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


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.

I went to the plant the next morning at 6 a.m. Dozens of gloved workers were getting the still-iced fish ready for smoking or slicing into sides. They cut off heads and extracted innards, or separated roe and milt from the rest of the salmon. Late that afternoon, Scott and I flew to Anchorage. The salmon, still gleaming but now headless and gutted, journeyed by boat to the same place.

The following morning I went to the company's Anchorage headquarters with Robin Richardson, CEO of Global Food-Connect. We got a tour of the facility where the salmon is cut into sides, pin bones are removed (by machine and by hand), and sides are packed, inspected, boxed, and loaded onto a refrigerated truck for delivery throughout the "lower 48."

After the tour, I was treated to a banquet lunch of five "odds and ends" that most processors toss out: sockeye salsa, a tartare of raw salmon, cilantro, onions, and tomato, and 100-percent salmon burgers, both scraped from the bones of grade A sockeye; halibut and cod cheeks fried in a crunchy batter; and crispy sockeye bellies, enjoyed like ribs and eaten with two hands. The meal was extraordinary. Why do so few people eat this stuff? For a big plant, the bits may represent up to 10,000 pounds a day, yet just a fraction of what they produce. Consumers have grown to expect not only a limited set of seafood species (salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp), but a limited range of shapes and cuts as well. That's what retailers buy from processors. (Or perhaps retailers offer a limited range, and that's why consumers now expect them.) The odds and ends rarely get to where consumers can try or buy them. Eaters are missing tremendous flavor, and the world's hungry are missing lots of protein.

For a fish processor, not selling the bits means they're losing potential income and incurring high disposal costs. While it's natural to think that the bits become cat food, the reality is that most doesn't. Pet food companies pay rock-bottom prices. Most processors don't produce enough seafood bits to make it worthwhile for either party. Composters, where they exist, love off-cuts for their soil-enriching capability, but they pay nothing.

It hit home on this trip that most Alaskan mythology centers on fishermen, but they're just one part of how seafood gets to our dinner plates. Romanticizing only the harvesting stage may prevent us from improving everything else. Perhaps it's time to recognize the contributions made by all parts of the supply chain and the challenges each face. It may be the only way we will fully utilize the fisheries' great resources.

Image: Helene York