Eighty tons of contested Bristol Bay salmon trashed in Anchorage landfill

All 158,318 of highly contested Bristol Bay salmon from the F/V Akutan has been thrown away in the Anchorage landfill. (Photo by Eric Keto/Alaska Public Media)

Some 158,318 pounds of highly contested Bristol Bay salmon from the F/V Akutan have reached their final destination: the Anchorage landfill.

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This summer, the custom processor was supposed to process up to 100,000 pounds of salmon a day for Bristol Bay Seafoods LLC, a small group of fishermen.

But nearly everything that could go wrong did. The vessel’s owner went broke, the crew wasn’t paid, and when 158,318 pounds of fish came off the boat in early September, the third-party testing group NSF declared it unfit for human or animal consumption.

Capt. Steve Lecklitner said the only test NSF ran on the fish was a sniff test, meaning the tester smelled the fish to determine it was bad.

“I kind of chuckled a little bit, but that’s how they’re certified,” Lecklitner said.

Lecklitner said a representative from Bristol Bay Seafoods selected the four 50-pound bags that NSF tested. That means less than a tenth of one percent of all the fish was tested.

Because the fish was so highly contested, Lecklitner said he suggested to the NSF tester that additional testing be done.

“She told me that full testing could be done, but it had to be contracted,” Lecklitner said. “Bristol Bay Seafoods LLC did not pay for that. They didn’t want the report released.”

NSF officials declined to comment for this story, saying they want to keep the testing confidential.

Pallets of detained fish from the F/V Akutan await transport to Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of William Earnhart/Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot)

In a statement, a lawyer representing Bristol Bay Seafoods said the company believes the fish was polluted sometime between an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) inspection in mid-August and when the fish was removed from the processor in early September.

“When the fish was unloaded, 25,000 pounds were visibly saturated with fuel,” the lawyer said. “[NSF] inspected the remaining fish and found all samples to be positive for diesel.”

The lawyer said it’s unclear whether the Akutan’s crew contaminated the fish on purpose or through negligence.

But Chief Engineer Decio Andrade said it wouldn’t make sense for the crew to destroy the fish, because their pay hinged on the fish going to market.

“To say that all the fish is condemned — that all the fish has diesel in it — that’s BS,” Andrade said. “There’s no way the diesel ever touched the fish.”

Both Andrade and Lecklitner believe Bristol Bay Seafoods wanted the fish to be found unsafe for consumption, because it allows the company to collect on an insurance claim for the fish’s full market value.

“If the fish is condemned, then Bristol Bay Seafoods has an insurance claim. They would receive all of it,” Lecklitner said. “If it went that way, then the crew would not get paid.”

Lecklitner said the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had liens on the fish. If it had sold, he said Bristol Bay Seafoods would not see any money. Instead, the funds would be used to pay the crew. The DOL has declined to comment until the case is closed.

In Alaska, DEC officials said it’s not unprecedented to have this much fish go to waste. Since 2014, the department has ordered more than 100,000 pounds of fish destroyed at least two other times.

In this case, Bristol Bay Seafoods said the Anchorage landfill was the only available disposal option in the state.

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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