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Climate Change and the Fish In Your Box

By Nic Mink, Co-Founder and CEO

Climate Change and the Fish In Your Box

Dear CSF Members and Friends, 

We started this company ten seasons ago to fight what we believed were the most significant threats to Alaska's remaining small-boat fishermen and to support them through the challenges they faced. 

At the time, there were three critical threats: clear-cutting of pristine forests, which destroyed vital salmon spawning habitat; the building of large open-pit mines, whose toxic pollution puts future salmon runs at risk; and the consolidation and industrialization of fisheries, which threatened the economic livelihood of small-boat family fishermen. 

While these are still serious threats to the viability of small-scale fisheries, we feel they pale in comparison to the menace of climate change. When we started this company, climate change was a more distant issue to our fisheries--something intangible and in the future. We understood that climate change would someday create more unpredictable oceans, less reliable scientific fishery models, and more challenges for management and policy. What we didn't know was just how soon "someday" would be. 

It's apparent to us that "someday" is here.  

In the last few years, we've witnessed ocean environments change rapidly and sometimes radically. Fish are returning, migrating, or spawning in far higher or far fewer numbers than the best models predicted. Sea surface temperature anomalies (like 'The Blob) frequently happen and, seemingly, emerge from nowhere. Surveys and studies of wild fish stocks are finding everything from unexpectedly fast or slow maturation rates to population changes that deviate from historical patterns. Even some of our ocean's seabirds are now dying in-mass from climate-linked starvation. 

Much like land-based climate impacts faced by our small-scale farmers in the Midwest, a rapidly and radically changing ocean environment is now the biggest threat to Alaska's small-scale fishermen. Similar to big ag, the big players in fisheries can easily make colossal capital investments to mitigate risks. These large industrial outfits are the ones best positioned to follow fish to distant places where they now migrate. They also stand to be the chief influencers of new fishery policies that will be essential to twenty-first-century fisheries in this new climate regime. 

Meanwhile, our small-scale fishermen will feel the ocean's new fury and instability most profoundly. Unlike these big players, our small-boat fleet, rooted with their families in their traditional fishing communities and limited by their lack of access to capital, won't be able to follow fish to distant fishing grounds. They're the ones who, even in good years, already live on the edge, pushed to the margins by policies and economic systems not conducive to the continuation of their livelihoods.  

As a company and as a community, we're in a favorable position to do business responsibly in this new climate era. We're also able to take a leadership role in changing the way seafood is harvested and consumed. In many ways, we plan to use this season to forge this new path so that we can better support our fleet and our members in this time of change. 

So, as we gear up to fish this upcoming year, here are a few changes we have on tap: 

We're Really Fishing Promise and Our Continued Reliance on Member Flexibility 

As many of you remember, last year, we moved away from fixed poundage and species mixes towards softer projections for our boxes. We did this to allow our fleet and our trusted partners to pursue the most ecologically thoughtful harvest. We called this our "We're Really Fishing Promise." We thought that by guaranteeing exact poundages and species mixes, we would endanger many of the benefits at the core of our system. Pushing our fishermen to harvest fish that aren't there, or, worse, buying fish we know we shouldn't or buying from an untrusted supplier to fill an order just didn't sit right with us. As the ocean environment continues to change, we anticipate needing to rely on our member's goodwill and flexibility to ensure we are the best stewards of our resources. And, of course, if you're ever not happy, email us, and we'll figure something out. 

Towards a Carbon Neutral Company

As our members know, we purchase carbon offsets for the fish that we truck and barge from Alaska to the Midwest. We initially pursued this action because we knew it was the right thing to do, even ten seasons ago, when we began the practice. We now realize this is no longer enough. We are currently pursuing a rather ambitious goal of being a carbon-neutral company by the end of 2023. We plan to go beyond buying carbon offsets towards making significant investments in distribution systems, packaging technology, supply-chain solutions, and business practices to ensure that we're the best stewards of our resources that we can be. Eating wild foods like the fish we harvest is one of the most climate-friendly things you can do as an eater. These wild foods represent a direct and efficient connection between the sun's energy and the production of the food--with no chemicals, fertilizers, or other synthetic inputs, ever. Our goal is to make our wild fish just as climate-friendly when they reach your doorstep as they are when our fishermen pull them from the water. 

Expect the goal of becoming a carbon-neutral company being a big theme for our communications with you this year. We've got a lot of new and exciting things in store and can't wait to share them with you! 

Moving Beyond Sustainability

We're also moving beyond the term "sustainability." We'll be retiring the word in the coming months from our storytelling, our literature, and our marketing. There are a few reasons for this. We must now recognize that even the unmatched environmental and ecological stewardship to which our company and our fishermen are committed may not produce something "sustainable" in this new climate regime. Continuing to mobilize around the idea of sustainable seafood wrongly assumes that eaters, even those with the best intentions, should expect that the choices they make today will somehow perpetuate the species they currently love to eat.  

There's another important reason. Since we began Sitka Salmon Shares, "sustainable seafood" has gone from an obscure trend to something much more mainstream--heck, even fashionable. As a society, we now see the term "sustainable seafood" everywhere, to the extent that it is meaningless, co-opted by elements of our industry that we generally oppose. In the last decade, we've seen large-scale boutique salmon farmers promote themselves with the term. At the same time, they are contributing to the destruction of the oceans through the widespread harvest of forage fish, or by flying fish around the globe in styrofoam packaging--the latter process emitting dozens of times more carbon than fish which doesn't fly, like ours. We've also seen international private equity firms take over fisheries and fishing vessels on both coasts, all while touting their commitment to sustainability and sustainable practices. Finally, we've also witnessed plenty of fish caught by industrial factory trawlers at grocery stores across the country, marketed as sustainable, despite fishing practices that strike us as a long way from anything environmentally or socially sound.

We no longer feel that it is appropriate to "compete" for the term with these other entities, who have economic, social, and environmental values at odds with ours. 

So, here we are, with much hope and much trepidation for the future. 

I appreciate the ability to be able to communicate with our members and friends about this, in what is quite a lengthy missive. As a company, we ALL appreciate each and every community member and look forward to many great years of eating to come!

- Nic Mink, Co-Founder and CEO