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Gulf of Alaska trawl fishermen pulled more than 3 million pounds of halibut bycatch last year, and they had to throw all of the dead fish overboard.
Trevor Jones, chairman of the Alaska Food Coalition, says he has a better idea for what to do with all that fish. He wants to donate it to food banks and soup kitchens around the state, but the law won't let him.
The coalition applied for an exempted fishing permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service that would give it permission to collect the fish and give it to charity, but the service turned the request down last month.
"We denied the request not because it wasn't a good idea or that we don't support donation of bycatch, but rather under the International Pacific Halibut Commission regulations it is illegal for a vessel that harvests fish to retain trawl-caught halibut," said Sue Salveson, chief of the NMFS Alaska region Sustainable Fisheries Division.
Trawl vessels catch fish by dragging a net along the ocean bottom.
The regulation says halibut can be retained only when caught with hook-and-line gear, said Gregg Williams, commission program manager for research and fish management.
"It only allows it to take place out of Dutch Harbor, and they have to have in their possession a prohibited species donation permit," Williams said.
Trawl vessels in Dutch Harbor that can't sort their catch at sea are allowed to donate halibut bycatch, dead or alive, to food banks. That fish is distributed throughout the country by SeaShare, a Washington-state-based organization, Jones said.
Jones' organization wants to donate only dead fish, he said, pointing to halibut commission figures that put the total amount of dead halibut bycatch in the gulf at 4.4 million pounds last year. About 3.2 million of that fish was trawl-caught, according to commission statistics.
Williams said the commission prohibits even the retention of dead halibut because it's difficult to ascertain whether a halibut is dead.
"You can't really tell which are dead and which are alive. Halibut do have a very high survival potential. Even a halibut that might appear dead, from our research studies has a 10 percent survival potential," he said.
Jones said more than a dozen gulf fishermen and a couple of processors have volunteered to participate in the project.
"I went into the Alaska Draggers' Association annual meeting to present on the project. I had put together this great speech as to why they should do this, to try to convince them. I didn't even get a chance to give my speech at all because they were so onboard," he said.
The project calls for processors to head and gut the fish and deliver it frozen, perhaps eventually in fillet or steak form.
Jones said he hopes to start out with 50,000 pounds of halibut the first year, and distribute it to Barrow, Nome, Kotzebue, Bethel, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Dillingham, Anchorage, Kenai, Juneau, Valdez and Cordova. The initial plan calls for about 5,000 pounds to go to the Juneau Food Bank the first year.
Jones, who also works with the Kodiak Island Food Bank and Baptist mission there, said the state's abundant resources should be used to feed the hungry.
"Kodiak in general has a fantastic opportunity to be contributing from our vast resources of fish and helping people in need. We haven't even begun to hit the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The Alaska Food Coalition has been bringing food into Alaska for years, and we feel it's important to begin developing our own resources for people in need."
He said the coalition plans to resubmit its proposal to the NMFS, but assumes it will be rejected again. He said he has no plans to appeal the halibut commission regulations.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.