Social media post criticizes Trident Seafoods, Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet for halibut bycatch

(Photo Courtesy of Erik Velsko)

A fisherman based out of Homer posted images on social media of halibut bycatch headed for the grinder at Kodiak’s Trident Seafoods processing plant.

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The post got a lot of attention online and sparked criticism of Trident, the Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet and a body that regulates the commercial fishing industry.

A conveyor belt whisks bright red fish with bulging, quarter-sized eyes and spiny fins past workers inside Kodiak’s Trident Seafoods processing plant.

“Today we’re processing rockfish caught in the waters around Kodiak, ” Paul Lumsden, plant manager for Trident Seafoods operations in Kodiak, said.

Trident is the largest primary processor of seafood in the United States and is heavily invested in Alaska.

“We’re a company built by fishermen for fishermen and we don’t just buy pollock or cod or crab or salmon or halibut, we buy everything that we can sustainably harvest and feed the world with. Halibut is a very important part of our business,” Lumsden said.

Longtime fisherman Erik Velsko says if Trident really cares about halibut and sustainability some things need to change.

Velsko recently called out Trident on Facebook posting photos and video of excessive halibut bycatch at the plant that appeared to be from the local trawl fishery and which was going to be turned into fishmeal.

An overview of rock fish being sorted by workers at the Trident Seafoods plant assembly line in Kodiak, Alaska on Saturday May 27, 2018. (Photo by Daysha Eaton / KMXT)

“Totes full of halibut and you know obviously they had some markings and looked a little damaged. They were not gutted or dressed, as we call ‘em, longline – so the only place they could have come off of was a trawl vessel,” Velsko said.

In all, Velsko alleges there were around 15 totes, each containing about one thousand pounds of fish. The images were taken in fall 2017, when a fellow fisherman captured them but wanted to remain anonymous, so Velsko posted the images to his Facebook page this May with a paragraph alleging wastefulness.

“I just threw it up there not really thinking anything of it and the next thing I knew it was all kinds of people commenting and re-sharing it,” Velsko said.

At last check, Velsko’s post had been shared more than 500 times.

The Trident plant in Kodiak processes many varieties of fish from all gear types. The majority of the fish processed at the plant is pollock. But they also process a significant amount of fish caught with bottom trawl gear such as pacific cod, flatfish (like rock sole, arrowtooth flounder, rex sole, and flathead sole) and rockfish. Bottom trawling involves pulling a net along the ocean floor. Sometimes they haul up halibut too.

“Every fishery has some element of bycatch and it is impossible to just catch exactly what you’re after,” Julie Bonney said. Bonney is the Executive Director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank and a paid advocate for the trawl fishery.

Rock Fish on the Trident Seafoods plant assembly line in Kodiak, Alaska on Saturday May 27, 2018. (Photo by Daysha Eaton / KMXT)

Bonney says the trawl fishery operates under strict regulations. They’re not allowed to keep a single halibut. She says most are discarded at sea, but ones that aren’t sorted out end up at the processing plant.

“The plant is required to enumerate every one of those fish and it goes on a fish ticket. NOAA enforcement examines every fish ticket and if they feel that the vessel was egregious in terms of their sorting practices, then that vessel will get a monetary fine,” Bonney said.

Bonney said there is an overall bycatch cap of 1,705 tons for the Gulf trawl fishery. It is hard to tell, she added, whether the halibut that appears in Velsko’s Facebook post was collected into those blue totes over one delivery or many deliveries of hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish headed for market.

The Trident plant manager also saw Velsko’s post.

“I did see the photos, yes,” Lumsden said. “And that was alarming to me. It was disheartening to say the least.”

But Lumsden says the images were taken out of context.

“The frustrating thing is when you see a 30-second video like that and you don’t know the background,” Lumsden said. “When that video shows a full tote, a thousand pounds of fish being dumped into a truck [it] gives a false representation like there is just tote after tote after tote after tote and that is simply not the case.”

Velsko, the fisherman who posted the video, says he believes what is happening with halibut at the Trident plant in Kodiak is legal, but immoral and wasteful, and it was especially upsetting to him in light of recent restrictions on the halibut fishery due to conservation concerns.

And Velsko says there’s a reason that he waited six months to post the photos and video. He wanted the issue to be front and center at the upcoming meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which is scheduled to take place in Kodiak June 4 – 11. A report about observer coverage is on the agenda.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.