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A long-running problem as made obvious by a photo of “salmon unfit for canning” in a U.S. government “Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914”

Just in time for the next and upcoming skirmish in Alaska’s long Cook Inlet fish war, Kenai Peninsula fishing guide Mark Glassmaker has pulled up 2105 research concluding almost half of all seafood shipped to America goes into landfills instead of people’s stomachs.

His Facebook post at Alaska Fishing Junkies comes as the state Board of Fisheries prepares to discuss a proposal from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KSRA) that would alter the long-standing priority given Cook Inlet commercial salmon harvests in July.

And waste, a purely human construct, is sure to be a big part of the debate when the Board meets next month to discuss that idea. 

The KSRA proposal would shift the first priority of Inlet salmon management to “providing residents with fish for personal and family consumption” and scale following allocation decisions to, in order, the statewide economic importance of the fishery, the regional and local importance, the number of fishery participants, the historic use of the fishery, and the importance of recreational activities.

Commercial fishermen, who’ve netted 75 to 90 percent or more of the Inlet’s salmon harvest every summer since Statehood, have long battled attempts to allocate fish to a personal-use, Alaska-resident-only dipnet fishery that operates in the mouth of the river each year from July 10 to the end of the month.


Waste has been one of the big clubs they’ve used to beat back previous efforts to shift more salmon harvest toward average Alaskans. A proposed state law to prioritize personal use went nowhere, and when the Board took up the KRSA idea last year as a statewide measure, it failed 5 to 2.

The United Fishermen of Alaska – the state’s largest commercial fishing organization – charged a priority would only encourage people to overfish salmon stocks.

“Adopting a priority for a major user group can increase the expectation for harvest which decreases the likelihood of users taking responsibility for the health of Alaska’s fishing resources especially in times of conservation,” the UFA said. 

The organization went on to argue “there is reasonable opportunity currently granted for personal-use harvest, and most feel that their needs are being met. With salmon, some personal use harvest limits exceed what many Alaskans consider necessary for basic sustenance.”

The latter sentence was a reference to what some call the “freezer burn” accusation.

With limits for personal-use fishermen in the Inlet set at 25 fish per year plus 10 for each additional family member, commercial fishermen contend dipnetters end up catching more fish than they can eat over the course of a year. The excess fish, they say, end up suffering freezer burn and being thrown away.

Fishery harvest data don’t exactly support that argument. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 24,702 dipnet permit holders harvested 308,820 salmon from the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and Fish Creek at the head of Cook Inlet in 2018, the last year for which complete data is available.

That works out to an average of 12.5 salmon per permit, but there are no doubt dipnet salmon wasted as there are all sorts of other species of seafood wasted in the United States.

Throwaway nation

“Turned off by a slightly smelly fillet of halibut? Don’t think that grilled salmon will be any good tomorrow?” reporter Alistair Bland asked in a 2015 National Public Radio story. “Such mealtime decisions may seem innocent enough, but when they’re made by people all over the country, they add up to a staggering amount of waste.”

She went on to report on a John Hopkins University study that estimated 40 to 47 percent of the seafood that entered U.S. restaurants or the homes of U.S. residents over the years 2009 to 2013 was wasted.

“The greatest portions of this loss occurred at the levels of consumers (51–63 percent of loss attributed to consumption), bycatch discarded by commercial fishers (16–32 percent), and in distribution and retail operations (13–16 percent),” the study said.

“Based on conservative estimates, this waste represents 208 billion grams of protein, 1.8 trillion mg of eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids (i.e., omega-3 fatty acids), and 1.1 trillion kilocalories. The seafood that is lost could fill 36 percent of the gap between current consumption and U.S. Department of Agriculture-recommended levels. As another way of understanding the magnitude of loss, this lost seafood could provide the total yearly target quantity of protein for 10.1 million men or 12.4 million women, EPA + DHA for 20.1 million adults, and calories for 1.5 million adults. The lost nutrition estimates we provide are meant to be illustrative of the issue’s significance and magnitude.”

Food waste of all sorts in the U.S. happens at staggering levels. The U.S. Department of Agriculture “calculates over one-third of all available food” is wasted. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a non-government organization, puts the loss at 40 percent.

“Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States,” a 2012 NRDC whitepaper argued. “Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.”

There are no indication the waste has diminished in this decade.

Bit players

Waste in all of the states personal-use fisheries, however – be they for salmon, shrimp, crabs, whitefish, herring, hooligan clams or groundfish – is a drop in the bucket of refuse considering that personal-use harvests in total account for but 0.1 percent of the total, annual fish and wildlife harvests in Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Commercial fishing accounts for 98.5 percent. The next highest category is subsistence fishing and hunting which claims 0.9 percent. Subsistence fishermen and hunters already have a harvest priority, but subsistence is limited to rural Alaskans, most of them living far from Alaska’s limited road system.

The subsistence priority was extended to all Alaskans in 1991 to 1992 after the state Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for the state to discriminate against residents based on where they lived.

Pushed by commercial fishing interest, the Alaska Legislature in the latter year enacted a law granting the Boards of Fish and Game authority to create non-subsistence zones in areas where there was heavy competition between urban and rural residents or between urban residents and commercial interests.

The UFA argues that there are not enough fish in those areas for both commercial fishermen and personal-use fishermen, and that shifting some of the catch from commercial fishermen to personal-use fishermen will deprive non-fishing Alaskans of seafood.

“It is important to Alaska’s food security that we are able to sustainably harvest seafood for consumption by residents,” the UFA position paper says. “The commercial harvesting sector is critical to providing Alaskans with access to the resource, and particularly
shelf-stable products such as canned seafood that is produced in many Alaskan-based canneries.”

“We strongly caution against creating a priority for personal use fisheries because it will shift allocation and opportunity away from commercial fisheries that provide income to state and local governments, to fisheries that do not,” the statement adds. “It also would increase the perception of entitlement to fisheries resources that are limited by nature. Sustainability relies on the premise that resources have limits, and setting reasonable expectations helps perpetuate our commitment to sustainability.”

Where’s the money?

The City of Kenai, according to Kenai-based KSRM news, gets somewhere between $150,000 and $220,000 per year in state shared fishery tax revenue. Kenai sales tax revenue is about $7 million per year, according to the city budget.

Visitor spending is said to account for up to a quarter of that revenue or about $1.75 million. Most of the visitors to the Kenai go there to fish. How many of them are dipnetters from out of the Kenai area is unknown as is the amount of money they leave in Kenai.

Fishery revenue issues are poorly studied in Alaska, but the City of Kenai does report that its dipnet fishing concession – one of the city’s few money-making operations – has earned it up to $90,000 per year on revenues of over $500,000. When the personal-use fishing was poor because of a lack of fish getting into the river in fiscal year 2019, however, the city lost money to the tune of nearly $125,000, according to the budget.

Though the UFA thinks a priority might give dipnetters a sense of entitlement, it makes no mention of the perception of entitlement that has bcome a norm in the state’s commercial fisheries since 1972 when Alaska voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution allowing the creation of the Alaska Limited Entry program.

Limited entry capped the number of commercial fishermen in the state and gave the most experienced of them ownership of fishing permits that could be freely bought and sold in perpetuity. The fishing permits have now changed hands many times, and few are owned by the original grantees.

Many of those who’ve bought into the fisheries believe they hold an ownership interest in the fish even though state courts have ruled that is not the case. Noting a slow and as yet unexplained decline in the returns of Inlet sockeye salmon in a world where farmed salmon steadily claim an ever-bigger market share, some of them would also like to be able to sell their permits for a reasonable price and leave the fishery.

But that opportunity might have passed. The state’s Commercial Fishery Entry Commission now reports that Inlet drift gillnet permits once among the most valuable of Inlet permits, are now worth less than $40,000. In 1990, they peaked at selling price near $390,000, more than $759,000 when corrected for inflation relative to the 2020 dollar.

The permits prices reflect what has happened in the fishery.

Average real earnings per commercial drifter have fallen from almost $284,000 in 1988 to less than $14,000 in 2018, a particularly bad year but then there hasn’t been a great year in a long time. Average real earnings from 2013-2018 are under $26,000 per year, according to the CFEC figures.

With the fishery unable to support full-time fishermen, many permits have been sold to doctors, lawyers, businessmen and others with healthy incomes who now fish for fun and a little extra cash. The CFEC figures indicate 432 new fishermen entered the fishery in the 10 years from 2009 through 2018; there are only 570 permits available.

Clearly there has been a lot of turnover, and clearly the commercial fishery is struggling. But that is only expected to add to the intensity of the debate when the issue comes before the Board.















4 replies »

    • Well, what about fish meal?

      It’s huge, you’re right. There are important fisheries just for making meal.

      Traditionally there has been plenty of waste from fish-plants, but demand is strong and the ‘incidental’ supply might be falling off. The recent emphasis on managing polluting waste-sources, and the shift to ‘high-tech’ land-fill, otoh, have motivated people with disposal-needs to find, maintain, even develop responsible recipients of ‘waste’.

      Spoilage is of course a strong waste-factor for fish. While the famous Fish Fertilizer will still fertilize if made from spoiled fish, an off-odor might be, probably would be a problem. If they could knock down the smell … or is this stuff already fermented (rotted) anyway … but afaik it’s just a minor outlet.

      The way much meal is used (in (baby) animal rations), is like the sand that goes into silicon semiconductor electronics, computer chips. It has to be of an extremely exact nature, highly predictable & precise. This means, once a product is ‘worked-out’, and has markets, the source has to remain religiously faithfully to the original formula & MO. Definitely not a way to get rid of any old ‘garbage’.

      Soylent Green, the 1973 movie & ongoing fear-factor.

      Meals, powders, are big-time Politics. Pets & livestock do great on scientifically formulated … dog food (a pelleted meal). There is no reason human health, well being and productivity would not all go up, if people would just eat their damn daily bowl of Old Roy.

      At a glance, the Alaska salmon fishery management strategy appears aimed at an eventual mainly-meal Industry, in which the run is conveyor-belted straight out of the stream and into a monster processing plant, railroad boxcars coming out. The fish prices will continue to fall, until traditional fishing can’t pay … then the state will contract out the run.

      So … what about meal?

  1. I smell a buyout coming,although what should be considered is stack permits in Co-Op fashion with fishtraps.
    And Power trolling should be allowed Gulf wide,perhaps statewide

  2. The Waste argument by comm fish is a red herring . The question is doing what’s fair and in line with state law . Very simple . The alledged waste of seafood may or may not be true . Sure some hits the land fills . It’s organic and goes back to earth . By no means true waste. Microbes love it and eventually it’s back into food chain over time . Not true waste . At an earnings of over 200 k ,I would argue 50% of the money comm fish makes is spent on wasteful things and objects that are not needed . Not to mention their participation in creating excessive availability of food stuffs creating an option to easily decide to say ooh that filet is bad ,which supports a throw away culture. Somalians would have happily eaten that . Therefore comm fish is equally or more wasteful under their argument of waste which I don’t see as even worth considering. Waste argument holds no water in doing what’s right under state law and human rights.

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