ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Some look at the bounty hauled in by Alaska's commercial fishermen and envision salmon fillets on the grill. Peter Bechtel dreams up ways to use the leftovers.
For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture food researcher and his cohorts have been looking into better ways to use fish heads, skin, guts and bones. But their days in the state that catches more wild fish than any other may be numbered.
Alaska's only agricultural research station is on the chopping block, one of 10 slated for closure by Sept. 1 as the Obama administration looks to cut $42 million from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service budget. Federal officials deflected questions about the cut by referring to the budget language, which says the administration is looking to finance other initiatives by getting rid of lower priority and duplicative projects.
Congress could restore the money in the 2012 budget, but if it doesn't, ARS spokeswoman Sandy Miller Hays said, that will be the end of most fish waste research. Some small projects will still be done at other research stations, but nothing on a big scale, she said.
While fish waste is used in pet food and feed for farmed fish, Bechtel and other federal researchers aim to use more trimmings and create higher value products.
They have made gelatins, a thickening agent used in food products and the soft material on the outside of gel caps in pharmaceuticals. They have used fish skins to make biodegradable film that can be used as packaging material. And they've worked to develop fish liver extract for human consumption and even a snack food from fish bones.
"Some people eat canned salmon," Bechtel says, laughing. "They kind of like the crunch of those little bones. Well, we're going to give them the bones and forget about the salmon."
There's no shortage of fish waste in Alaska. The state's five kinds of Pacific salmon account for 8 percent of the total U.S. seafood catch, and that's dwarfed by pollock, the whitefish used to make fish sticks and fast food fish sandwiches. It accounts for 31 percent of the nation's catch. Add halibut, cod, sablefish, crab, herring and other species and Alaska accounts for half of all the wild fish caught in the U.S.
In 2009, that was 1.8 million metric tons. More than half of that weight didn't reach the dinner table. Some became fish meal and fish oil used to feed farm animals and pets. But more than a quarter, roughly 225,000 metric tons, was ground up and dumped back into the water.
It's not a desirable outcome — expensive for processors and potentially harmful to the environment.
"If you are dumping fish waste in a specific location, you can smother the benthic communities on the sea floor," said Christine Psyk, of the EPA regional office in Seattle.
It's also wasteful. Research from the USDA station in Alaska and elsewhere has shown that those fish trimmings contain valuable proteins on a par with so-called reduction fisheries that are the primary sources of fish meal and fish oil. They include anchovies, sardines, and off U.S. shores, menhaden.
According to a report by the USDA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reduction fisheries are maxed out worldwide, but demand for aquaculture feed keeps growing — 6 percent to 8 percent every year.
Fish farmers and the government are seeking substitutes from plant proteins such as soybeans. However, for farmed fish to have nutritional value comparable to wild fish, they must be fed fish meal and oil at crucial stages. One potential source, other than reduction fisheries, is fish trimmings.
The nonprofit Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation for three decades has been trying to expand opportunities in the Alaska seafood industry, including with fish trimmings. Director James Browning called the possible closure of Alaska's USDA research station, which has offices in Kodiak, Fairbanks and Palmer, a step backward.
"We want to use every piece of the fish we want to take out of the water," he said. With the closure, "We're less equipped to move toward full utilization, which is the goal of any sustainable industry."
The USDA station at Kodiak, ranked No. 4 in ports for landing U.S. seafood last year, has one of the state's most sophisticated chemistry laboratories and can give agribusiness a precise analysis of what's in Alaska fish waste products.
One major issue for agribusiness is keeping fish trimmings from spoiling and losing their valuable qualities. Another is affordable storage of waste until it can be processed. Small, remote Alaska fish processors dealing with seasonal fisheries rarely generate enough waste to justify investment in large equipment, Browning said.
Not all of the Alaska research station's $2.4 million budget goes to fish waste research. The Fairbanks office, housed in a new $1.2 million research complex on the University of Alaska campus, focused on studies of invasive plants and insects, and the Palmer office collects plant samples important to Alaska. The closures will end that work as well.