SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fish Factor

International interest in canned pinks growing fast
By Laine Welch


August 21, 2006

World food aid programs can be huge customers for our nation's home grown commodities, but until recently canned Alaska salmon wasn't even included on the shopping list. One year ago a single ton of canned Alaska pink salmon had made its way into global food programs. Today that number has jumped to 1,400 tons in shipments to Cambodia, Guatemala and Guinea ­ and international interest in canned pinks is growing fast.

"It's about two percent of the total canned pink pack. The acceptance has been incredible!" said Kodiak fisherman Bruce Schactler who, at the request of Governor Murkowski two years ago, has shouldered the task to redefine and broaden federal feeding rules.

"Sometimes it's simply a matter of changing one word in a regulation from 48 years ago. It's all an official process," Schactler explained.

There are hundreds of private voluntary organizations (PVOs) engaged in humanitarian assistance and food relief programs, which put in requests to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and other agencies. Getting canned salmon included on the international shopping list was just the first step, Schactler said.

"The PVOs have to ask for it, and the granting agency has to agree that it's a good idea to give it to them. You have to convince them all that it's a good product, it ships well, how to open the cans, what they can do with the cans, that it's a sustainable product for feeding programs .every question that can possibly be asked about introducing something new. That takes ongoing marketing," he said.

Most importantly, decision makers must be convinced that canned salmon is something that can be used with local ingredients. "How do you cook the stuff over a fire in a backyard in Uganda? You have to make people comfortable with using it," Schactler said.

To that end, Schactler collaborated in July with Global Food & Nutrition, Inc. (GFN) to organize a "Taste of Food Aid" cooking demonstration and reception in Tanzania. The menu, prepared by GFN chefs, included salmon and sweet potatoes samosas, corn and salmon fritters and salmon spreads.

"People there hadn't thought about salmon and they loved it," GFN president Nina Schlossman said from her office in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, the Tanzanians were especially impressed that it was wild salmon. "They are very concerned with sustainable development and the environment," she added. A similar canned salmon event that targets 15 more African nations is scheduled for this fall when food aid decision makers gather in D.C.

Meanwhile, Bruce Schactler is "scouring USDA past, present and future programs for opportunities for Alaska." A priority is making sure Alaska salmon gets a fair shake in the U.S. Farm Bill, which undergoes reauthorization every five years.

"For the most part, fish is not included in many programs. We need to make sure Alaska salmon and salmon fishermen get the same opportunities as all the other agricultural producers," he said.

Also on Schactler's desk: getting canned chum salmon included in the global food network, expanding canned salmon in the Women/Infant/Children feeding program, and testing kid friendly salmon products for the nation's school lunch program.

Cut to king crab catch - The harvest numbers for this year's Bristol Bay red king crab won't be announced for about a month, but crabbers already know they'll see a cut in the catch. Managers announced last week that there will be a 4.58 percent deduction off the top of the 2006 king crab catch quota.

The reason? Too many crabs were tossed overboard last season. "Based on observer reports it was apparent that a fairly substantial discard of otherwise legally sized male crab was occurring and it was associated with shell condition," said. Denby Lloyd, state director of commercial fisheries.

The practice of sorting out any seafood for its value is called high grading. For red king crab, the level of barnacle covered or darkened shells last year was quite high, and it fetched far less from processors in an already depressed crab market. The discard rate was estimated at 3.6 million pounds of the nearly 18.5 million pound quota, almost 700,000 marketable crabs. State managers estimate 20 percent of the crab tossed overboard died.

"And since that source of mortality is not otherwise accounted for in the harvest strategy, the department believes that the responsible source of action is to now account for it and incorporate it into our quota setting process," Lloyd said.

The crab industry has pledged to do better this year. At recent meetings, participants collected written pledges from over 80 percent of the harvesting co-ops to undertake full retention of all legal crab, and to avoid high grading in the coming season.

Lloyd said he is hopeful adjustments due to high grading will be a temporary measure. "I am encouraged by the industry's recognition of the problem and they appear to have taken good faith steps to organize. I have high hopes that they will change this behavior so we don't have to make this correction in the future. But that remains to be seen," he said.

The loss to crabbers is estimated at about $3.5 million dollars, an industry source said. Harvest numbers for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be announced at the end of September. The fishery begins in mid October 15.

Salmon adds to fine wine - Grapes, water, sunshine, skilled hands -- and a few thousand dead fish are the necessary ingredients for the finest California wines. That's according to research which shows for the first time that chinook salmon that die naturally in California's Mokelumne and Calaveras Rivers contribute significantly to the growth, and very likely the quality, of grapes grown nearby.

According to, researchers at Sacramento State University and UC Davis (which also happens to be the world's premier wine school) traced the movement of "fingerprints" called nitrogen isotopes. They found that when salmon die upstream after spawning, natural scavengers move the marine nutrients into the terrestrial food chain, either through their wastes or by dropping the fish carcasses onshore. Before long, the nutrients travel through soil and water into wine grapes being grown commercially along the riverbanks.

The researchers found that the grapes close to the river get up to 25 percent of their nitrogen from salmon. "In wine making, nitrogen affects yeast growth and sugar fermentation. No doubt some of the best California wine has salmon in it," they said.

In an interesting aside, the scientists noted that the operators of salmon hatcheries, after harvesting eggs and milt from spawning fish, routinely dispose of the carcasses rather than placing them back in the river. "Hatcheries could be removing significant amounts of nitrogen of value both to agriculture and to the local ecosystems," the researchers said.

Find the Salmon, Wildlife and Wine study in the June 2006 issue of the journal Ecological Applications and in the July 21 issue of Science.


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska