I was out there on the deck throwing these big, perfectly good fish—15-pound chinook salmon—over the rail,” recalls Tuck Donnelly of the day in 1991 when inspiration hit, just out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. At the time, Donnelly was the operations manager of a boat that was licensed to catch only pollack and cod. A small number of salmon and other fish were routinely caught by accident, and federal law, to prevent their being sold, required such fish, though dead, to be dumped over the side. The waste “was really aggravating,” says Donnelly. “I was talking to a deckhand, and he said, ‘Man, this is nuts.’ ”
Donnelly agreed—and did something about it. After a two-year fight to convince skeptical industry and government officials, Donnelly obtained a special permit to collect salmon caught out of season—known as by-catch—and give them to food banks across the country. In 1996 he won a fight to do the same with halibut. With 55 Alaskan fishing vessels and 30 seafood processors pitching in, his nonprofit Northwest Food Strategies has donated a whopping 3 million pounds of fish since 1994. “Other than the federal government,” the 49-year-old father of two says proudly, “we’re the single largest source of protein for hunger relief in this country.”
Initially, Donnelly, who quit his seafaring job to run the nonprofit group, was swimming upstream. Industry members feared he might create, he says, “a secret black market for prohibited fish.” Such a market might cause fishermen to chase out-of-season salmon and halibut and damage the breeding populations. Donnelly argued that the risks could be managed and that the potential rewards were great. “The by-catch rate for a vessel fishing for pollack is probably less than 1 percent,” Donnelly says. “But when we’re talking about catching a million fish a day, that’s a lot of fish.”
In 1993, Donnelly was granted an experimental permit to test his idea and persuaded boats, processors, cold-storage operators and transporters to donate their services. Second Harvest, the nation’s largest food-bank network, agreed to distribute the frozen fish steaks to shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries. Undercover federal agents made sure Donnelly ran a tight ship. “They went to food banks trying to buy fish, trying to find holes in the system,” he says he later learned.
They found none, and Northwest Food Strategies—which Donnelly and one assistant run from a tiny office near Donnelly’s Bainbridge Island, Wash., home—won permanent permission to harvest by-catch fish soon after. Food banks, increasingly strapped by welfare reform and an increase in the number of working poor, welcome the fish bonanza—far healthier than staple proteins such as government surplus cheese, peanut butter and low-grade meat. “The nutritional boost is phenomenal,” says Linda Nageotte, executive director of Seattle’s Food Lifeline. “This literally has the potential to change the face of hunger in the nation.”
Now, Donnelly often travels the country to teach food-bank employees and food recipients how to cook fish (“The simplest preparation is the best,” he says). It’s second nature to the Pasadena, Calif.-raised sea lover, who eats fish four or five times a week with his wife, Jax, 49, a homemaker, and their children Rachel, 10, and James, 7. The son of a lawyer and a homemaker, Donnelly started a charter-boat business after college in 1980 to take scientists and tourists along the coasts of California and Mexico. He later worked as the chief mate on a marine research vessel that studied the ocean floor and in 1989 began managing a 270-foot boat that catches and processes fish, the American Dynasty.
Donnelly took a pay cut to run his donation-fueled organization, which is now expanding to Washington, Oregon and California. His family doesn’t mind—Jax recently heard their kids chatting with some friends: “One boy said, ‘My dad’s a lawyer, and he makes a lot of money,’ ” she recalls. “Another child said, ‘My dad’s a doctor, and he makes a lot of money.’ And Rachel said, ‘My dad feeds hungry people.’ That felt really neat.”
Johnny Dodd on Bainbridge Island