapia, shrimp, cod, tuna and other seafood products.
Over the years, Sea Share has ramped up donations in Alaska, where halibut portions from Kodiak fisheries are used locally, in Kenai as well as being flown to Nome and Kotzebue, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard. A new freezer container has been stationed at the Alaska Peninsula port of Dillingham, holding 8,500 pounds of fish, and several more are being added to hubs in Western Alaska, Harmon said.
"I think we'll probably do 250,000 pounds in the state this year," he added.
A donation last week by Wal-Mart will bring more seafood to the hungry in Washington state. Sea Share was one of seven recipients to share grants from the corporation, totaling $400,000 for community programs.
"We're trying to reach out beyond the seafood industry," Harmon said.
He pointed out giving fish to the needy also potentially broadens the seafood industry's customer base.
"Food bank recipients aren't the chronically homeless or unemployed," Harmon said. "It's the underemployed, those between jobs who might access the bank for a few weeks," Harmon said. "And if we give those people a great experience with seafood, when they are back on their feet again or they get that next job, they'll start buying seafood. It really is a win win."
Scrubbing those nets
A simple onboard net-washing system is one of the latest quality-boosting tools to come out of Cordova.
"There's nothing that catches fish better than a new net. If you can maintain a clean net, you're optimizing your ability to catch," said Bill Webber of Webber Marine and Manufacturing in Cordova.
For more than 40 years, Webber has specialized in gear for salmon gillnetters. The net washer "has vertical water chambers that weld onto the outboard sides of the rollers," he explained. "The rollers still function as intended as the net goes through them. On the front and the back of a level line there's vertical water jet holes that spray through the net as it goes through the lines."
Webber, in his 49th season fishing in the Copper River Delta, said he's fine-tuning the net washer and hopes to make it available this winter.
Other Webber inventions include hydraulic rotating turrets for net reels, automated seawater chlorination systems and an electronic intravenous pressure process that bleeds a fish in about 30 seconds.
"I like building a better mousetrap, if you will," he said.
Webber was one of the first to combine catching and processing onboard his gillnetter, directing each salmon into the hands of chefs and buyers. Today, Webber sells more than 95 percent of his salmon catch directly to the public under his Gulkana Seafoods brand.
"Being the first owner in the supply chain, I control every aspect of my product," Webber said. "I have developed specialized tools and very stringent handling standards and processing techniques that allow my harvest to be as Mother Nature intended. So many Americans have lost the connection to their food sources, and I am their personal Alaska fisherman."
Fish consumption grows
Global fish consumption has hit a record high, topping 44 pounds per capita for the first time due to improved and expanding aquaculture and reduced waste, according to the United Nation's latest World's Fisheries and Aquaculture report.
Another first — people are now consuming more farmed than wild-caught fish. In 2014, a total of 580 species were farmed around the world.
An estimated 4.6 million fishing vessels — 75 percent from Asia — ply the world's seas. North America and Europe each accounted for just 2 percent of the world's fishing fleets.
In the U.S., by law all seafood must be labeled farmed or wild and show its country of origin.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.