A bill that passed in the 2012 Oregon Legislature promises to deliver more fish to the Oregon Food Bank.
House Bill 4068 makes it legal for the food bank to pay fish processors to package unintentionally caught fish – aka bycatch – that can't be sold in the marketplace.
According to Mike Moran, food resource manager for Oregon Food Bank, the new rules will have the biggest payoff in salmon bycatch from commercial boats targeting Pacific whiting, a small fish used to make fake crab meat.
"It was a lot last year," said Moran. "We managed to recover 10,000 pounds of fish."
Roughly 4,000 salmon are caught inadvertently off the West Coast by fishermen targeting whiting, according to Chuck Tracy, a salmon manager with the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The boats are allowed to keep the salmon on board but can't sell them.
The whiting fishery salmon bycatch is controversial – especially in years when the ocean salmon fishery is shut down or scaled back to protect listed runs. Fishermen targeting salmon say it's unfair for other fisheries to continue taking salmon bycatch while the salmon fishery is struggling.
But as long as it's being brought to the docks, many argue, sending it to food banks ensures that someone can still benefit from the valuable protein. A nonprofit called Sea Share distributes bycatch to food banks from Washington and and Alaska fisheries.
But in order to make Oregon's bycatch available to the hungry, Moran said, someone needs to gut it, remove the heads and tails, and cut it into manageable pieces.
"That was one of the things that really drove home the need for this legislation," he said. " There was significant concern among processors that if they were going to process that fish for us, it would be illegal. Our only opportunity to get that fish was to utilize volunteers. That's just a lot of messy work for volunteers."
HB 4068 allows the food bank to pay a processor to do that job. Moran said the new law will benefit food banks in coastal communities, which will now be more likely to have locally caught bycatch on their food bank shelves.
"When you get into the smaller processors, it's a lot to ask for them to donate processing time," said Moran. "Now we can compensate the processor for their time, and even after paying for processing it's still a cheap source of protein."
Moran said the new groundfish catch shares eliminated most of the bycatch that used to be caught by trawlers off the Oregon coast. But he's hoping the food bank will one day be able to accept halibut bycatch from trawlers targeting bottomfish such as sole, rockfish and black cod. Right now groundfish trawlers are required to discard their halibut bycatch at sea, so the rules would have to change before that halibut could be processed for food banks.