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Hook, line, and sinker 

An innovative fish-composting project has run afoul of the rules

Using fish heads and fish carcasses to help crops grow well—an ancient practice that pre-dates the Pilgrims—is an idea that recently caught on in San Luis Obispo County.

People enthusiastically jumped on board this fall to make a fish-composting project happen in Morro Bay, resulting in safer pelicans, a cleaner estuary, and happy local organic farmers—till the old-fashioned idea ran into a modern-day snag.

- ROLY POLY FISH HEADS:  Crews on Virg’s Landing fishing boats in Morro Bay—including deckhand Matt Ottens, pictured—started collecting fish heads and carcasses to be composted by local organic farmers, rather than the age-old practice of tossing them overboard into the estuary. -  - PHOTO BY RUSS FERRIDAY/PACIFIC WILDLIFE CARE
  • ROLY POLY FISH HEADS: Crews on Virg’s Landing fishing boats in Morro Bay—including deckhand Matt Ottens, pictured—started collecting fish heads and carcasses to be composted by local organic farmers, rather than the age-old practice of tossing them overboard into the estuary.

The grassroots effort had been easily accomplished without funding or governmental input—and without awareness that the project would be frowned upon by authorities.

The story began at the Morro Bay Harbor Festival in early October, when the Pacific Wildlife Care booth received a report of several injured pelicans nearby. Volunteers Russ Ferriday, a Morro Bay software consultant, and his teenage daughter Rhiannon netted the injured birds to help them dislodge spiny fish carcasses stuck in their pouches.

Rhiannon realized the source of the bony hazards was the docked Virg’s Landing fishing boat, where deckhands were filleting the day’s catch and throwing the remains overboard to be scooped up by seabirds in a feeding frenzy. She approached the boat for a friendly showdown, eventually inviting the crew to see the many injured pelicans being rehabilitated by Pacific Wildlife Care.

“Pelicans have learned they can have an easy meal,” Russ Ferriday said in a later interview. “Their pouches are designed to scoop up slippery five-inch sardines or pilchards that slide down their throats. But foot-long rockfish spines are razor sharp, especially at the base of the head, and can puncture pelicans’ organs or get caught in their pouches, like swallowing a hairbrush.”

The fishing crewmembers’ recognition of the problem, and their contribution to it, was “a touching moment,” Ferriday said. Virg’s president Sharon Moores agreed to collect the fish heads and carcasses in special bins rather than tossing them into the bay.

Donations rolled in to buy tough plastic garbage cans, $600 worth, stenciled by willing volunteers with saltwater-proof lettering alerting fishermen about the Fish-to-Farm composting project. The bins sport a logo with a triangular recycling symbol, with arrows connecting a fish hook to a fish skeleton to an ear of corn.

Ferriday tracked down some local organic farmers who agreed to pick up the bins and compost the fish parts with sawdust to create a nitrogen-rich soil amendment for their crops. For a month or so, everything went smoothly.

“It was all kind of magic,” Moores said. “I know that sounds weird, but with the group intention, we made it happen. Now it’s changed the habits of the birds; they don’t gather around the boats anymore. It used to be that we’d be cleaning fish for the people in the boat, and pelicans would fly in so close to the knife. We just never thought that maybe there’d be a better way, that the birds would go somewhere else.”

Ferriday and others at Pacific Wildlife Care were thrilled with the success of the fish-composting project.

“Everybody came on board right away,” Ferriday said at the time. “There’s so much good will. It’s going from strength to strength. I think we’re making a change up and down the coast.”

Buoyed by the success of the Virg’s project in Morro Bay, he started working to expand the Fish-to-Farm composting program to Harford Pier in Avila. There, fish parts are dropped from the fish-cleaning station through a hole in the wharf to the water below.

Under the pier, pelicans, seagulls, and sea lions lunge to gobble up the fish heads and carcasses. But sea lions sometimes attack pelicans in competition for the food, biting the birds in the chest.

The resulting injury to pelicans, known as a keel wound, can damage a vital organ, described by Ferriday as something like bubble-wrap that absorbs the impact when a diving pelican hits the water. A pelican with a keel wound can starve to death, he said.

Solving that problem seemed a simple matter of placing specially marked bins on the pier and educating fishermen about the reasons for using them.

The Morro Bay Harbor Patrol, meanwhile, wanted to see the fish-composting project spread to commercial fishermen and fish processors, to stop fish parts from being thrown into Morro Bay Estuary where they can act as a pollutant.

And local organic farmers wanted to obtain more fish parts for composting, partly to avoid having to fertilize with animal waste from commercial feedlots.

With more bins needed for expansion of the successful Fish-to-Farm composting program, the Integrated Waste Management Authority—a local organization with representatives from SLO County and all seven cities—was asked for help. A few weeks ago, IWMA’s Peter Cron met on the Morro Bay waterfront with Ferriday from Pacific Wildlife Care, compost farmers, and representatives from the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol and the city.

“It all just changed completely in a pretty short time,” a dejected Ferriday said after the meeting.

State regulators consider fish parts to be commercial animal waste that needs special processing. The informal fish collecting and composting approach that had been so successful would have to be updated to comply with relevant rules.

   San Luis Tallow Company would truck the fish parts to its rendering plant in Salinas for “a small charge,” according to Phil Ottone, partner and manager with the tallow company. There, the fish parts would be “basically cooked and squeezed down into powder to make fish meal,” he explained.

But local organic farmers would be unlikely to benefit from the rich soil amendment made from local fish parts. The tallow company uses brokers to sell the fish meal in 50,000-pound bulk loads, Ottone said.

“It’s gone from ‘magic’ to tragic,” said one disappointed local compost farmer.

Now, IWMA is looking for a way to create a “viable, sustainable program so everybody wins,” said Cron, adding, “What they’re trying to do is incredibly noble. It needs to happen.”

Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached through Executive Editor Ryan Miller at


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