Legal waste

The commercial fishing season is underway in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and along with it the bycatch waste no one wants to talk about let alone deal with.

If the fish caught in commercial gillnets are not salmon, they are treated as trash, and almost everyone in the 49th state seems fine with that.

In the personal-use fisheries of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, starry flounder might be considered a species of conservation concern with dipnetters limited to a harvest of 10 per year.

But there is no limit in the commercial fishery, and no count of how many are caught and killed each year because there is no monitoring of the harvest.

In the region’s sport fisheries, it should be noted, there is also no limit, but that is primarily because no anglers are known to target the species due to preferences for what are believed to be fish of higher quality – salmon, halibut, lingcod, various rockfish and spiny dogfish.

But state sport-fishing regulations do make it illegal to catch, kill and dump flounder or any other “sport-caught” fish. No such restrictions apply in the commercial fisheries where gillnetters dump flounder, spiny dogfish and more as unedible trash.

Bad rap?

Some of those who’ve actually eaten the flounder – a common, Pacific flatfish – claim, however, that it is quite tasty.

California’s Monterey Fish Market describes it as having a  “slightly metallic and rich shellfish flavor with a somewhat firm and flaky texture.”

In California, as in Alaska, the fish are harvested as bycatch, usually in trawl fisheries. But there they are sometimes sold in fish markets.

In Alaska, they are almost uniformly treated as garbage, although at least one commercial fishing business in the state claims efforts to minimize its starry flounder bycatch.

“Because we fish in shallow waters with short nets, we have an extraordinarily low by-catch of 0.015 percent,” the Iliamna Fish Co. says. “This fifteen-thousandths of a percentage by-catch (calculated from our total salmon catch) consists of only starry flounder (platichthys stellatus), an incredibly hardy bottom feeder….Per boat, a 0.015 percent by-catch is approximately 18 flounders per season, 90 percent of which we return, alive, to the ocean.”

The bycatch in Cook Inlet appears significantly larger with most of the fish returned to the water dead, but no one knows how big the catch because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does not require commercial fishermen using set gillnets to report bycatch of non-salmon species.

Only a little more is known about the harvest of spiny dogfish, a smallish shark, commercial fishermen also at times catch in significant numbers.

“This species may once have been the most abundant living shark,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “(But) it is commercially fished worldwide and has been heavily depleted in many locations.”

Unfortunately for commercial fishermen in Alaska, the worldwide market for spiny dogfish does not extend to the 49th state.

“Shark bycatch in state-managed salmon gillnet and seine fisheries is an issue of concern and has been brought before the (state) Board of Fish,” NOAA noted a decade ago. “Bycatch data does not exist for those fisheries.”

Not that much concern

Nothing has changed since then, though the state has made efforts to create fisheries for spiny dogfish. Fish buyers, however, have shown no interest in buying and marketing the catch.

Thus the spiny dogfish caught in the Inlet are, like the flounder, wasted. This is not because commercial fishermen are inherently wasteful.

Commercial fishermen are not “bad” people, as some anglers and dipnetters believe, any more than they are “good” people, as commercial fishing advocates propagandize.

Commercial fishermen are “business” people, and in the Inlet, their business involves harvesting salmon. Anything else that happens to get caught in their nets is simply a headache.

Yes, there are some conservation-minded fishermen in their ranks. Notable among them has been setnetter Gary Hollier, who has for years lobbied for changes in commercial setnet gear that he believes make set gillnets fish cleaner. 

For his efforts, Hollier has been largely ostracized because other setnetters believe the shallower nets he has proposed to allow Chinook salmon and bottom fish to pass safely beneath are bad for their businesses.

Granted, the debate has mainly focused on the bycatch of Chinook, the biggest of the species and the fish Alaskans usually call kings. And there the issue is as much or more about money as it is about conservation.

Tourists, according to a study by Daniel Lew of the NOAA  and Douglas Larson of the University of California-Davis, are willing to spend almost $2,000 for the chance to catch a couple of Kenai River king salmon, and they often spend that money in an unsuccessful pursuit, making the value of the kings in the sport fishery even greater.

The value of two dead kings in the Inlet’s commercial fishery averaged out to about $85 last year, according to Fish and Game data.

The money involved here has caused decades of political battling over the king salmon bycatch in the targeted fishery for sockeye salmon.

And the bycatch that is simply wasted?

There has been almost no discussion of it because it is viewed as of no value. In some federal fisheries of Alaska’s coast, NOAA has imposed requirements bycatch be processed and donated to charities, but the state enforces no such requirements in state waters.

“In 1996, NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council established the Prohibited Species Donation Program,” the agency says. “It takes a unique approach to the problem of discarded fish by making it possible for fishermen to donate some bycatch to hunger relief organizations. It simultaneously reduces waste, provides high-quality seafood protein to people in need, and avoids incentives to catch prohibited species.”

SeaShare – a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that handles those fish – says the program has helped it to distribute over 250 million seafood servings to hunger relief agencies.

“With a growing list of processors, freight companies, food banks, and financial donors, more seafood is being served on more tables across the country,” the organization now says. 

“It was an important story about fishermen who valued every fish they pulled from the sea. Rather than throw dead fish overboard, those fish could be a significant source of nutrition – badly needed protein – to help fight hunger. Because SeaShare’s goal isn’t just to feed people, but to use seafood to feed people well.”

Despite the state’s long history of generally trying to stop waste in the harvest of wild resources, the idea of a SeaShare like operation for fish otherwise wasted in state waters has never come up even though waste accusations are a favorite weapon in the long-running and ongoing political battles over who gets to kill what in Alaska.

Subsistence, commercial, sport and personal-use harvesters all regularly accuse each other of waste.

Many Inlet commercial fishermen believe dipnetters, whose catches are limited by family size, too often catch more salmon than they can eat in over the winter, and thus end up throwing away large volumes of still frozen salmon the next summer.

The excess fish caught in the dipnet fishery, they contend, prevents them from helping “feed the world a natural and healthy protein.”

Left unmentioned is the retail price of $6.99 per pound and up – about twice the price of chicken or more – but undeniably a healthier source of protein. 

Still, the whole waste debate is something of a red herring. There is waste everywhere. Some subsistence and sport hunters waste meat. Some sport and personal-use fishermen waste fish, and the same for commercial fishermen.

Not to mention the waste of commercially caught salmon once they reach the homes of consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has calculated about 31 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.

It is clear we are a wasteful society.

The only real difference at the harvester level in Alaska is that the waste is illegal in all but the commercial fisheries. The state doesn’t even require commercial fishermen in the Inlet to track their discards of starry flounder, spiny dogfish or other bycatch.

Some Cook Inlet residents have complained to the state about this. The results, they say, have been threats from commercial fishermen.

None wanted to be named for this story though one was willing to provide a photo along with the notation that “usually is it a larger dump than this. This goes on all summer.

“The waste of these fish, as well as the sand shark (another name for spiny dogfish), is ridiculous. Sportsmen have limits on these fish yet commercial fishers just dump them on the beach. They don’t care about anything but catching their salmon. (And) they will attack anyone who gets in their way.”

Sadly, commercial fishermen are not alone in their lack of care. Officials responsible for managing state fisheries don’t seem to care either. Or, for that matter, the general public.
















9 replies »

  1. What about the wonton waste i see annually at the fish cleaning tables/beaches near the PU fisheries? I continually see hundreds of very poorly fileted salmon going down the shoot or thrown in the river.
    I read about many citations issued for wanton waste on game. some as little as 5 – 10lbs. left at the kill site form a moose. That is about 2 -5% of the editable meat of a moose.
    I see pentyl of sockeye carcasses with a pound or more of edible meat left on the fish that was thrown away. That is about 20% on average of edible meat being wasted. Yet i have never seen a citation for this type of waste.

    • Frank, wanton waste laws in Alaska apply to big game and water fowl. Not to fish. So a citation cannot be issued. Where would you draw the line on how much fish flesh must be salvaged? Can’t imagine the amount of resources that would be needed for such a law to be workable. And pretty sure you know that already.
      What I do hear and read between the lines is a Commercial Gill net Fisher once again trying to restrict the public’s right to this common property so more fish are available to the commercial sector.
      How about the wanton waste of King Salmon by the Gill net fleet in UCI that catches countless Kings in their sockeye nets only to have them drop out dead? And then go unreported. No problem with that Frank? Or the dumping overboard of Kings by the trawl fleets. Talk about intentional wanton waste.
      Instead you want to target Alaskan families who just want to fill their freezers and put food on the table but might not be efficient in their fish cleaning and then have them charged with a crime. You may have your priorities wrong Frank.

      • Alaskans, I had to think about all your comments. I can see your point about how I suggested PU fishers should be cited for waste. That’s not what I intended. My point was the deference between how waste of game is treated vs. fish.
        Secondly, there are wanton waste laws and regulations for salmon, ground fish, herring, and pollock.
        It is shameful how many tons of edible fish are wasted in our fisheries.

      • AkF,
        Oh thats easy,how bout making it mandatory to keep the collars with whole fish when heading.
        Depending on the size of fish,there’s 1/2-3/4 lb of prime cut there.
        And ive seen many many collars cut off with the head.
        All for the sake of brevity.
        And sure,we’re not zactly in the land o’plenty kings anymore,but how many have thrown out the head instead of either baking or firing up the barby.
        An easy cup of oil drenched meat in 40lb king head.

  2. To reflect reality the State fish should probably be changed to pink salmon – or bycatch. The way we treat kings doesn’t seem compatible with the designation of State fish.

  3. In my body of experience growing up where starry flounder could be caught a long cast from our front yard there by the Oregon surf, and from my limited sampling of the species from Cook Inlet, they are two vastly different eating experiences. The Oregon fish were indeed fine dining and we kids highly prized catching them along with the surf perch we targeted. Therefore, when moving north in the mid 60s and seeing some of this setnet bycatch on the sites I worked, I eagerly set about cooking one. Whoa! talk about disgusting; tasted like mud. A few years later I tried another just to settle for myself whether the first one had been an outlier. Yuk! muddy, too.

    I would like to know if any of the other readers have had different experiences than mine eating Inlet flounder.

    Not a commentary on waste, nor justifying it, but just wondering – – – I suppose if Inlet starries were as highly palatable as those in other waters, with our sizable Southcentral fish-loving human population so near, the catch might even exceed the commercial setnet bycatch, and not being wasted, I wonder if anyone would bat an eye worrying about impact on starry numbers.

    They seem to be very numerous, it’s a big Inlet, and the gillnet bycatch is only around some of the fringes. I doubt that drifters take many. They’re a bottom dweller, actually living not just on the bottom, but sometimes IN the bottom. As kids we used to gig them at night by lantern light, wading the shallows of Netarts Bay. It took super detailed scanning to spot outlines of their backs barely showing above the surface of the clean sand bottom.

    • Rod,
      Theres a handful of flatties in the Gulf and Bering Sea,that have a Japanese market,greenland turbot comes to mind.If you just toss them in the oven you get mush.Certain kinds of rockfish too (Idios family comes to mind).But if you marinate them in sake, white wine might work ,you get a different result.
      I wonder if its the same with starries as well.I remember seeing them in an old AJ Mcklane dictionary of sport fishing,(about 20lb book LOONG out of print).
      Theres(well used to be) a directed wintertime fishery for dogfish out of Puget sound.The price was ~.30/lb in the round, iced,delivered.Fish n chips market is what I remember.Very short hold life as they excrete urea through there skin if I’m not mistaken.
      Canneries often, if there is a market for something they dont want to deal with at that point in the season (halibut comes to mind),they will low ball the price offered to the boat.Dogfish may not be worth there time at anytime of the year here

    • Rod, I had the same experience cooking up a fresh caught flounder at the Kasilof PU site. Not appetizing at all.

  4. Left somewhat unsaid is the waste of our State fish, the Chinook Salmon commonly called King Salmon. Commercial gill net Fishers catch countless numbers of the Kings only to either release them or have them drop out of their nets back into the water dead or to often take them home as home pack or sell them to a quiet but strong black market of buyers. The problem is that in almost all of these cases the numbers are not reported. And the Kings killed after being netted and drop out of the nets are never reported.
    Since the Dept is charged with managing the Kings for sustainability ( a constitutional requirement) when the King counts are weak the Dept is required to restrict the commercial Sockeye harvest. Cook Inlet commercial fishers realize that every King reported amounts to another that can’t escape to spawning grounds. It’s like another nail In their coffin. So they are not reported. So a countless number of Kings that are killed by the commercial sector are never counted. Thus the Dept dos not have the most important info needed to manage the Sockeye and the Chinook fisheries: the total number of Kings harvested from all sources. Talk about selfishness.

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