A pilot project to introduce canned herring into international food aid programs could provide critical protein to hungry people, as well as open markets to generate a much-needed boost to coastal Alaska communities, according to fisherman who developed the program.
The potential for Alaska fisheries is about a $13 million market, said Bruce Schactler, a Kodiak salmon and herring fisherman who works primarily these days as food aid coordinator for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
New market demand matched with the availability of investment funds to develop canning facilities near harvest areas also would bring much needed additional employment opportunity to coastal communities.
But for now, Schactler's big sales pitch is the nutritional value of some 3,000 pounds of canned herring in feeding orphans in Uganda and refugees on the border of Congo.
"The protein level in herring is almost the same as salmon, and it has about triple the omega 3 oils," said Schactler, who is awaiting reports on how the herring improves the health of children in a Uganda orphanage and refugees on the border of Congo.
The combination of high animal protein and omega 3 oils is expected to help people receiving meals through the food aid programs to boost their health to a level where their bodies can better utilize anti-viral drugs to fight the ravages of diseases like AIDS, Schactler said in an interview July 22.
Some 3,000 pounds of canned Alaska herring, with a shelf life of five to seven years, arrived in July in Uganda for distribution by the United Nation's World Food Organization to an orphanage in Uganda and refuge camps on the border of Congo. As the pilot project proceeds, the World Health Organization will monitor not only how well people like it, but also its nutritional benefits, he said.
"I am following along on the same marketing and development models that we have done with salmon to this point," said Schactler, who has worked since 2004 to develop markets for wild Alaska seafood in international food aid programs. "One container (of canned herring) is about 200,000 meals. This will start showing people this is a viable product. Everybody likes it. If you can show that, it will start turning into a viable program."
Schactler started fishing salmon in 1975, and herring in 1980. He went to college for a couple of years, and then got involved in the fishing industry.
"I'm just trying to save my own business, and if I have to create markets for the rest of the world to bring the price up, that's what I'm going to do," he said.
The byproduct of that work has been the introduction of wild Alaska salmon as the first animal protein in international food aid programs, among them the UN's World Health Organization, which feeds millions of people annually. Schactler's efforts have also eased the entry of wild Alaska salmon into domestic programs, from food banks to school lunches. One of his current projects is to introduce salmon burgers into school lunch programs nationwide.
Schactler's initial incentive was that Alaska salmon processors were canning more fish than the market would bear. He talked to then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, and gave the governor a list of people he thought would do a good job promoting wild Alaska salmon in world food aid programs. Murkowski put Schactler to work within the Alaska Department of Agriculture. His position later transferred into ASMI.
His efforts have paid off to the point where about 20 percent of the 1-pound cans of wild salmon were being purchased for food aid programs. And last fall, "while everything in the world was free falling in price, the canned pinks were going up in price," he said.
As demand for wild Alaska canned salmon in food aid program grows, Schactler is working to increase the demand for salmon and herring.
"There is so much need all over Alaska for some new economic development," he said.