Sustained by the Sea: Sharing the harvest, sharing the wealth

SPONSORED: From school lunches to softball teams to food pantries around the state, Alaska’s seafood industry finds ways to give back to the communities it calls home.

SPONSORED: There are no Fourth of July fireworks in Cordova.

There's a Kelp Box Derby and a dunk tank, games for the kids and a community potluck, but like most Alaskans born and raised under the Midnight Sun, Cordova children grow up without that traditional slice of Americana: an Independence Day capped off with a glittering display of lights against a warm, dark sky.

So it's not hard to understand why residents were excited when, five years ago, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Copper River Seafoods started sponsoring a fireworks display as part of the annual Cordova Iceworm Festival. Alaska's sunny summers might not be conducive to fireworks displays, but for those willing to step out in Cordova's crisp winter weather, the sight of a $10,000 pyrotechnics show reflecting off the calm waters of the harbor has been a warmly welcomed addition to the winter festival that will celebrate its 58th year in January.

"This is a huge treat for folks that do not have the traditional Fourth of July fireworks memories," said Cordova resident Christa Hoover, who serves as executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

With an annual wholesale value of $134 million in seafood averaged over 2015 and 2016, Cordova is among Alaska's top five most productive ports. And like other Last Frontier fishing towns, Cordova's relationship with fish, especially salmon, runs deeper than the jobs, economic engine, and tax revenue generated by the commercial fishing industry. From fireworks to scholarships to school lunches — fish, philanthropy and community go hand in hand in Cordova and towns like it across Alaska.

Giving back in Alaska

The total impact of fishing philanthropy in the state is hard to quantify. ASMI's economic impact reports don't currently track charitable giving by the industry. And industry groups aren't quick to toot their own horns.

Much of the industry's philanthropy is routed through community initiatives and donations that are small, numerous, and hard to quantify. Processors often give their local managers discretion over philanthropic spending that goes to things like sponsorships of local sports teams, PTA programs, cake walks, fundraisers, and community functions.

They're the contributions that are "harder to wrap your head around" when it comes to getting a full picture of the industry's philanthropy, said Nicole Kimball. Kimball is the Anchorage vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, the trade association that represents nine seafood processors and this year started a three-year presenting sponsorship of Toast to the Coast (formerly known as The Pour), a major fundraiser for Bean's Cafe and The Children's Lunchbox. The processors — including those with corporate offices outside Alaska — make it a priority to contribute in the areas where they work, Kimball said, even when those contributions aren't publicized.

"Because they live and work in Alaska, that's where they want to give back," Nicole Kimball said. "They're part of the community."

"Giving back" looks a little bit different in every fishing community. In Dutch Harbor, industry contributions help support the local health clinic, which was built using funds largely raised by the local processors. In Sitka, herring permit holders have sponsored herring roe giveaways with eggs donated to local residents as well as transported to Anchorage to be served to patients at Alaska Native Medical Center. Next month, American Seafoods' community advisory board will announce the recipients of $38,000 in grant money, its third round of awards this year. In addition to $13,650 in scholarships to students from rural Alaska, $38,482 in project grants has gone to organizations around the state, like the Boys and Girls Club of Sand Point and Chevak Search and Rescue.

Sharing the harvest

One program that has attracted a broad base of support in all corners of the industry is SeaShare. Established by fishermen in 1994 as a means to donate their bycatch to hungry Alaskans, SeaShare has grown to become a national program that counts dozens of Alaska fishermen's groups, processors, and nonprofits among its partners and supporters.

"Fishermen respect the resource and want to minimize waste," SeaShare Executive Director Jim Harmon said. "From that start, we've added other programs to enable more boats and companies to participate." Harmon said SeaShare distributes approximately 200,000 pounds of seafood in Alaska each year.

So far in 2017, SeaShare has donated almost 50,000 pounds of seafood to the Food Bank of Alaska, according to Cara Durr, director of public engagement for the Food Bank — 36,190 pounds of frozen pollock and 12,784 pounds of canned pink salmon. (While the organization started with donations of incidental catch, PSPA's Kimball noted that today participants are largely contributing salable fish.) SeaShare donations that come directly to Food Bank of Alaska are distributed to food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs statewide in collaboration with 225 partner agencies.

"We are extremely grateful for the partnership we have with SeaShare," Food Bank of Alaska Executive Director Jim Baldwin said. "Protein is one of our clients' most requested food items, and for many, nothing tops healthy Alaskan seafood."

Harmon said he sees a desire across the industry to contribute to the community.

"Alaska has incredible resources, and I think the people who live and work there are proud of that," he said. "Successful fishermen and processors want to give back … our seafood industry has been very generous."

Feeding a community

There may be no Fourth of July fireworks in Cordova — but let's talk about that community potluck. Held at the peak of Cordova's summer population boom, free to everyone in town and staged right in the middle of Main Street, the barbecue features — what else? — hundreds of pounds of Copper River salmon, donated by the local seafood processors.

It's not the only time of year the industry brings residents to the table to share in the harvest. A Fish to School program facilitated by Cordova District Fishermen United and supported by processors and area nonprofits puts local seafood on Cordova school menus weekly. Cordova fishermen donate a portion of their commercial sockeye harvest, which is processed free of charge for use on school lunch menus throughout the year. Similar programs exist in other communities around the state, including Sitka, Dillingham, Haines and Kodiak.

Another favorite event staged by CDFU and supported by the processors and local volunteers is Senior Salmon Day, an annual giveaway of salmon to Cordova elders. Volunteers set up shop on First Street in Cordova and hand out fresh fillets to any interested citizen age 60 or older.

Since long before wild Alaska salmon started to gain national and global acclaim, sharing the bounty has been a tradition at the heart of life in Alaska's fishing communities. Cordova fisherman Bill Lindow still thinks about the epic silver salmon harvest of 1985, when the Copper River fleet brought home 2.9 million fish.

"I think that everybody just likes to rejoice when there's an episode like that," Lindow said. "The whole town, you know, is excited about it … it's kind of what makes this business and this lifestyle so great, times like that." Salmon, he added, plays an "incredible" role in Alaska culture, everywhere in the state.

Especially in the communities like Cordova that have grown up around the industry, there's no question about the depth and breadth of that relationship, which touches everything from tax revenue and infrastructure to philanthropy and economic opportunity for the next generation.

"We make these coastal communities viable and sustainable," Lindow said. "Hopefully, with good management by the state, we'll keep this going indefinitely."

"Sustained by the sea" is a 6-part sponsored story series that details the lives of Prince William Sound fishermen and the economic impact of sustainable commercial fishing in their hometown of Cordova, Alaska. Read Story #1. Read Story #2. Read Story #3. Read Story #4. Read Story #5.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.