Fishlines — June 2017

Vol. 37, No. 6, June 2017

Training may help save entangled whales

boat moving on water

Whale disentanglement training in Unalaska. Andy Dietrick photo.

A mid-June training session in Unalaska offered instruction on how to report large whale entanglements, what to look for and, most importantly, what not to do in these high-risk situations.

The intended audience included fishermen, professional mariners, biologists and law enforcement officers, said Ed Lyman, a large whale entanglement response coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Hawaii. Lyman led the training.

Alaska Sea Grant and NOAA Fisheries hosted the Unalaska event June 12–13.

According to the International Whaling Commission, the number of whale entanglements is growing worldwide. While the problem is hard to assess because many instances go unreported, a recent IWC study estimated that 308,000 whales and dolphins die annually due to entanglement in fishing gear. The animals may starve or drown after becoming restricted by gear, suffering physical trauma and infections, or being hit by vessels, according to NOAA Fisheries.

This first-responder training in Unalaska included classroom instruction on case assessment, whale behavior, communication protocols, authorization and safety. A small group of potential responders practiced on-water techniques to remove life-threatening fishing gear or debris entangling a whale if authorized to do so through NOAA Fisheries.

Between 2000 and 2012, about 10 large whales were found entangled in waters off of Washington, Oregon and California, according to NOAA Fisheries. In 2016, a total of 71 whales were reported entangled in these waters, topping records set in 2014 and 2015. Records have been kept since 1982.

In Alaska, NOAA Fisheries has received more than 130 confirmed reports of entangled large whales since 1998, according to the agency’s website. The number of animals entangled is likely much greater since many entanglements go unreported. Fishing pots and gillnets pose the greatest entanglement threats for whales.

The agency has mounted more than 80 responses to entangled large whales in Alaska since 1998 and has freed or partially freed more than 40 animals. Last year, 17 humpbacks were reported entangled, according to NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Program.

Humpback whales are the most commonly reported entangled marine mammal species on the West Coast of the United States. The whales, with a population of 6,000–8,000 in the North Pacific, are common in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands where they migrate from temperate low-latitude breeding grounds to high-latitude feeding grounds each summer. Unalaska has seen a lot of whale activity in recent years, with many pods passing through Unalaska Bay and several entanglements.

In fall 2015, Unalaska had the first of three entangled humpbacks in a two-year period. During one incident, responders were unable to free a humpback tangled in commercial pot-fishing gear. The whale later died during a storm before a team of statewide responders could arrive. With increases in local fishing activity and a growing humpback population, fishery interactions with whales could increase, said Alaska Sea Grant’s Melissa Good, a Marine Advisory agent stationed in Unalaska.

NOAA Fisheries authorizes responses on a case-by-case basis under a national marine mammal permit, given the risks involved to both humans and whales in response activities. Many whales escape, so intervention is not required in many cases. Response centers on life-threatening entanglements with low-risk and viable intervention methods. A core group of people familiar with appropriate techniques, safety, boat handling and whale behavior is essential for quick and efficient response.

“It would be nice to have a few more responders in Unalaska,” Good said before the workshop.

Rural students learn about risk of toxic shellfish

hand holds white plastic

Positive for PSP

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is a big problem in Alaska. The harvesting of clams, mussels, scallops, and geoducks is a traditional and recreational activity and yet it can result in sickness and even death. Kodiak Marine Advisory agent Julie Matweyou is working to lower the risk to Alaskans and recently taught middle and high school students in seven rural schools about the science behind PSP and how to protect themselves and their families.

Matweyou uses a commercial shellfish test kit to provide hands-on learning—the company gives a discount for in-class testing. It’s a pass-fail test that detects acceptable levels of saxitoxin in shellfish so recreational and subsistence harvesters can gauge a level of safety. Matweyou is also working with partners on a more sensitive field test and will use it in the classroom when ready.

A student mentored by Matweyou tested the pass-fail kit for a science fair project earlier this year and won two awards for her work.

In May, Matweyou taught a three-day, distance-delivered PSP lesson on Kodiak Island. She reached 46 students at seven rural schools through AKTEACH, an online learning system. The communities are Akhiok, Chiniak, Ouzinkie, Old Harbor, Port Lions, Larsen Bay, and Karluk.

Matweyou arranged for the students to collect local shellfish samples in April. On the first day of class in May, she taught students how to identify shellfish including littleneck clams, blue mussels, and butter clams. The students then shucked the shellfish and ground the tissue. On day two she guided them through toxin extraction, testing, and interpretation of the results. On the third day, Matweyou gave presentations and the students participated in discussions.

All the shellfish samples except the blue mussels from Larsen Bay tested positive for the PSP toxin.

“This was quite the learning experience for students to compare shellfish samples from around the island, and to note all samples except one were positive for PSP and could have posed a health risk if eaten. It was a successful lesson and interaction, and the Kodiak Rural Schools science teacher invited me to repeat the lesson next year,” said Matweyou.

Bristol Bay fishermen get preseason business and operation training

fishing boats on water

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation photo

The Bristol Bay sockeye fishery is the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery.

Spring is a very hectic time for fishermen, the support industry and regulators. To help everyone get ready, Alaska Sea Grant’s Gabe Dunham recently spoke about boat insurance, fish quality, and crew contracts to fishermen at the Business of Fishing event in Dillingham and Naknek, held by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

The annual one-day event focused on the management, financial, and operational aspects of commercial fishing. Alaska state troopers spoke to participants along with processors, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists, and financial, tax, and credit advisers.

“It was a very nuts and bolts event that provided a ton of useful information,” said Dunham.

Also in Dillingham, Dunham held workshops on preseason preparation and safety for small boat and skiff owners, and on preseason maintenance and Coast Guard–recommended safety equipment for drift gillnet fishermen. Dunham, the Marine Advisory agent in Dillingham, also trained fishermen in Alaska Marine Safety Education Association drill conductor instruction.

Dunham’s training gives local fishermen a boost as they get out on the water with 3,000 Bristol Bay commercial fishing permit holders.

Researchers see China as growing market for Alaska salmon

fish head and filet

Researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Purdue University see China as a promising market for Alaska salmon. They interviewed more than 1,000 consumers in major China cities and found that seafood from pristine Alaska waters harvested in a sustainable and highly regulated fishery is appealing to residents, many of whom are entering the country’s growing middle class and gaining disposable income.

A new Alaska Sea Grant publication summarizes the results—Consumer Preference and Market Potential for Alaska Salmon in China: Preliminary Analysis. The report is authored by Angie Zheng, Holly Weng, Quentin Fong and Yonggang Lu. Fong is Alaska Sea Grant’s Kodiak-based seafood marketing specialist and is a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor.

The publication is geared toward fishermen, seafood producers and marketers interested in selling Alaska salmon in China. Researchers asked Chinese consumers about wild or farmed salmon, Alaska as the place of production, use of product forms (head, whole round, frame, etc.), methods of preparation and willingness to purchase.

Respondents gave a high ranking to characteristics associated with Alaska salmon—wild caught, sustainably caught and color—indicating the high potential for increasing sales of Alaska salmon in China.

“Every time my family and friends visit me, they comment on the great taste and high quality of Alaska salmon and they wish they could buy it in Chinese markets,” Zheng told

China is the largest single export market for the state of Alaska. Seafood, worth $784 million in 2014, makes up the greatest percentage of those exports with salmon at about $290 million.

The authors advise that if Alaskans want to sell salmon directly to Chinese consumers, they should focus on boneless fillets, steaks and heads. Marketers should also educate purchasers about preparation methods, the different salmon species and meat colors, and the sustainable nature of the harvest. The researchers recommend highlighting the advantage of wild-caught salmon and getting a “green” label showing reduced environmental impact of the product. The Chinese are likely willing to pay price premiums for Alaska salmon as consumers do in the United States, the researchers found.

The illustrated, 16-page electronic publication is available as a free download at Alaska Sea Grant.

New technique could improve Alaska farmed oyster and kelp productivity

man stands at bench

Gary Freitag, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent, is spreading the word about a technique that could enhance farmed oyster and kelp productivity.

University of Arizona researcher Ben Renquist and his coworkers have refined a technique to test fertilized fish eggs for high oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production during metabolism, using a chemical they trademarked Alamar Blue®.

The high oxygen–consuming fish eggs were proven to grow significantly faster, showing promise for improved aquaculture production. Experiments were first done on zebrafish, and have also shown promise on tilapia, trout, oysters and shrimp cultured species.

Freitag’s role in the project is to communicate to the aquaculture/mariculture industry the high potential the method has for Alaska, western states and nationwide.

“This technique could help both kelp farmers and oyster farmers in Alaska. It appears to work on any biological life—plant or animal—and allows for the selection of faster growing individuals,” said Freitag.

The Western Regional Aquaculture Center funded the study, which was completed last year.

Renquist says the application of the proposed technology by commercial growers will reduce the cost and effort of rearing slow growing fish or shellfish.

“It will also allow growers that utilize broodstock programs for generations of production of fish and shellfish to select for the fastest growing families at the egg stage instead of having to separately hold and evaluate groups over a long period of time, reducing cost and freeing up valuable tank and handling time,” he said.

To find out more see Renquist’s webinar on his research results.

From fish waste to Fido snacks: turning pollock skins into pet treats

Chris Sannito, Alaska Sea Grant’s seafood technology specialist, is developing a pet treat made out of pollock skins and early feedback indicates that canines particularly like it.

Just prior to his hire in March 2015, Sannito worked with faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) on a research grant from the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center. The task was to determine whether pollock skins could be turned into a product that was tasty to dogs, easy for humans to handle, and shelf-stable for at least six months.

The project excited Sannito because he saw a lot of flexibility in how he could develop the treats. But initial attempts to dry the pollock skins were labor- and energy-intensive and didn’t seem like a good bet for a commercial product.

Sannito wondered what other methods might be effective. From his graduate school days, he remembered a researcher interested in food extrusion technology. The researcher had used a Clextral extruder—a machine designed to push material through a barrel with a screw—to create a snack made of rice flour and fish powder, with added flavorings. “So I was always curious about extruders,” Sannito said. He learned that pet-treat manufacturers, such as Purina, use extruders to make all kinds of products. “Why couldn’t we incorporate fish skins into the extrusion process?” he asked.

Sannito took 500 pounds of fish skins to Tampa, Florida, for a one-day trial in the Clextral pilot plant. With a little bit of experimenting, the extruder produced a semisoft product with very little odor that was high in collagen protein. The product had a consistency similar to licorice and could be formed into myriad shapes. Since dogs don’t purchase their own treats, Sannito said, it was important to produce something that was easy to handle and not too smelly to humans.

The Clextral plant runs all sorts of materials through its extruder, but the fish skins were a novelty for the plant technicians, who took some home for their own dogs. Back in Kodiak, unofficial taste tests on local dogs showed that the fish skin treats were a hit. Sannito said that his own dog is probably one of the biggest supporters, but he has other fans as well. “Every day, Sable [a coworker’s dog] comes to my door looking for pet treats.” Formal pet trials would require lots of paperwork, but Sannito has been handing out the treats informally and said, “We have yet to find a dog that would turn them down.”

On May 5, Sannito and Quentin Fong, Alaska Sea Grant’s seafood marketing specialist, received the 2017 Invent Alaska award for “innovation in research leading to commercialization” from the UAF Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization. The next step is to find industry partners to develop a commercialized product. The UAF intellectual property office is very interested and may help in the search for partners, according to Sannito.

Although the payoff to fish processors could be significant, there are costs involved in extracting skins for further processing. Some processors simply grind and discharge their waste at sea. But where communities have processing plants, truckloads of skins are turned into fishmeal. Pet treats are a higher value commodity, and more and more processors are seeing the opportunities in that type of product.

“The neat thing is the form that you can produce off an extruder,” Sannito said. “The sky is the limit, depending on which shaped die you choose, so you could pump out little goldfish or licorice sticks or flat bars. And that gives you so much creativity. You could color it any way you wanted with food coloring. It’s a neat canvas of opportunity.” That’s where marketing will come in, finding consumer-friendly forms to take advantage of a constant stream of fish waste. “Think of all the skinless fish products that are sold in Alaska,” Sannito said.

For now, pollock-skin goldfish treats are not yet available at the local pet store, so Sable will have to keep visiting Sannito for her daily snack.