Addressing Bycatch via Legislation and Donation

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The much-needed “Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act,” if passed in Congress, would bring commercial swordfish fishing off California in line with other U.S. and international swordfish fisheries. Meanwhile, a unique cooperative fisheries program in Alaska takes an innovative approach to the problem of unwanted fish catch.

First, dealers and their customers are encouraged to contact their representative in House urging them to vote yes for the Driftnet and Bycatch bill (S. 906/H.R. 1979).

As it has passed the Senate, it will likely come up for a House vote any day now. Some effort from constituents can get it to the finish line.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, an ongoing program worthy of recognition has been reducing bycatch waste while relieving hunger — and could be an eye-opener elsewhere.

It’s a fact that fishermen can unintentionally catch fish they don’t want or cannot legally keep. Although these fish are returned to the sea, many do not survive with as much as 10 percent of catches worldwide are discarded every year. That’s literally millions of pounds of fish.

Dumping bycatch also wastes valuable seafood protein, according to NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. In response, they established the Prohibited Species Donation Program through which fishermen can donate some bycatch to hunger relief organizations.

Bottom line: some good fish aren’t wasted and people needing seafood protein receive it.

For example, Alaska fishermen occasionally catch Pacific halibut and salmon incidentally in trawls targeting groundfish. But halibut and salmon can be caught only by permitted fisherman — so it’s illegal for groundfish trawlers to retain or sell them. All such prohibited species caught in Alaska had to be returned to the sea.

Enter a non-profit organization called SeaShare. This organization takes in the halibut and salmon (that don’t survive) caught by trawlers donated by the fisherman and distributes the seafood through the nation’s largest network of foodbanks under the banner of Feeding America.

This innovative program may not be widely recognized but it isn’t new, either. It was initiated back in 1996 under NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Since then, SeaShare has distributed more than 6 million pounds of salmon and halibut bycatch, or 23.5 million good seafood servings.

It’s donations all around. A large number of fishermen and seafood processors voluntarily participate. Once the boats arrive with any bycatch, Seashare coordinates the processing, transportation, certification and distribution. But to get it all done, the volunteers and financial support from the seafood industry is the anchor.

“Nobody wants to catch species they aren’t targeting,” Jim Harmon, Seashare’s director told Christine Baie reporting for The Arctic Sounder, a publication of the Anchorage Daily News. “Our fishing partners go to great lengths to avoid and minimize it. But when they do encounter it, they are willing and have the capability to handle it carefully so that those valuable fish aren’t thrown overboard.”

Besides the fishermen, it truly takes a village with many hands to get the seafood where it needs to go. Among them, cold storage providers, packaging companies, freight companies and financial supporters, all volunteering to work with SeaShare in this amazing shared effort.

Even the Coast Guard will fly pallets of fish to remote Alaska locations like Kotzebue and Nome.

According to Baie’s report, the program fills a critical nutritional need for protein, especially in Alaska. That’s documented by a 2014 Feeding America survey that revealed 14 percent of the Alaskan population and 20 percent of Alaskan children are “food insecure” because they lack access to safe, nutritious food.

Add to that the fact that halibut and salmon are relatively expensive seafood. So, donating them through the food banks provides good fish to people who could not otherwise afford them.

What’s the real impact? The Glory Hall food bank in Juneau describes it’s meaning to Baie this way: “The value of the program to folks experiencing homelessness and hunger cannot be overestimated,” says Mariya Lovischuk, director of Glory Hall. “Seashare provides reliable access to high-quality protein. Like many nonprofits serving vulnerable populations, The Glory Hall operates on a shoestring budget. We cannot afford to buy protein and certainly not protein of this quality. Many of the individuals we serve are suffering from debilitating health conditions. Having access to quality food like that provided by the bycatch donation program is critically important.”

So, while we recognize and salute the long-established success of the SeaShare Alaska program, we should consider whether it serves as a model to help diminish bycatch waste in other fisheries, both here and around the world?

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