By Margaret Bauman
Concern for the ecosystem, coupled with the hard reality that a good portion of wild caught seafood is being wasted and the federal government may not put up with it much longer is prompting increased effort to make full utilization of Alaska fish.
“Long term, people are going to see the whole fish, that there is something to do with every part of it,” says Richard Mullins, a partner with Patrick Simpson, president of Scientific Fishery Systems, Inc., in Anchorage, in a project on Southcentral Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to extract nutritious oils and also find uses for the viscera of wild salmon.
“In the Lower 48, there is no dumping of fish wastes,” said Mullins, who grew up in Cordova and has been in the fish business for most of his life, first as a harvester in Bristol Bay, the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound, and later in sales for a seafood company.
When the Clean Water Act was first enacted, Alaska got a waiver on dumping fish wastes, he said. Now the EPA is rethinking that issue, which presents a challenge, but also an opportunity for those involved in Alaska’s fishing industry.
So Mullins and Simpson, who grew up together in Cordova, began looking into such opportunities about three years ago.
This summer they have again leased space at Kenai Landing, a popular historical waterfront area on a 90-year-old converted cannery site, for the second year of their project aimed at reducing fish waste while producing product of economic value. Mullins and Simpson are already working with the nutritional supplement market in the Lower 48, to sell human grade salmon oil extracted from salmon heads.
They are also looking at options for the slurry made from the viscera.
Mullins credits the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute for its efforts to promote wild Alaska salmon, and spreading the world that salmon oil is good for one’s health.
What to do with the slurry is still undecided, given the high cost of transportation, Mullins said. “If you are in Juneau and make fish fertilizer the only people who can afford it are the people in Juneau. Others in the industry are mixing the fish hydrolysate with peat moss, making fishmeal or using it as direct fertilizer in organic gardens.
The work is exciting, but it has been an enormous amount of work and the reward is still out in the distance, he said. “We are still hoping for that record. Long term, my goal is to find creative ways to take care of it and help the industry be a good steward of the resource,” he said. “That’s what I see in Kenai. The processors we have dealt with there understand being a steward of the resource.”
This summer Scientific Fishery Systems will be collecting salmon heads from three major area processors: Snug Harbor Seafood, Inc.; Pacific Star Seafoods and Salamatof Seafoods Inc.
Once the heads are ground up, they will go through a steam-injection process to cook the ground up pieces, which will then be separated into solids, oil and water. The oil will be further refined before it is shipped out, while the solids will be frozen for further use later by dog food manufacturers and the water discharged into the Kenai River.
“Our facility is fairly small,” Mullins said. “It is not designed to take everything that comes into a community. This is more than a pilot project, but not able to handle 100 percent of the waste coming into this community. We need to go at a pace that makes sense for the equipment we have and the market that we are developing.
“Our goal is to develop the market, and we are building that slowly. Long term we would love to utilize all the (fish) waste being produced in the community.
The project got a financial boost from a US Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research grant. The first $75,000 was for concept planning and design and the next $350,000 was used for deployment and demonstration of the waste-utilization process.
“Our goal is to look at it (fish wastes) as a food source rather than an energy course,” he said. “We work with others who understand that other part of the market.
With the viscera, last summer we didn’t have a lot of samples at the end of the season, but this year we will try to figure out different things,” he said.
In Alaska’s Matanuska Valley, meanwhile, an assistant professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks is doing basic research on how parts of fish currently regarded as waste can be utilized.
“I do a very uncommon type of work, proof of concept,” said Andy Soria, whose expertise is in chemical conversion of biomass. “Essentially what I was after was the possibility of contributing to reducing an actual very significant waste in terms of volume dumped into the ocean untreated, and see if there are benefits of doing that,” he said.
“I try to invent things that have not worked in the past, or things that don’t exist.”
So Soria, who hails from Costa Rica, works on research and development, but not deployment. He can determine if an idea for a product will work, but not whether it will be environmentally or economically feasible.
”In Alaska alone, there are 100,000 metric tons of salmon wastes dispersed into the ocean each year,” he said. “The waste is so massive that it can’t decompose into fish food,” he said. “There are underground mountains of fish waste.”
So he has been experimenting with mixing fish waste and the sawdust of coastal alder or black spruce to create pellets. The mixture of fish and sawdust is compressed and placed inside a gasifier to produce a natural gas equivalent.
The gasification process breaks down the biomass into smaller molecules to the point where they are gases and those gases are combustible, so you create in a single machine a natural gas equivalent, and that gas can be used for all sorts of things,” he said.
The pellets can accommodate up to 25 percent wet fish slurry and still retain heating value. The ideal proportion of salmon fish slurry-a mixture of guts, heads, tails and viscera with a moisture content of 70 percent is 20 percent of the total pellet.
“In practice, reducing 20 percent, or 20,000 metric tons, of wastes that are dumped into the ocean is a very positive thing,” he said. The pellets smell like a fresh fishy river, rather than rotting fish. “It looks like wood and smells like fish,” he said.
Soria’s work at the Renewable-based Hydrocarbons Lab at the Palmer Center for Sustainable Living, has been on a small scale. “My research is focused on proof of concept – can it be done. Can I take fish waste as it comes out and produce energy?”
The advantage of using it as an energy resource in canneries is you are replacing petroleum fuel that is carbon positive. If done right, you will not emit excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere beyond what the natural system can absorb.
“The results have been very positive,” he said. “We can use an industrial waste product, a natural resource for Alaska, as high-quality feed stock and provide heat to the cannery. They can reap the benefits of excess waste and offset operating costs by displacing the diesel fuel needed to run the cannery operations.”
He is aware that canneries would have to make a capital investment to set up such a system.
Soria’s own research funding ended recently, but if he could obtain further funding, he would like to continue the project, he said. “I did this entire project for less than $50,000. With another $50,000 I can answer all of those questions,” he said.
Among those questions are the emissions profiles and ash composition of the energy resource.
A report on his research was published online on March 29 in “Energy and Fuels,” an online publication of the American Chemical Society, Soria said.
Margaret Bauman can be reached at email@example.com.