Sitnews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska - News, Features, Opinions...


Fish Factor

Pollock donated for sea lion research
By Laine Welch


August 08, 2005

Few people know that many of the sea creatures residing at the Alaska Sea Life Center (ASLC) at Seward are fed on fish that is donated by Bering Sea boats, and delivered free of charge by Unalaska shipping companies.
jpg Laine Welch

It's a collaborative effort that began about five years ago, after huge swaths of traditional fishing grounds in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska were shut down by federal managers. The closures stemmed from a lawsuit supporting environmentalists' claims that boats were taking too much pollock, thereby adding to the population drop of endangered sea lions which began occurring in the 1980's. "It was an unanswered question when the new regulations went through. There was no clear point at which you could say A was causing B. So the pollock industry decided to do something to find answers. They said we might not like what we find out, but at least we'll know," said Shirley Marquardt, Unalaska Mayor.

Large at-sea processing boats belonging to a group called the Pollock Conservation Co-op launched a plan to catch and donate pollock for sea lion feeding studies. Marquardt said within ten minutes companies began calling with offers to hold the frozen fish and ship it for free. "Offshore Systems, Samson Tug & Barge, Western Pioneer, Sea Land - they all wanted to help with research efforts that would help protect the fishery that this community relies on for so much of its livelihood," Marquardt said.

To date, the PCC has donated more than 165,000 pounds of pollock to researchers at the Sea Life Center valued at close to $60,000, said Jim Gilmore, director of public affairs for the At-Sea Processors Association. "Shipping donations by Samson Tug & Barge have saved us about $12,000 a year," said ASLC curator Richard Hocking, who acquires all of the food, adding that the pollock is also enjoyed by seals and other creatures that call the Center home.

So have the feeding studies yielded any conclusions about the nutritional importance of pollock to sea lions? "So far they've shown that they thrive on diets with or without pollock," said Donald Calkins, ASLC sea lion program director. The research has been done (and continues) on both the Center's three resident sea lions, as well as transient animals that are captured and released after three months. He added: "I think the take home message is that we need to look very carefully and question the whole theory of nutritional stress. It is certainly not the answer to everything that occurred in the overall decline."

After nearly 30 years of studying sea lions, Calkins said "it is almost embarrassing" that he doesn't have any "really good answers" to why the population of Western sea lions has dropped so dramatically. "I can tell you what I do know. I think it is reasonably clear that different things have occurred in different areas within the sea lions range in Alaska," he stressed. These likely include disease factors.

Calkins said he has never been able to "connect the dots" between the drop in sea lions to the removals of pollock by fishing boats. Nor can he place the blame on predation by killer whales. "If anything there are more killer whales per sea lion in Southeast Alaska, but they haven't affected the population there at all," he said.

Meanwhile, back in Unalaska, Mayor Marquardt said she is proud of the way in which the industry and local businesses stepped up to the plate to be part of the solution. "Instead of just pointing fingers and complaining, they've said what we can do to help solve this mystery."

NEW POLLOCK PRODUCTS - Turning pollock skins into gelatin and films is the focus of a study that could soon lead to valuable new products. Research by Cindy Bower, a U.S. Department of Agriculture food technologist based at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, shows that the collagen derived from pollock skins can be used to thicken beverages, clarify wines and juices, or rolled into films. "When you test the films against bovine or pig skin products, there is decreased water vapor permeability. The fish films are a better barrier to water, so there are applications for using them to coat foods to keep moisture in or out. Plus, since they are made from fish they satisfy Kosher or Muslim dietary restrictions," she said in a presentation at Kodiak's Fish Tech Center. The pollock skins can be easily dried and shipped elsewhere for the value added processing.

Bower clearly is on the right track. Demand for fish derived gelatins is increasing due to customer concerns about mad cow disease. Maruha Corporation in Japan is already producing food gelatins from farm raised tilapia skins, selling for roughly $17 a pound.

With an Alaska pollock catch each year topping three billion pounds, turning even a small portion of the skins into new products would solve another big problem in the seafood industry. "The problem is too many fish byproducts are discarded as waste," she said. Get more info at .

WHO YA GONNA CALL? Last week marked the 215th birthday of our nation's oldest, continuous sea going service - the U.S. Coast Guard. It was first launched in 1789 as the U.S. Lighthouse Service. A year later Congress changed it to the Revenue Cutter Service under the newly formed Treasury Department to enforce the nation's customs laws. At the time, that was the only source of revenue for the federal government, and 1790 is now considered the modern Coast Guard's birthday.

Today there are 39,000 active duty personnel in the USCG. A fact file shows that on any given day, they will save 15 lives, assist 117 people in distress, protect $3 million worth of property, enforce 130 security zones, board nearly 200 vessels of law enforcement interest, seize 71 pounds of marijuana and 662 pounds of cocaine, conduct 317 vessel safety checks, respond to 11 oil and hazardous chemical spills, and monitor the transit of nearly 3,000 ships through U.S. ports.

This year the USCG will likely receive a well deserved birthday gift in the form of a budget boost. A U.S. Senate committee recently authorized $8.2 billion for fiscal year 2006 and $8.8 billion for FY 07. That represents an eight percent increase over the current level. It authorizes $47.5 million for the USCG to operate and maintain its polar icebreakers. It also includes money to enhance the Guard's security monitoring for U.S. ports and water ways, and for a pilot program to improve fishing vessel safety.


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 25 stations around the state. Laine lives in Kodiak.

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska