Food, From Farmland to Fishery
Ever since I can remember, my family has teased me about my giant love for food. I can’t deny it; I believe there are few things in life that top a great meal. My mom has always been an avid gardener who makes fabulously large meals from the fruits and veggies of her labor. My dad is a 7th generation midwestern farmer who taught me to appreciate the blood, sweat, and soil required for a rewarding harvest.
Because of them, food has become a passion of mine. And, like many of this company’s members, I love to know where my food comes from and I consider it extra special when I can put real faces to its producers. This is what has brought me to Sitka, Alaska to intern with Sitka Salmon Shares for the summer. For the past couple of months, I’ve sought out a wide understanding of who all contributes up here in the north for all of us to receive such deliciously fresh fish a bit further south. I’ve followed the process from the time they get plucked from the ocean to when they’re en route to Sitka Salmon Shares members. What I’ve discovered has been a myriad of friendly faces and hard-working hands and minds.
Before arriving, I felt like I already knew many of our fishermen from the various newsletters, social media posts, and website content I had seen before. Of course, when I learned I would be spending the summer in Sitka, my mind leapt at the thought of hearing fishermen personally tell tales of their time on the water. I wanted to learn all their trials and triumphs, and maybe even some secrets to successful fishing.
Out of all my interactions, the most surprising lesson was that many aspects of fishing - lure types, depth to drop lines, strategies for locating fish, etc. - can, and do, vary from fisherman to fisherman. There is apparently no magical strategy to employ that guarantees fish will bite. Whether a fisherman returned to town with an unexpectedly large catch or a fish hold that was painfully empty, they seemed to always offer up a shrug and a shake of the head, as if to say they can’t fully take credit either way. I was shocked by this lack of certainty. Surely it must be unnerving to use the “best guess” method so often!
In a conversation with one of our fishermen, Jeff Farvour, he remarked that perhaps this uncertainty is exactly what hooks people into the profession. It is pretty amazing to think that humans have been fishing for thousands of years, and yet there is still an element of mystery to it. The idea that fishermen are still solving the puzzle made all these wild fish appear even more special to me.
Jeff was gracious enough to take me out on the water to troll for kings, where I got to experience a glimpse of the pride fishermen must feel when pulling aboard these fish that can still be so elusive. The fish I have eaten from Salmon Shares has always been special to me; it’s fresh Alaskan fish, wild-caught by a small-boat fisherman, for crying out loud. But now, seafood will be a whole experience, filled with the humbled admiration for fish that I had learned from Sitka fishermen.
The fish processing plant is a part of the process that rarely comes to mind when we, as customers, think of buying wild fish from Alaska. The fillet table, otherwise known as the “slime line” doesn't exactly paint a romantic Alaskan picture. As Kayliss, who works at the plant, put it: “Some people think it’s just a stinky fish plant, but I really like the people I work for.”
It’s a job that requires many hours of focused work and a good amount of perseverance during the busy summer season. I spent only a weekend in their shoes during the intensity of the king opener (a period of time, usually a week or so, in which fishermen are permitted to troll for kings in the open ocean) and, boy, do I have respect for what they do. It can be stressful knowing that your cuts are such a large part of determining how the final product arrives to the consumer. Perhaps more than that, it feels disrespectful to the fish to treat it with anything short of careful attention to detail. My fellow workmates’ cuts looked effortless. The whole team seemed to flow at a quiet, concentrated paced. It’s an atmosphere that emphasizes quality over speed, where everyone is considered “quality control”.
Some of these employees arrived this summer new to the company, others had been working for Salmon Shares for years before. Regardless of how much experience they have had here, everyone exhibits respect for the sustainable mission of the company. I now consider the people I’ve met in the processing plant to be a silent cornerstone of the whole process. They ensure the fish that comes though is processed beautifully and efficiently, discarding as little waste as possible, before it gets sent down south to our consumers. And now I personally have so many more faces that will come to mind when I receive my shipments of Sitka Salmon Shares fish in the future.
I arrived to Sitka happily anticipating living in a small fishing community, as I had grown up in a small farming community. There have been times this summer in which I’ve found that this seaside town resembles the world of food I had been accustomed to in the midwest. The fishing industry permeates every corner of life here. You’d be hard-pressed to meet a resident that isn’t either related to, friends with, or is a fisherman him or herself. I experienced this same dynamic with farmers in my hometown.
In Sitka, however, everyone seems to be especially committed to this place. There must be something in the water… and the trees, and the air. The health of this community is upheld by a variety of people that contribute in a range of different ways, and it’s vital to everyone that this town continues to thrive long-term, both economically and environmentally.
For example, the folks at Sitka Conservation Center work to protect Sitka’s natural environment and educate visitors on the importance of the surrounding Tongass Rainforest, the wildlife, and the health of the ocean. Alaskan Dream Cruises, a company run by a family of life-long Alaskans, offers people a better way to experience incredible excursions while keeping tourism money within the community. The Sitka Sound Science Center provides scientific education and research on marine and terrestrial ecosystems in Alaska.
These are only a few representations of the incredible efforts going on within this small coastal town, all of which have made an impact on me during my short time as a temporary resident in Sitka. And if it’s true that a business is only as strong as the community it belongs to, then I have no doubt that Sitka Salmon Shares will continue to be the honest, sustainability-focused company that we all know and love.
Carlea Kiddoo is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder. She spent this summer in Sitka as a Storytelling and Communications Intern for Sitka Salmon Shares.