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Making the Most of Arrowtooth Flounder

"You catch it; we'll use it," is the slogan of the fish folks down at the University of Alaska's Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak. Their job is to make the most of what fishermen pull out of Alaska's waters. They even salvage the arrowtooth flounder, a fish that turns positively pulpy when cooked.

Arrowtooth flounders are the 10-pound cousins of halibut, the tasty fish that hug the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska in vast numbers. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that when fish are ranked by weight, arrowtooth flounder take the gold medal for the species with the most biomass in the Gulf of Alaska.

Although there's a bunch of arrowtooth flounder in the gulf, they haven't been fishermen favorites because the flounders' flesh doesn't react well to the heat of cooking. In the frying pan, the arrowtooth turns to mush. Generally, people won't buy a fish that cooks into the texture of oatmeal.

The problem with arrowtooth flounder is that its flesh contains an enzyme called protease that begins digesting protein when the fish hits the stove top. A few months ago, FITC Assistant Professor Gour Choudhury invented a rapid-heating process that deactivates the protease, and may make the flounder more palatable.

Another way to beat the flaccid flesh problem is to avoid using the fish as a fillet. The arrowtooth flounder can be good eating as surimi, moldable meat that is used to make imitation crab legs, or it can be turned into a powder that is used as a protein supplement for both people and livestock.

Jerry Babbitt, an NMFS scientist working at FITC, is collaborating with the Kodiak-based business International Seafoods of Alaska to hone a process that turns fish into powder in just 20 minutes. Babbitt describes the process like this:

"Arrowtooth flounder are de-headed, gutted, and then ground up. Flesh is separated from skin and bone, then cooked. A spinning centrifuge removes most of the oil and water from the cooked fish, which is then quickly dried. What's left is a white powder that can be 96 to 97 percent protein."

A test of the powdered flounder was recently performed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Agricultural and Forestry Experimental Station. Farm workers fed three-week old piglets, which are just-weaned animals with quite a craving for protein, a diet of about 75 percent Alaska barley, 14 percent flounder powder, and other minerals and vitamins.

Fred Husby, acting dean of UAF's School of Agriculture and Land Resources Management, said the piglets did just fine eating the powdered arrowtooth flounder, which was substituted for traditional feed protein sources of dried whey and soybean meal. He also pointed out that the piglets gobbled an almost all-Alaska product: barley grown in the Interior and dusted flounder from the Gulf of Alaska.

International Seafoods of Alaska also sells the powder overseas as a human diet supplement. People in South America, Africa, and Europe buy the powder to mix with other foods. It can even stand alone as a main entree; when it's mixed with water, a little salt and then microwaved, the powder reconstitutes into minced fish.

The more uses for arrowtooth flounder, the better, according to Scott Smiley, director of FITC. The fish are voracious predators, who eat lots of valuable crab, pollock, and cod. While the numbers of crab and other fish species have dropped in the last 20 years, the arrowtooth flounder population has increased six or seven times.

"We'd like to see people pursuing these fish to bring some sense of balance back to the ecosystem," Smiley said.

In other words, there is plenty of room for new kinds of fish stories from the Gulf.