By-catch should be donated to Alaskans in need

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

It seems like a no-brainer. If there were a plan in place to distribute fish to needy Alaskans, fish that would normally go to waste, shouldn't it be carried out?

The answer seems like a resounding "yes."

In fact, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service has rejected a plan by the Alaska Food Coalition to do just that.

The coalition is a network of 30-plus nonprofit and faith-based agencies, including the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, dedicated to feeding Alaskans in need. It has designed an innovative halibut by-catch program that would take 50,000 pounds of halibut caught accidentally by trawlers and distribute it to those who most need it.

The proposed project exemplifies cooperation. Trawlers are behind it and have pledged their assistance. Processors have signed on to help. There's a shipping program in place to get the fish to those who need it once it's been processed. In fact, few projects in Alaska can boast the kind of support that this one has engendered: the fishing industry, environmentalists, social services agencies and many legislators -- just to name of few of the diverse groups -- agree it's a good idea.

Those commercial fishers and processors who have volunteered to participate especially deserve praise for their willingness to make the program happen. There's absolutely nothing in it for them -- except more work and the feel-good knowledge that they've done the right thing by helping someone in need.

There's nothing about this project that should be considered contentious, except that it uses fish. And, in Alaska, whenever and wherever there's fish, controversy seems to spawn.

That's unfortunate, because in this case, no controversy -- really no discussion at all -- is warranted. There's a plan in place to get fish, fish that would normally be dumped at sea, to hungry Alaskans. It's as simple as that.

Lots of great ideas, maybe even most great ideas, never get beyond the thinking stage because no one takes the time to implement them. The food coalition, however, has done its work. It has created the infrastructure to turn the idea into reality. It has volunteers who are ready, willing and able to make it happen this fishing season.

The only thing needed is regulatory approval.

The food coalition is working to resubmit its proposal under "Prohibited Species Donation Program" allowed by NMFS. Unfortunately, the delay means the project likely won't happen this year when people are geared up and ready to go.

While Alaskans are fond of disagreeing about many issues, there is one issue on which there is universal agreement:

Food resources should not go to waste. Whether it's a game animal or a commercially caught fish, if it's killed it should be eaten.

Because of federal regulations, it is estimated that in the Gulf of Alaska this year alone about 4.4 million pounds of dead halibut will be wasted. The food coalition aims to put a small portion of that unused fish on the dinner plates of hungry Alaskans.

In these current economic times that food is more needed than ever. Government assistance to food banks is decreasing while need is increasing.

All that's needed is a regulatory OK.

It really is a no-brainer. The Alaska Food Coalition's project deserves support. Needy Alaskans deserve food. There's no good reason for NMFS not to say "yes."


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