What does sustainably sourced seafood and fresh frozen salmon really look like? And how do I get it, especially during a global pandemic?
Sitka Salmon Shares and the New Economy
For thousands of years, the salmon fisheries of the Northwest Coast have symbolized abundance, prosperity, and renewal, among many other representations, as a pillar of a deep connection to nature for humans living in the region. The history of reliance on fisheries of the Alaskan coasts and inlets, once and still a remote and often inhospitable region, is something you have to experience to appreciate. The passion for wild caught salmon in Alaska is as pervasive as knee-high XtraTufs, and despite all of the advances in processing over the years (from salting to canning to freezing), and at times over-fishing and myriad other environmental concerns (ahem, Exxon Valdez), Alaska’s fisheries remain healthy and intact, and most believe the State of Alaska does a good job at managing a coveted global resource.
One of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, Alaska not only supplies most of the world’s wild-caught salmon, but it’s a place local people can actually still subsist on foraged and hunted food sources. This was the most striking and appealing thing that stood out to me as I learned more about the region, cooked with some local (and national) chefs, and got to know some Alaskans, who were not nearly as gruff as I might have expected. Even having grown up in an agrarian environment in Appalachia, the access to splendidly healthy and plentiful foraged food in Alaska is unrivaled.
Nestled on the protected west side of Baranof Island, part of the Alaska Panhandle, lies a particular fishing town with a population of about 8,000 (in 2010) called Sitka. In many ways representative of the beauty and opportunity of the complex coastline of southeast Alaska and the 300-mile long Alexander Archipelago, Sitka was the location of the transfer ceremony for the Alaska purchase (when Russia sold the U.S. the region) on October 18, 1867, and remained the U.S. government capital through 1906.
Now, as a lifelong outdoors person, having never been to Alaska was a gaping hole in my adventure resume. So when I had the opportunity to be introduced to the culture and the region through some friends at Sitka Salmon Shares, a small fishing company that has been redefining small-batch Alaskan salmon fishing and exporting in a modern way, I jumped at the opportunity. For those of you and my many friends who have been fishing and climbing and paddling and skiing for years in Alaska, I remain humbly impressed and jealous.
For an immersive, up-to-date, history of Alaska (including some of the honest talk about the history of expansionism, racism, and greed), I highly recommend a visit to the state museum in Juneau while visiting the area. This facility has one of the largest permanent exhibits on climate change in the world. It’s actually more of a virtual planetarium, with dynamic digital maps of every scenario stretching across decades and centuries laid over a room-sized globe. I found warming oceans to be a common thread of conversation in Alaska, sometimes while literally standing in front of a rapidly shrinking glacier. Juneau is not unlike other fishing towns and villages in the area, with its own unique features and history of course: not only the state capital, but interestingly as a major cruise ship port and the largest town in North America that you can’t drive to from another town, you have to fly or boat in.
Along with modern media figures such as the Salmon Sisters, Sitka Salmon Shares has helped reshape a picture of commercial Alaskan fishing, tapping into a nationwide food- and farm-to-table movement over the last decade, and an increasingly caring, sharing global economy where people value quality and story over price, and almost anything is possible with dry ice and FedEx. Self-styled foodie, chef, and vice president of Sitka Salmon Shares, Marsh Skeele grew up in Sitka, fishing with his dad and his family since he could walk. “I’ve always commercial fished,” he says. “I left for a while, went to school, came back in 2009, bought my own boat in 2010, and that’s when I met my business partner Nic Mink, who was finishing his PhD in sustainable foods.”
When Mink got his first job teaching at Knox College in Illinois, Skeele sent fish down to him for an environmental non-profit dinner, and making that connection between the fisherman to the people in a direct line was a classic lightbulb moment.
That connection is what struck me as well, as we started out by boat into the misty, ancient waters in that strange archipelago, with islands popping up around every corner, incredible wildlife on land, sea and sky presenting displays of life for your entertainment. We pulled up alongside Marsh’s dad’s boat where he and his sister, back in town from Hawaii, were pulling in salmon from a hook-and-line rig on a 36-foot gillnetter/longliner boat. Even watching another boat unload its catch at the dock earlier that day, just a captain and his helper, a cousin, knowing that each one of these fish actually has to be caught and pulled from these waters by hand, you remember this gleaming pink life force doesn’t just magically show up on your plate at a restaurant in Kansas or in Las Vegas, and much of the salmon even at a Whole Foods for example can have questionable labeling and handling. At some point someone has to get blood on their hands. At least you hope they do, if you want to know where your fish comes from.
“We rely on healthy marine and freshwater habitats, our salmon need healthy wild rivers,” says Skeele, “We live here and play in them and harvest subsistence food from them, but it also produces all of the fish for our business.” Skeele says the ecosystems where he grew up are amazingly robust and productive, allowing fishermen to take up to 10 or 20 percent of the fish every year and not hurt the overall stock. Watching the swarms of salmon throughout the inlet as we explored by boat and by foot, it’s difficult to imagine what the salmon runs must have looked like before commercial fishing.
After that first successful environmental dinner, and with the help of some of Nic’s graduate students, the direct-to-consumer concept for Sitka Salmon was born, and Skeele, who already had family in the Midwest, went down to help grow a business that, while it has many small competitors now, was a pretty unique model in the beginning. “I got to meet the people who bought my fish, and it was super exciting because I was connecting the fish to the people eating it. I was getting a better price for my fish and making this connection, seeing people get really excited on the customer end. It became clear that this was what I believe in, and I’ve been running it ever since,” Skeele continues. “I was the first fisherman owner, and that’s what makes us different: fisherman ownership, and owning our own processor, for us to have total control. Fish is super perishable. Every part of the handling process really matters.”
With a focus on traceability and paying their fishermen a higher dock price, Skeele’s fanaticism for quality is immediately apparent. They always know who caught it, how it was caught, and how that fishery is managed, because to get really good fish, he says, you have to be really involved.
When it comes to the company’s now 22 owner-fishermen, Skeele says this concept has only elevated what they do. “We’re paying a premium for them to handle the fish better, to go on shorter trips, and to make sure they’re well chilled. For our guys it’s not all about catching more in volume, and we work with people that understand taking the time to take care of their catch.” Skeele says it becomes a less transactional, more long- term relationship. “As we were growing it was difficult and expensive to build the infrastructure, going through bumps in the economy, it’s harder to have these long term relationships. But now we’re in a strong place.”
In 2015 they took on a lot more fishermen-investors and were paying more than double the going dock price. They also began publishing their minimum annual prices, something a lot of processors don’t do. They believe this is the best way to make it as a small scale fisherman, and Sitka Salmon essentially upends the global commodity market in this way — which becomes even more significant during a pandemic when there’s no fish moving through restaurants. It creates a stable marketplace.
They’ve also put a focus on storytelling and building community, even before those were marketing buzzwords, providing vetted recipes and cooking tips, and connecting with the fishermen, chefs and others to help get the story out in an authentic way. And this is enabling consumers with a ton of information that had previously been missing from the marketplace. I learned more about the five species of salmon, fish handling and cooking in a week in Alaska than I had my whole life.
“We only want to source fish that we feel good about in how it’s harvested. The state of Alaska does a great job, but we don’t want to harvest fisheries that we don’t feel good about,” skeele continues.
“We don’t use the word ‘sustainable’ as much any more because it’s been so co-opted, but, as responsible as possible. Stocks are abundant enough to handle fishing pressure, but we won’t harvest something that’s barely eking by. So we can substitute another species, but it’s not just like you buy a bunch of fish and store it and send it out when people order it. It’s more like a CSA,” he says. “We’re shipping what we catch as quickly as possible. If there’s a bad weather stretch or a run of fish has a bad season in an area we are counting on, we can work with the rest of the fishermen and with the State and see what’s a good replacement. That’s a big part of my job, is keeping people happy with it. We’re finding a seasonal balance and we ship it efficiently so that it’s low carbon.”
Skeele says customers (members) are extremely understanding about any fluctuation in species, and in fact, from my personal experience, it’s actually a good thing. It allows you to explore other types of fish and seafood you may have never cooked before. When you sign up for Sitka Salmon Shares, you’re signing up for little boats to go out and catch your fish, so don’t be surprised if a certain run of Sockeye out of Copper River isn’t doing well, you may end up with a Coho or a different run of Sockeye from Haynes, a Chilcoot sockeye, or a Sitka Coho salmon.
“Our fishermen know their future is in having an artisanal product, not a global commodity, that overall doesn’t really work that well for them,” Skeele says, “They’re trying their best to catch a lot of fish, and everything else goes up, but the value of the fish stays stagnant. A steady price makes their operations viable; they see that and they’re excited about it.”
Grabbing a nice fat medium sized sockeye off of Skeele’s dad’s boat, we head to a secluded inlet nearby with an old Forest Service cabin overlooking the shore. Some of our group heads off to forage for mushrooms, salmon berries, wild blueberries, and beach asparagus or sea beans, others tend to the fire, prep veggies, while some of us looked on in awe as sharp knives were drawn to prepare the fish. Watching Skeele and Chef Justin Chapple prepare the fish felt like I was back in Japan, seeing someone so focused on perfection, on providing something amazing for us to eat, having just pulled it from the waters of his home, cemented in me an appreciation for this food source and this lifestyle that I’ll always remember and continue to seek out.
–Elevation Outdoors contributing editor Aaron H. Bible is based out of Nederland, the Alaska of Colorado. Follow his adventures on Instagram @definitelywild.