Seafood processor Trident hit with EPA fines

— -- One of the world's largest seafood processors has been hit with millions in penalties for Clean Water Act violations involving seafood waste that piles up on the sea floor off Alaska, creating oxygen-depleted dead zones.

With more than 20 production facilities in Alaska, Trident Seafoods of Seattle has been fined $2.5 million in civil penalties and must spend more than $30 million to settle Clean Water Act violations, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

"We anticipate it could change the way the seafood industry does business up there," says the Environmental Protection Agency's Ed Kowalski. .

Trident violated the Clean Water Act 480 times from 2005 to 2009 at 15 of its facilities, the EPA said.

Trident's Alaska plants process seafood such as pollock, salmon, herring, cod and crab into fillets and meat, turning the leftover portions of the bodies into fish meal that's used as feed at fish farms.

When the meat has been removed, the resulting bones and scraps are spun in a centrifuge to remove excess water, says Joe Plesha, Trident's chief legal officer. The resulting liquid is passed through a screen. "You'll have small particles of protein that escape from the screen and are discharged into the water," he says.

Those tiny bits of protein are at the heart of the consent degree. When they are discharged into Alaska's bays and inlets, they settle on the sea floor, covering it with a thin film of fish paste. The piles range from 1 acre to 90 acres.

Microbes feeding on the protein experience population explosions and use up all the oxygen, creating dead zones where fish and other marine organisms cannot live.

While some of the waste piles are just a thin film, others are "a massive carpet of gelatinous goo," says EPA's Tara Martich.

The consent degree requires that Trident construct a fish-meal plant to recycle seafood processing waste at its large pollock-processing facility in Naknek, Alaska. It must also put in place systems to reduce seafood processing waste at five other plants.

The company must also conduct underwater assessments to see how much seafood waste has piled up and may be required to remove those piles.

The actions "will be better for the environment," Plesha says. "And it's another way to utilize every ounce of protein from every fish."