A Letter to Members & Friends
Dear CSF Members and Friends,
I’m writing this message at the launch of our 10th Community Supported Fishery season, not only to reflect on a few of our accomplishments together but also to provide a few announcements. And, please forgive the length, as I’ve got a lot to say here!
It’s beyond mind-boggling to think that it was 10 seasons ago (the summer of 2011), that a few students and I brought back some of Marsh Skeele’s fish to sell at to faculty and staff at Knox College as a fundraiser. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago; in some ways, it was yesterday. Since then, we’ve bought and rebuilt and rebuilt (and rebuilt again) our very own fish processing facility that allows us to control the quality and sustainability of our fish; we’ve been featured in just about every publication possible, from Midwest Living to Food and Wine to National Fisherman; we’ve grown from a few hundred members, largely in Galesburg and Madison, Wisconsin, to about 10,000 CSF members across the Midwest, who now help support the livelihoods of about 25 fishing families. This year, once all is said and done, we’ll have delivered an additional 18% directly to the bottom line of these families, all while being cheaper than our internet competitors and price-competitive with nicer fish markets. In exchange, our families deliver our CSF higher-quality fish and leave more fish in the ocean for future generations of fishermen and future generations of eaters.
As someone who generally holds a “smaller is better” philosophy, especially when it relates to food, there’s a lot about the growth that I’m ambivalent about. At the same time, we’ve been driven by demand from fishermen who want to fish for us and by consumers who want to eat our fish. We’ve also been driven by an internal desire to build our own supply chain, from having fishermen-owners and our own processing plant to owning our warehousing operations and our own distribution equipment. This is something that no other Community Supported Fishery has done, and it’s something that we believe is at the center of our ability to deliver more sustainable, responsible, traceable, and, of course, higher-quality fish. And this hasn’t been cheap! To date, it’s cost our CSF about $3M. Hence, the need for scale.
In reflecting back on 10 years of our CSF, there’s one turning point that we’ve often talked about in our communications: the decision to build the company around fishermen ownership and our own processing plant in Sitka. This took place in year 4. But there’s another moment that was an equally important inflection point that has set the company on its current trajectory. That happened last spring and summer, when, within a few months, we had several unexpected changes in the composition of fish stocks--Pacific cod and Copper River sockeye--which have since been linked to climate change. At about the same time, the Associated Press released an expose on Sea to Table, one of the then-leaders in the “Sustainable Seafood” movement, exposing many of the company’s fraudulent practices.
The world of wild fisheries is messy. The fish upon which these systems are built are unpredictable creatures, after all. Building and sustaining markets around them is a difficult proposition, especially markets that take into account the values and ethics that we hold at Sitka Salmon Shares. But the events of that summer served as a wakeup call for us, for it was then we realized that even with our own processor and our own fishermen that we were not immune from many of the diseases that plague our industry: poor-quality fish, mislabeling fish, fish fraud, and the overexploitation of resources, the chief among them. We also realized we needed to be more responsive to the realities of climate change and how we can produce fish more thoughtfully in a changing environment, while still supporting those most directly impacted by these changes: our family fishermen.
At about that time, while competitors like a recently-purchased-by-Amazon-Whole Foods and other internet fish providers further cut corners, we recommitted ourselves to the values on which we were built and embarked on a set of sweeping changes and investments that seek to ensure that the trust that our members and our friends who buy fish from us wouldn’t be misplaced.
- We invested in state-of-the-art seafood traceability software, called ThisFish to guarantee that your fish is what we say it is and to make sure that it’s traceable back to one of the vessels in our fleet.
- We invested about $1 million in new, custom-built freezing technology to move fish through our plant more quickly and to freeze fish more efficiently, improving quality for our CSF members.
- We invested in our first real executive at the company, to oversee our ethics and our fisheries, Kelly Harrell. In our little corner of the world, Kelly, now our Chief Officer of Fisheries and Sustainability, is a legitimate national leader in values-based, small-scale, sustainable fisheries. She guides your fisheries ship.
- We built a philosophy around community-based capital and financing, which lays out values that stress that our capital should come from our CSF members; community banks and credit unions; our fishermen; and other values-based financing mechanisms, and not venture capital or institutional private equity.
- We instituted the We’re Really Fishing Promise, which moved us away from promising to deliver exact poundage and species and, rather, promising to deliver on two things: we promise to deliver on our values: you’ll get sustainably-harvested fish, caught thoughtfully by small-boat family fishermen treated fairly. We also promise to deliver you happiness--100% satisfaction guarantee to our members. If you don’t like what we deliver in a month, just tell us, and we’ll figure out a way to make sure you’re happy as a clam. In the face of a changing climate that’s leading to more unstable oceans, it’s imperative to let nature and our fishermen guide us more fully through our seasons.
Combined, these changes and investments are in the process of remaking our company and our Community Supported Fishery. I know that everyone on this list, like me, enjoys and appreciates the difference in taste that our fishermen provide us. But, increasingly, we want the fish you’re enjoying to go even further beyond just tasting delicious. We want you to know that the fish on your plate is setting the benchmark for trust, transparency, and sustainability in a seafood industry fraught by challenges and problems.
In this context, we’re launching our 10th Season. It will be an exciting season for us, with a few new fisheries--including a new black cod (sablefish) fishery and a return to providing wild Alaskan coho from the Taku River. We’ve renamed and reconceptualized a few of our CSF offerings, moving away from “Samplers” to ensure our members receive adequate quantities of what we consider our most-prized species like halibut, black cod, spot prawns, and king salmon.
View the PDF version of our 2020 CSF Shares
We will also be launching a new Sitka Salmon Sustainers membership, a new, multi-year Community Supported Fishery program, where our most enthusiastic and dedicated CSF members can enroll in longer-term shares in exchange for lots of cool perks, including exclusive CSF boxes and visits to Alaska. The inspiration for this program comes from two interrelated places. First, as we’ve mentioned, we’ve realized that staying true to our underlying values of economic justice, transparency, and sustainability requires us to steer clear of institutional private equity and venture capital that could compromise our mission and our values. To date, all of our financing has come from our members, our fishermen, a few non-profit and values-based funds/foundations, and local, community banks--oh, and one restaurateur who thought we were pretty great! We think this is the right way to move forward as a company and the best way to create wealth for all of our stakeholders: our members, our fishermen, our fish, our communities, and our employees. Second, we ran a smaller version of this program in Wisconsin last year to help us open our new facility at the historic Garver Feed Mill. The success of that program--our CSF members helped us pay for about half of the improvements of that building--has led to consider its expansion. If you have the means, and you like what we do, please take a look at the program and see if it’s right for you.
With that, in the coming days, our CSF team will be along with early sign-up incentives for our members and our friends. We’re hoping to launch the 2020 CSF in the next week or so.
I’ll leave you with a line from Dr. Suess’ The Lorax:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
We thank you for taking this journey with us, and for caring a whole awful lot.
Welcome to 10!
CEO and Co-Founder.