Bring Out Your Dead: Donation of fish carcasses supports community

Guest Author: Henry Hershey
Editor: Patrick Cooney

Open up the chest freezer at a fish biology  lab and you will find a frosty collection of funky smelling specimens: maybe an old green sunfish that did not quite break the state record, or a tote full of rotten walleye from an old gillnet survey. To a biologist these may seem useless, and they can often be environmentally and economically costly to dispose of. However, these by-products of fisheries science can have several uses that make them valuable.


One of these uses is compost. As a technician last summer, I began a partnership between the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Station and the Community Greenhouse Partners (CGP) in Cleveland. Instead of paying for a dumpster service to bring our waste fish to a landfill, we decided to take them to this 501c3 urban farm who were grateful to have them.


At CGP, Tim Smith will use the compost created by these rotting fish carcasses for several cool projects.  Mr. Smith said, “At Community Greenhouse Partners, we have a large composting area where we are breaking down wood chips and leaf mulch in a hugelkultur setting. We buried 300-400 lbs. of donated fish underneath a huge pile of leaf mulch in order to inoculate the mulch with a heavy dose of nitrogenous material, and to attract earthworms and other positive biological agents to break down the fish into matter that was suitable for inclusion into our raised beds.”


By burying these giant fish-sicles (pictured above) under his already substantial compost pile he will be able to supply his urban farm with a source of slow-released phosphorus and nitrogen, two very important elements for plant growth. He is also planning to teach locals about ancestral indigenous planting techniques by burying Lake Erie gizzard shad in a 3 sisters garden. Additionally, he can use the compost to heat his greenhouses, which will allow him to hydroponically grow greens to feed his community (the Hough Neighborhood) year round.

It’s not just in Ohio that waste fish are being re-used. Thanks to some outreach on twitter, using the hashtag #fishsci, I was able to hear from other fish biologists about how their wastes and byproducts get re-used. Wisconsin Sea Grant published a how-to on fish composting back in the ‘80s that works at multiple scales. What’s amazing is that the Lake Michigan fish they used had PCB levels up to 5ppm and there was no detectable trace of PCB in either the fish compost produced, or the plants that were grown in it. Composting is just one of the ways in which fish can serve stakeholders, even after they’ve been studied and discarded by laboratories.

Donating Fish

Another use for these recyclable rejects is as food for rehabilitating animals. The group that I reached out to in Ohio is the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, home to the Kenneth A. Scott Wildlife Education & Rehabilitation Program, which aids and assists ill and injured wild animals. At LENSC, Tim Jasinski will use game fish caught from fall gill-net surveys to feed birds and small carnivores that he rehabilitates. He will feed cormorants, gulls, foxes and more with several of Ohio’s game fish that would have otherwise gone to waste. Thanks to these nutritious meals of smallmouth bass, perch, and walleye, Tim will be able to teach visitors at the center about the ecological importance of fish as prey for Lake Erie’s predators. He will also save a few bucks on food!

Mike Greener/Chronicle  Montana Raptor Conservation Center's resident bald eagle called, "99", feeds on fresh trout in Bozeman. The center is seeking donations of fish to feed their growing number of birds in captivity.

My hope is that this article motivates fish biologists and anglers around the world to find people in their community who can make something useful out of their smelly specimens. Look for 501c3 organizations in your area that compost or feed rehabilitating wildlife. Maybe you are creative and can think of even more uses. If you run into bureaucratic hurdles and paperwork that we so often do in our field, try your best to get through them. The benefits of these partnerships are worth it: increased outreach, community development, sustainability, reduced-cost waste management and best of all, more food for everyone (including our furry and feathered friends).

Here are the links to the aforementioned 501c3 organizations’ websites:
Community Greenhouse Partners

Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

Meet the Guest Author: Henry Hershey


I am a Graduate Research Assistant pursuing my Master’s in Fisheries at Auburn University in Alabama. I earned a bachelor’s in Biology and Environmental Studies from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, OH and have worked as a fisheries technician for three different agencies, including one in Ohio and two in Alaska.

My thesis work will revolve largely around measuring the physiological costs of passing dams for large-bodied fishes (i.e. paddlefish, smallmouth buffalo). Our project will be using coded electromyogram tags and acoustic and radio telemetry to track fish passage, and large swim tanks to test fish swimming performance against different flow rates.

In the past, I was heavily involved with research at CWRU, doing multiple independent research projects in aquatic ecology and fisheries. I’ve also had the pleasure of working two field seasons as a fisheries technician in Alaska, as well as one on Lake Erie in Ohio.

My scientific interests are fairly broad, but I’m most interested in how humans affect fishes’ habitats, behavior, physiology, life histories, and phenologies both in the present and future. I am hoping to contribute to the community’s ability to model the impacts of climate change and dams on ecosystems and fisheries. Other interests of mine include human dimensions of conservation, environmental ethics, and sustainable agri/aquaculture.

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