Laine Welch: House considers bill clearing obstacle to donations of local food

Caribou instead of corn dogs … salmon instead of Trout Treasures … seal meat in place of spaghetti -- all could soon be available to more Alaskans if traction continues on a new bipartisan bill before the Alaska Legislature.

House Bill 179 allows schools, senior centers, hospitals, child care centers and other facilities to accept and serve fish, game, plants and eggs that are donated by subsistence and sport users.

Currently, state laws intended to prevent the commercial sale of wild game make the practice illegal if a program accepting food donations charges for the meal at any point before it is consumed. This means schools and senior centers, for example, are unable to provide meals containing subsistence- or sport-caught wild food if they accept any payment, including from federal or state meal programs.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka introduced the measure, saying: "It will nourish Alaska's children and elders, both physically and spiritually. It will limit the amount of expensive and unhealthy processed food shipped to communities that have incredible food available just a short boat or snowmachine ride away. Children will develop an appreciation where their food comes from, and elders will be able to keep eating the foods they love."

"Out in the Bush, a lot of people in western or northern Alaska will frequently donate caribou to the senior center, so that elders can eat caribou stew. And that's technically not simpatico with the rule of the law," Kreiss-Tomkins said in a KCAW/Sitka interview.

"So this bill basically brings what happens in Alaskan communities, which is people coming together and donating fish and game for children or for elders, and makes that compatible with what Alaska's laws say."

The measure affirms the Department of Environmental Conservation's authority to oversee the safety of the donated foods.

HB 179 already has garnered seven co-sponsors across party lines from Kodiak, Juneau, Anchorage, Ketchikan, Nome and North Pole. Kreiss-Tomkins credited its momentum to a statewide movement within schools to offer healthier, local foods, such as Sitka's Fish to Schools program, Dillingham's salmon donation programs, and community shared agriculture in the Mat-Su region. He said he is very optimistic the measure will pass this session.

"We'd like to see pass this into law quickly, and we're on that path right now. It's got hearings coming up, it's got a huge list of co-sponsors, and it's a 'kumbaya' Alaska issue. Everyone gets it."

Fish budgets

The next 10 days will tell the tale of just how painfully Alaska's budget will be cut. Three lawmakers each from the state Senate and House were appointed last week to a conference committee, which will dicker over differences between their respective budget drafts until they can come to agreements.

They include Sens. Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks), Anna MacKinnon (R-Eagle River), Donald Olson (D-Nome) along with Reps. Mark Neuman (R-Wasilla), Steve Thompson, (R-Fairbanks) and Les Gara, (D-Anchorage).

The lawmakers disagree on a number of differences in the Department of Fish and Game budget, reports Juneau Resources Weekly. Fish and Game is set to lose $12 million in state general funds. That could increase to $15 million depending on the whims of the conference committee. Already slashed by the Senate are a dozen conservation projects and funding for Marine Mammal Protection Act compliance.

Senators added $850,000 to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's budget, although it could be taken back if the committee opts for the House version of the ASMI budget, which stands now at almost $25 million.

More buyers at Bristol Bay

Copper River Seafoods has purchased the Extreme Seafoods salmon plant in Naknek. Company CEO Scott Blake confirmed the deal to Undercurrent News last week.

"It's likely no coincidence this comes as Copper River's new sockeye salmon jerky takes off. Demand for the product -- which is similar to outdoor clothing company Patagonia's successful salmon jerky -- had outstripped supply as of the Boston Seafood Show (in mid-March), at which point the company was looking to move processing in-house to a new plant and expand production," Undercurrent reported.

It added that the purchase "grew partly out of a desire to fill an increasing market need for Marine Stewardship Council certified sockeye."

Extreme Seafoods arrived in Bristol Bay in 2013, amid promises of $2-per-pound reds for fishermen. It left amid gripes of slow or no pay. Extreme no longer lists any contact information on its website, but claims to specialize in wild sockeye salmon products.

Bycatch breakdowns

As federal managers grapple with reducing levels of chinook salmon taken as bycatch in groundfish fisheries, they are learning where the accidentally caught kings come from and where they are bound.

A report by Fish and Game outlines the genetic origins of the chinook bycatch. Some highlights based on 2013 data: For chinook taken by Bering Sea pollock trawlers, 71 percent were estimated to come from Alaska river systems, mostly from Western Alaska (50 percent), followed by the North Alaska Peninsula and Upper Yukon. Chinook bycatch in the Bering Sea declined to 13,033 in 2013, more than 24,000 fish below the 22-year average.

In the Gulf of Alaska, 693 samples of chinook taken as bycatch in the pollock fishery -- 43 percent were from British Columbia, 42 percent originated from the U.S. West Coast, followed by Southeast Alaska at 11 percent and the Northwest Gulf at 3 percent.

For the Gulf rockfish fleet, 60 percent of the chinook bycatch came mostly from U.S. West Coast stocks, 31 percent from British Columbia, and 6 percent from Southeast Alaska.

Laine Welch

Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at