Alaska's Tartare and Burgers: Can We Learn to Save Wasted Fish?

Fish aren't just fillets that swim—and for seafood to be truly sustainable, consumers will need to learn to eat every part

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To some, the very idea of a meal using the discarded bits and unwanted ends of a major food industry evokes repulsion. In Alaska, I gorged on a banquet of bits and ends and it was nothing short of unforgettably delicious.

It's hard to imagine that many processors don't use the meat still on the bone of a sockeye salmon after sides have been cut off, or those bright-red sockeye bellies with their enticing lines of fat. When butchering my own fish—not a common occurrence, I'll admit, since fillets are easier to find and to use—what's left makes for great stock. But I was recently introduced to lots of other possibilities for the fishy "odd bits," and it was an eye-opener.

Before I tell you about my fantastic meal, I have to share where it came from. I was asked to keynote Global Food Alaska's biennial summit, and I used the opportunity to explore the nuances of the Alaskan seafood supply. Although I personally consume about a ton of seafood every year, and part of my job is to ensure our chefs have access to sustainable seafood, I went to Alaska unschooled. Two weeks ago, I got a brief look into a fascinating food trail.

In Cordova, in south-central Alaska, I met Scott Blake, CEO of Copper River Seafoods. A former commercial fisherman and the son of fishers, Blake cofounded the company in 1993 with three other fishermen.

We drove inland to the mouth of the 300-mile-long Copper River. Mountains on both sides and a massive glacier surround the spot where the 100-year-old Million Dollar Bridge connects the old copper mines to a transportation corridor. The setting easily rivals the beauty of the Grand Canyon.

It is also where the Department of Fish and Game monitors the numbers of returning salmon. As they pass by a mesh screen, their movement trips the sonar counter. F&G estimates quantities and determines allotments for commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen with these counts.

Fish is caught—trapped, really, given the low tides in which the boats rest and the nets that ensnare the salmon—by gill netters (30-foot boats) that generally off-load their catches with tenders, the larger boats that bring most salmon ashore.

One evening I watched while both gill netters and tenders unloaded their fish at the dock until 11 p.m. into giant 600-pound and 1,000-pound totes stacked by forklifts. As much as anything, this dock is an ice factory, designed to keep the fish at a constant cold temperature. During the salmon run (roughly mid-May through September, depending on species), the sun never sets and the dock is rarely idle.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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