Laine Welch: Using Alaska seafood 'beyond the plate'

Alaska seafood innovators are getting serious about 'head to tail-inside and out' usage of fish parts, and they see gold in all that gurry that ends up on cutting line floors.

Fish oils, pet treats, animal feeds, gelatins, fish scales that put the shimmer in nail polish -- "almost anything that can be made out of seafood byproducts has increased in value tremendously in the last few years," said Peter Bechtel, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher formerly at the University of Alaska.

In today's climate of planet consciousness, "co-products" is the place to be, Bechtel added.

To that end, Alaska's most celebrated seafood bash -- the Symphony of Seafood -- has added a new category to its annual new products competition called Beyond the Plate.

"There are companies and individuals around the state that are making all kinds of things from fish parts. It really opens the door to more innovators," said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which has hosted the Symphony for 22 years as a way to showcase new Alaska seafood products. The event always attracts a wide array of entries from major companies to small mom and pops.

Whereas entries in the retail, food service and smoked contests always feature tasty new fish and shellfish dishes, the new category literally goes beyond the plate.

"It can be anything from fish-oil capsules to salmon leather wallets," Decker said, adding AFDF hopes to attract people who might not be aware of the Symphony, or who haven't participated before.


"I personally believe that creativity is a key to solving some of our challenges in a positive way, and that's what we focus on with the Symphony of Seafood," Decker said.

The deadline to enter new products for the 2015 competition is Dec. 31. All entries will be judged at a Seattle soiree on Feb. 5. Winners will be announced at a yet-to-be-scheduled Symphony in Anchorage, followed by another gala in Juneau. Top winners in the four categories get a free trip and booth space at the International Boston Seafood Show in March.

Get with the gurry, Alaska

Alaska's annual fish wastes top 1 million metric tons (2.2 billion pounds), but the bulk is not making its way into new markets. In fact, production of fish meals and oils has declined, and state figures only appear through 2009.

Based on figures from the Commercial Operators Annual Report at the state Dept. of Commerce, total pounds of fish meal production in Alaska declined from 111.5 million pounds in 2000 to 68.5 million pounds in 2009. The volume of fish oil more than doubled and the price increased fourfold between 2000 and 2009 with 11 million pounds of fish oil worth $2 million processed in 2000 compared with 22.7 million pounds worth $7.5 million in 2009 (inflation adjusted to 2009 dollars). The number of fish oil processors ranged from a high of 19 in 2001 to just three in 2008, while the number of fish meal processors declined from a high of 62 in 2001 to just 12 through 2009.

How old is that crab?

Knowing the age compositions of marine stocks is crucial to sustainable management. Fish can be aged easily by examining their ear bones -- called otoliths -- or scales. Not so with crabs, because they molt.

"For years it's been assumed that crabs that don't retain their hard parts throughout their lifetime due to growth by molting, at which they lose their exoskeleton. It was always assumed everything went with that," said Joel Webb, a researcher at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's age determination unit in Juneau.

But about three years ago, researchers in Australia and Eastern Canada produced evidence to the contrary.

"Parts of the crab (and shrimp) stomach and the eyestalks are retained through the molt and may be retained through the lifetime," Webb explained. "And if you process those structures into very thin sections and look at them under a microscope and shine light through them, there are band patterns present similar to rings in a tree, otoliths or scales used to age fish."

Researchers always are trying to determine how many crabs die of natural causes like old age, Webb said, because death rate is factored in to annual fishing quotas.

"It's a key parameter -- when you know how big an organism is and what age it is, you know fast it grows. The growth rates and mortality rates are key pieces of information for fisheries management and stock assessments," Webb said.

Studies are ongoing in Juneau to apply the aging technique with red king crab, Tanner crab and spot shrimp from Southeast Alaska, and preliminary evidence is showing promising results. It might be three to five years before the aging process transfers to the fisheries, Webb said, adding it will be "transformative."

"It's a phenomenal thing because the availability of age information is transformative for what we know about how these organism grow and survive," Webb said. "Those are two key pieces of uncertainty as to how we currently manage and assess these populations and set our harvest rates. The availability of accurate information would shift the paradigm in what we know."

Researchers estimate it takes male king and Tanner crabs five to six years before they are big enough for harvest. Soon, they'll know for sure.

Permit buyback OK, but how?

Trimming the number of salmon fishermen at Bristol Bay has been discussed for decades. When limited entry began in the 1970s, the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission adopted an optimum number of 1,669 permits for the Bay's drift gillnet fishery. Ten years ago, a CFEC study concluded an optimum range of 900 to 1,400 permits would provide a "reasonable balance of economic, conservation and fishery management concerns."

Today there are 1,858 drift permits active at Bristol Bay. A buyback would retire 300 to 500 boats from the fishery.

At a packed Expo gathering last month in Seattle, a majority of permit holders said they favored reducing the fleet.

"When the question was raised of 'do you support a fleet reduction,' probably two-thirds of the folks raised their hands. Then when the question was focused down to 'how many of you prefer a buyback,' it dropped to about a third," said Sue Aspelund, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which is operated and funded by drift fishermen with a one percent tax on their catches.


At issue is how to pay for a permit buyback, which would likely come in the form of a hefty federal loan to be repaid by the fleet.

Aspelund said the RSDA will survey drift permit holders again to see if they want a second study to analyze the socio-economic impacts of a buyback.

"I think that's the study that a lot of people, especially in the Bay, are really interested in," Aspelund told KDLG. "The take home is how is it going to affect real people living in Alaska who are really dependent on that fishery."

The RSDA will organize and fund the study; it has not taken a position on the permit buyback.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at