Photo courtesy of Darius Kasprzak.
The excitement we feel at the start of a new community supported fishery (CSF) season is now overshadowed by the events which have unfolded over the last few months. The impacts of COVID-19 have tested our perseverance and our determination. But they have also shown us new forms of compassion and proved our resilience.
As a company, we’ve made sweeping, unprecedented changes to our company operations, seemingly on a dime. These changes have actually made our company safer, fairer, and more sturdy. If you haven’t been updated yet, please be sure to read our latest developments concerning COVID-19. Changing The Catch and our recipes to this digital format was one such change. Adding the additional risk of exposure through the handling of our printed stories didn’t feel like a responsible course of action at this time. So we adjusted to this digital format, which we hope you love just as much!
Through all of this, we keep reminding ourselves of the good things all around us: the community that we’ve built; the stunning beauty of Sitka, one of the places we call home; the patient and persistent optimism of our fleet, the most resourceful bunch of humans one can fathom. At this moment, we follow their lead.
Welcome to your 10th CSF season. As a community, we are ever optimistic of good times ahead.
Stay wild (and safe!),
- Nic Mink, Co-Founder and CEO
The fish in your April Premium Sitka Seafood Share, Pacific cod, is known for it's disappearing act. In this month's newsletter, we explore what that means for some of our fishermen, what it meant for the fish in your share, and what it might mean in the future.
The Fish That Stops
When you’re out on the water off Kodiak, Alaska all year round, like Darius Kasprzak is, the slightest shifts in the weather become discernible. Like how the angles of the sun on the sea echo each other. Or how a northerly wind turns more spring-like when it blows from the southwest. And then there’s the smell of the ocean. “It’s clean. There’s no pollution in the air, other than the exhaust from the boat, it has a briny, cold and crisp scent,” Darius said. “Sometimes a whale comes by and you get a little whale breath and when you’re cod fishing, you cut bait.” To fish Pacific cod the way he used to, Darius used frozen herring or squid, “and so a lot of the boat smelled like that.”
At 50 years old, Darius has been commercial fishing for the last 36 years. “I remember the first time I saw a Pacific cod, I was 12 or 13 and I was helping a friend pick a salmon gill net which caught one and I’d never seen a cod before and I thought it was the funniest, goofiest fish with a whisker barbel from its chin and big googly eyes.” His father took a picture of him proudly posing, with the fish now adorned in a baseball cap and sunglasses. Darius still has that photo today. “The joke was on me, that Pacific cod would eventually become my main fishery for almost several decades.”
Pacific cod (Gadus macrocephalus) is not an “exciting” fish like salmon but when it was around, it was there year-round. “I pride myself on it, no matter the time of year I could always catch some cod, at least enough to survive on until the next season.” Come January, when the cod fishery opened up in regulated state waters commercial cod fishing, Darius would go out jigging.
Jigging has a low impact on the ecosystem and a skilled fisherman like Darius knows how to set his hook and lines to catch exactly the fish he’s going for.
“I’m pretty conservation-minded and jigging is a very sustainable, artisanal way of fishing. There’s minimal impact on the seafloor plus it allows you to target your fish well.” Darius is a one-person show. “If I have to be involved in resource extraction, at least I do it as sustainably as possible. I feel good that I provide a really high-quality protein, to feed people.”
The Pacific cod is known for its disappearing act. The Aleut word for this fish, atxidaq, literally translates as “the fish that stops.” Darius confirms that it was always a feast or famine, an on-again-off-again fishery that seemed like it was on a four-year cycle. They’re extremely prolific when they’re around, and they have a very narrow water temperature range in which they can spawn. Once that upper-temperature limit is hit, they can’t reproduce effectively. “And we’ve hit that now,” he said.
I like cod, I think they’re a beautiful fish. For a long time, they’ve been considered not a very exciting or exotic fish, not like a king salmon – but I’m sure a lot of people are appreciating them a lot more now that they’re virtually gone. I’ve been thankful for them being there.
The water temperature in the Gulf of Alaska increased dramatically by 4-5 degrees from 2014-15, during an intense water pattern deemed ‘The Blob.’ “2017 and ‘18 were so bad I couldn’t make a delivery and we knew we were out.” Darius admitted that those were some dark times for him but he’s since rebounded. Diversifying what he fishes for and working with partners like the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Sitka Salmon Shares increases the value of his catch.
In December 2019, the Pacific cod fishery closed to commercial fishing in federally regulated waters. Those are fishing zones beyond three nautical miles from the coast. The cod you have in your member shares comes from small boat fishermen like Darius who are fishing in state-regulated waters closer to shore. Kelly Harrell, our Chief Fisheries Officer, ensures that your fish, “is coming from the southeast Alaska state water’s cod fishery that has been the source of our cod for many years. It’s a very small fishery with only a handful of boats participating.”
For Darius, he’s moved on to fishing other species. But for him, there will always be something about cod. “I got so good there at the end before the cod collapsed, making my hook and leader set ups…by the time I just had it perfect, the fishery went away and I haven’t baited a cod hook in maybe four years now.”
He still has some of those hooks stored in his boat even though they’re not used to catch what he fishes for now, rockfish. “I pick them up and have this feeling of nostalgia and longing … and a little bit of indifference and incredulity that I still have this gear here and it never gets used.” His voice betrays his emotions. “I just want to bait them so bad and put them back down.”
Darius has been a Sitka Salmon Shares fisherman since 2017. He is a contributor to ‘Alaska Codfish Chronicle: A History of the Pacific Cod Fishery in Alaska’ by James Mackovjak, Univ. of Alaska Press, 2019.
Zooarchaeology of the ‘Fish that Stops’: Using Archaeofaunas to Construct Long-Term Time Series of Atlantic and Pacific Cod Populations., by Matthew Betts and Herbert Maschner, 2011, pg. 188 Alaska Cod Fishery Closes and Industry Braces for Ripple Effect, NPR.org, 2019 Sustainable Seafood and Climate Change Op-Ed, TheCounter.org
Meet Your Fish
At a Glance
- Has long supported the second largest commercial fishery in Alaska by weight
- Easily distinguished by leopard-like spotting and a catfish-like whiskers
How They Are Caught
- Longline, pots, jigging
- Pacific cod have a flaky, delicate meat that is perfect for searing, baking, or breading and frying
- Like other fish, be mindful not to overcook, and embrace the fat! use plenty of oil or butter.
COVID-19 and a Digital Catch
Toward the end of last year, we surveyed our members (you!), asking about your CSF experience. This year, our plan was to incorporate your feedback into our storytelling and ephemeral components to your CSF shares. In fact, we even redesigned many of our print materials in order to do just that--and to cut back on paper, reduce waste, and generally advance company-wide carbon-reduction initiatives. While we were very excited to deliver our redesigned newsletter and recipes, given the current COVID-19 landscape, we decided it would be prudent to instead pivot to a digital publication for the next few months. Adding the additional risk of novel Coronavirus exposure through our print production process--both for our partner-printer, our team, and for you--just didn’t feel right to us.
We hope you enjoy the digital experience we’ve created for you just as much as the physical copies of The Catch and recipes. Feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments section below (we’d also love to just know how you’re doing in these wild times)!
- The SSS Team
PS: We've made a few other adjustments to our overall operations as a company in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
If you haven't been updated yet, please take a look at our “no contact” delivery updates, and a message from Nic, our CEO, to read up on what we are doing to mitigate risk for you and for our company.
You can also watch the recording of Nic’s e-seminar Lunch and Learn on COVID-19’s impacts on the commercial fishing industry and our small-boat fleet.