A Washington-based nonprofit that takes unintended catch from Alaska trawl fisheries and donates it to all 50 states just completed its fifth mission flying the fish from Kodiak to Kotzebue. This is also the second year they’ve transported donations to Nome. Volunteers distribute the boxes comprised of bycatch and incidentally caught fish to nearby communities in order to supplement local diets.
SeaShare executive director Jim Harmon says he works with processors to gather and prepare the fish, the majority of which come from trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Island waters, and Gulf of Alaska.
KMXT’s Kayla Desroches boarded a Coast Guard HC130 Hercules in Kodiak loaded with tons of frozen fish to tag along and meet the people facilitating the donations in Kotzebue and Nome.
Harmon has been visiting Alaska – and Kodiak – for years, but this is the first time he’s escorted the fish across the state. Around 14,000 pounds of it.
The crew keeps the plane on the colder side for the flight to Kotzebue.
That’s because it’s full of pallets stacked with frozen halibut, which Harmon says comes in two forms – headed and gutted, or steaks.
“One of the most efficient ways that we can protect those fish is after we’ve cleaned them and steaked them, we dip them in water and blast freeze them. That puts a glaze around the fish, they call it glazing them, and glazing them protects the meat from the atmosphere.”
A group of volunteers from the Maniilaq Association are waiting in Kotzebue when the plane lands. The Coast Guard crew unloads the fish. The volunteers are there to help sort
the boxes and deliver them to the different villages.
Bernice Foster is one of the volunteers today. She was born and raised in Kotzebue and it’s her third year helping out. She says the halibut goes to elders.
“It helps people fill their freezers and it’s kind of a tradition here where people do give the people fish from out in the ocean, they’ll deliver to homes, and they enjoy that.”
She says people are also happy to get a different kind of fish to supplement their diets, as halibut are not commonly fished in the area, unlike chum salmon or sheefish. From Kotzebue, the fish are headed out to all the villages in the Maniilaq region.
For Harmon and the rest of the halibut, the next stop is Nome, where the vice president of community services for the regional non-profit corporation, Kawerak, is waiting. Carol Piscoya says, this year, the fish are going to six villages instead of four:
The need arose last year due to retreating sea ice which reduced walrus and seal harvest, and Piscoya says this year the ice conditions are a little better, but still not great.
“They’re still talking about the lack of ice to supplement their walrus and sea hunting. We see it as something that’s always might be an issue, the lack of sea ice for hunting.”
Piscoya says while the area has some commercial fishing, that catch goes out the door for sale.
She says the Kawerak board, which is made of members from the tribes of the region, developed a resolution a few years ago opposing bycatch fisheries.
“Because of all the fish that we’re – that we were – losing coming up from here by the commercial fisheries, so because of that, we’re kind of hesitant to accept – which this called bycatch fisheries – so last year there was a great need for — because the folks in the villages didn’t have the food in their freezers to get through the winter, so coast guard came up with this and Jim came up with this, and they were willing to take it.”
She says they left it up to the communities to decide.
“It’s really, really, really been helpful. We appreciate it, the people appreciate it, the people want it, but it’s definitely an issue.”
Harmon says processors are trying their best to minimize bycatch, but when fishermen do pull in the unavoidable, it’s better to direct it towards a good cause than to discard it.
He says the program owes a lot to the various partners involved, from the Coast Guard to the volunteers who show up to sort and deliver the packages.