Juneau resident Sandro Lane has been tinkering with an idea that could create a new money generator for Alaska's salmon industry.
His idea has nothing to do with the juicy fillets that land on dinner plates.
Lately, Lane, an entrepreneur who created downtown Juneau's seafood plant, Taku Smokeries/Fisheries, has been trying to breath life into new products utilizing the hundreds of thousands of pounds of Alaska salmon carcasses, heads and guts that are dumped in the ocean every year.
The so-called waste is actually full of protein and other nutritious substances, like omega-3 fatty acids, which can have considerable human health benefits, according to a growing number of scientific studies, Lane says.
Juneau Economic Development Center:
After three years of experimentation and probing the global marketplace, Lane believes his company, Alaska Protein Recovery, has a viable new product - salmon hydrolysate.
He has been selling the high-protein liquid - created in vats using an enzyme breakdown process that doesn't require cooking - to Southeast Asian seafood farmers as an ingredient in their shrimp feed pellets.
But his ultimate goal is to sell hydrolysate as a nutritional supplement for people, too.
"We're trying to create enough value to compete against the fish meals and fish oils that are out there already," Lane said.
Knowing that he can at least sell his new product to Southeast Asia, Lane said his next project is building a handful of shore-based hydrolysate plants in Southeast Alaska towns such as Sitka, Ketchikan and Petersburg.
He's had to charge Southeast Alaska fish processors to take their fish waste until now. Lane hopes his company will be able to take on the raw material without charging them in 2006.
So far, he's had a good working relationship with Sitka's Sitka Sound Seafoods.
"We believe in the project he is doing," said Tim Ryan, of Sitka Sound Seafoods. "We try to send stuff every day. Sometimes twice a day."
The company sends a gillnet tender - its hold filled with carcasses and fish totes filled with guts - on a seven-mile run to a football field-sized barge docked near Sitka's state ferry terminal where Lane's employees create the hydrolysate.
As a result, Sitka Sound Seafoods has been able to reduce the size of its salmon waste pile from 5 to 6 million pounds to 2 million pounds, Ryan said.
The remainder is ground up and discharged into the ocean - the usual disposal method for the seafood processing industry.
Lane's challenge, as well as his opportunity, is that his product doesn't exist in the world today. At least, not with Alaska salmon.
Most large-scale seafood producers in the world stopped dumping their fish waste into the ocean centuries ago, turning it into fertilizer, animal meal, oils and sauces instead. "We are the last place in the United States and the world that looks as this as garbage," Lane said.
Lane is one of a handful of Alaskans who have taken a stab at creating commercial products out fish waste in recent years.
So far, their efforts have produced some good initial results as well as some disappointments.
"It will take innovation and new money, and people willing to take risks," said Lance Miller, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council.
"It's going to take a commitment of the Southeast community to support this kind of venture," Ryan added.
Kake's Totem Soils - a Native-owned company that creates commercial compost out of fish waste from Southeast Alaska seafood processors and wood chips from the logging industry - is an example of a venture that has fallen on hard and uncertain times.
Totem Soil's chemical additive-free compost had generated rave reviews in the Lower 48, but Kake's tribal corporation is experiencing serious financial problems and doesn't have the money to spend on marketing the compost to vendors elsewhere in Alaska or down South.
"I gave this thing my whole heart," said Bob Mills, the company's project manager.
Hopeful that the financial constraints will be lifted later, Mills is stockpiling his product, which won't go bad if it remains covered, he said.
Like Alaska salmon in general, one of Totem Soil's strongest marketing angles is that it is free of chemical additives.
Plenty of U.S. consumers have become wary of the toxic chemicals or chemical additives that have appeared in farmed salmon.
But one thing the salmon farming industry has done a better job of than the Alaska fishing industry is they don't waste anything, Lane said.
The salmon farms, for example, auction off purchasing rights for fish waste to other companies, and the waste ends up in fertilizers, oils and animal feed.
If the Alaska fishing industry can latch on a similar method to squeeze more pennies out each salmon, it will help everyone in the business, said Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
But so far, Lane's operation has been flying under the radar screen of many Southeast fishermen, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.
As long as the company runs with just one barge, it probably will stay under their radar screen, she said. "It needs to be in several places. Everywhere waste is generated is where you need it," Hansen said.
The fact that Lane has been charging seafood processors for the raw material has also made some fishermen nervous.
"As long as they have to pay to get rid of it, it means less money for the fisherman," Hansen said.
But Hansen said that the region's fishermen, in general, are excited about the long-term potential of Lane's project and others like it.
"Waste is a big issue and as time goes on ... we definitely need to come up with solutions, especially if it could raise the value (of salmon) in general," she said.