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Know Our Fisherman

Sitka Salmon Shares

Where once there was a murmur, now there is a roar. The local food movement in urban and suburban communities around the nation is gaining ground like never before. From community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) to home-delivered meal kits to farmers’ markets, pop-up kitchens and community cooking classes, the local food movement is indeed moving and shaking things up for the megalith that is the spoiled and expired industrial food system.

Somewhere in between this good food movement, you will find another growing industry—the small-boat fishing bands of a community supported fishery (CSF). From the East to West Coasts and even in the land-locked Midwest, companies like Dock to Dish, Sea to Table and Sitka Salmon Shares are connecting people directly with their fishermen and the harvest of truly sustainable seafood, showing the country that small-boat fishing with a triple bottom line (an accounting framework with three parts: social, environmental and financial) is indeed scalable. By connecting multigenerational fishermen directly with the consumer, CSFs have taken ethical fishing beyond sustainable and into a new echelon of traceable/sustainable, meaning the consumers have the opportunity to actually “know their fisherman” and share in their line-caught bounty.

Traceability is the new sustainability and the result is transparency. For some CSFs, transparency means the actual name of the fishing vessel and the fisherman who caught the fish is labeled on the box and delivered right to their customers’ doors. This means there are no fish brokers, middlemen, grocery store shelves or species mislabeling. So then, what does one do when struck with the opportunity to know a fisherman? Well, one might ask them some questions.

This changes the way we consider the seafood we eat, moving from asking what a fisherman can catch to what did they catch and how did they catch it. Within this is a myriad of information to consider, from quality control to fish handling, health benefits and the harvesting practices of true sustainable species like albacore tuna, coho salmon and rockfish. Without these higher level questions, a disconnect is created between the oceans and its people. In fact, according to Paul Greenberg, the leading journalist and researcher of American seafood, more than 85 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad, but one-third of the seafood Americans catch gets sold to other countries. Even more bizarrely, we send some fish, like pollock and salmon,  halfway around the world only to have it processed in Asia and then shipped right back to us.

Furthermore, we export millions of tons of wild, mostly Alaskan, salmon overseas and import mostly farmed salmon from abroad. In fact, two-thirds of the salmon we eat is farm raised. This is a staggering number considering salmon is a wild, open ocean predator species that should have never been penned and farmed in the first place. It’s like trying to domesticate a group of wolverines for harvesting purposes. It goes against nature. So salmon for salmon, we're largely trading our American stocks of wild fish for farmed foreign fish. More than just a quirk of taste, this habit of snubbing domestic salmon in favor of foreign farmed fish exemplifies a more disquieting trend for U.S. industry and, according to Greenberg, “What we have seen up until now, with both the exploitation of wild fish and the selection and propagation of domestic fish, is a wave of psychological denial of staggering scope.”

People have always viewed the ocean as an endless bounty of food. Due to this mindset we have systematically crashed a majority of the world’s fisheries, from bluefin tuna to Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon and even the seemingly infinite sardine of which the U.S. Pacific sardine fisheries are currently closed because their numbers are just too low. We have the power to change and the growing number of CSFs around the nation are steering into the winds of change so we, the consumer, can reconnect with the fishermen and the currents that bring their bounty.

In almost every situation possible, wild is better. But, much like the cage-free egg movement a decade ago, labeling and green/blue washing have created false advertising through clever marketing. “Wild” just like “cage-free” does not mean much anymore. Wild simply means it's coming out of the open ocean. The labeling doesn’t consider how it is coming from the ocean and most of the wild caught fish in our grocery stores is trawled. Trawling is the ecological equivalent of a wildfire without any of the regenerative benefits that come with the flame. Giant nets from factory boats scrape the ocean bottom, destroying ecosystems and gathering tons of fish in one suffocating, eye-bulging catch. The targeted fish kept are shockingly low, sometimes only 30 percent, and the rest become “by-catch” fish, which are then suffocated, bruised and vacuumed up with large tubes to only sit on a tender or gathering boat for days-on-end before ever coming to shore to finally be processed and frozen—sometimes frozen, thawed and then frozen again. 

CSFs believe there is a better way which is not new, advanced or complicated; in fact, it is as ancient as the hook-and-line which is exactly how many small-boat fishermen harvest the variety of seafood offered to their members. Selectively harvesting and individually handling fish as it comes aboard their small fishing vessels sets a standard for quality.

For the very best of CSFs, the process consists of coming off the line and hook and onto the deck, gutted and carefully cleaned, pressure bled to remove all the blood and flesh deteriorates and then put in slush ice to drop body temp and preserve firmness and flavor. Fish is then packed with ice to further preserve and held in insulated compartments until it can be brought to shore no more than three days after catch, unlike the industry standard of up to nine days. It is then portioned out and blast frozen to -50⁰F in less than 30 minutes. In this way, some CSFs are creating an artisan product with the same focus and passion a brewmaster or master cheesemaker might have for their ingredients and recipes. The result is premium tasting, true, wild-caught fish available from coast-to-coast.

Fish is one of the most widely eaten protein sources on the planet, yet within this supply chain exists the largest rift between humans and the food source. The CSF system has and continues to shore up this rift and connect humans back to the ocean from whence we came.

Over the years, studies have found the biggest factor keeping people from joining CSFs is the challenge of breaking out of their routine around purchasing and eating food. People are busy and the convenience around food purchasing and consumption becomes necessary in order to get back to work or their family. Stopping to prepare raw, real food may not be the priority. But this mindset is inherently against nature as we evolved cooking our food around a fire. If you have ever spent any time around a fire, you know its allure creates one of the most beautiful and primitive gathering spaces for humans to connect with one another. We can't help but stare at the dancing flame and come close to know it and therefore each other. The modern day equivalent is the stove and the kitchen. The result of cooking over that flame is time spent together. Time sharing stories. Time knowing our fisherman and farmer. Time learning their story and the story of our food. Time spent eating and sharing and feeling understood. Time spent being human.

Time is our most valuable resource. We cannot create it. We cannot get it back. We can conserve it. We can protect it. In just the same way, we can conserve and protect our wild fisheries. It’s time to know our fish. It’s time to know our fisherman. It’s time to know ourselves.

Richie Mann is a Salmon Steward and the Minnesota Community Manager for Sitka Salmon Shares, a Community Supported Fishery that provides salmon and seafood shares delivered right to your door. To learn more about the nation’s leading CSF, Sitka Salmon Shares, visit SitkaSalmonShares.com. 

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