This month’s The Catch features the story of our fishermen in Kodiak, Alaska. As the world grapples with a broken industrial seafood system, we can’t think of a better story to illustrate the stark difference between small-scale and industrial fishing.
If you haven’t been to Kodiak, it is an other-worldly place, almost alien-like with its lack of trees, a massive wind farm hanging over the city’s mountain tops, and its fleet of trawlers in the harbor — some of the largest, most industrialized vessels in the North Pacific. It’s a place totally unlike Sitka, which sits nearly 700 miles directly to Kodiak’s east. Sitka feels like a quaint New England fishing village. Kodiak, at times, feels like a scene straight out of The Road.
There are small-boat fishermen that still manage to eke out an existence in a port known for high-volume seafood production. Fisherman-owner Darius Kasprzak calls the small-boat fishermen in Kodiak “barnacles,” because they’re tough and have somehow managed to hang on in this industrialized port.
We’re lucky to call a handful of these “barnacles” our fleet members, owners, and friends at Sitka Salmon Shares. They provide you some of the highest- quality Pacific cod and rockfish in the North Pacific using low- impact gear. Their stories of persistence, perseverance, and resilience in the face of incredible odds is jaw-dropping when you sit back and reflect upon it.
—Nic Mink, co-founder
Wild in Kodiak
“Our weather pattern here seems to be on a roller coaster,” says Len Carpenter from his living room on Kodiak Island. Len came to Kodiak in 1988 to work as a deckhand and now owns and operates his own boat, the F/V Fish Tale. Len has witnessed massive disruptions in the economy and climate of Kodiak. “If you look at the weather patterns in Kodiak over the last three decades,” Len says, “it’s changed immensely from when I first came here.”
Kodiak has survived dramatic changes over the past century. The birth of the crab industry, a massive earthquake in 1964 that ranked as the second most powerful in all of world history, and the sourcing of Pacfic cod for fast food sandwiches reshaped this island of just over 13,000 people. Today, Kodiak consistently ranks in the top three U.S ports by volume of seafood, but the community has struggled despite record productivity.
If you ask local fishermen, too few benefits have trickled down to small businesses that keep dollars circulating in the community. In the past 20 years, the size of boats has grown and more fish are processed at sea or in countries with lower wages and less stringent standards. “Kodiak is just pumping fish out with minimal processing, and then it’s shipped to China,” Len says. Kodiak is a tightknit community that experiences the boom and bust of the business collectively. “It’s heartbreaking to see our friends who are in the processing industry trying to survive on unemployment,” Len says.
Raised and homeschooled on the rural south end of Kodiak, Darius Kasprzak knows all too well the heroic effort required to survive as a small operation. He chairs the Alaska Jig Association, sits on the board of Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and testifies before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to fight privatization of marine resources. Darius acknowledges this life isn’t for the faint of heart. “You got to carve time out for yourself and believe what you’re doing,” he says when asked how he can juggle so many commitments with the day to day life of a fisherman.
As market forces concentrate wealth in fewer hands, Kodiak fishermen have also confronted the worst impacts of climate change. Surface waters warmed by as much as 7 degrees in the Gulf of Alaska in 2014, causing a 70% decline in Pacific cod. As the water in the Gulf of Alaska cooled these past years, “the blob” of warm waters dissipated. Recent surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmosphereic Administration discovered rebounding Pacific cod stocks, and there is cautious optimism in Kodiak about a return to normal. These swings in fish populations, however, create uncertainty for fishermen to navigate.
“It’s decimated the Kodiak jig fleet,” Darius says. “I’m one of the lucky survivors,” Darius continues. “A lot of people had to sell their boats.” Darius worked as a deckhand fishing for salmon and also picked up a shift on a tugboat in the offseason to supplement his income from his own boat, the F/V Marona. “My biggest fear is this is the future,” Darius says. “The march of carbon in the atmosphere seems relentless.”
Despite these challenges, both Darius and Len see a brighter future for Kodiak because of consumer interest in community supported fisheries, or CSFs. “The CSF gave small producers like us a lifeline,” Len says. “We make a lot more money for our fish now,” Len continues. “We’re in this for the long term. This is our life. We want to grow old on our deck,” Len says.
Darius echoes Len’s thoughts. “Working with Sitka Salmon Shares gets me a bigger margin,” Darius says. “I appreciate members’ interest in preferring to buy fish that are artisanally harvested with a minimal ecological footprint,” Darius says. Darius has invested valuable time in the off-season connecting with members through webinars and media appearances such as promoting the documentary Last Man Fishing.
Len also takes joy in hearing from members who eat his fish. “When we brought our fish to the big fish plant, we didn’t even know where it went half the time,” Len says. As much as 37% of the fish processed by large fish plants is transformed into fishmeal for pet food, livestock feed, or fertilizer. “But with people in the CSF, they do get that connection and that’s something that has a lot of value to us,” Len says.
When you put as much care into each individual fish as Len and Darius, they deserve the full value of their labor. Kodiak, like small fishing communities throughout Alaska, are at a turning point. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, some years saw as many as 300 new commercial fishing vessels added to the fleet in Alaska. As dock prices fall and the economy favors the largest enterprises, fewer and fewer Alaskans view commercial fishing as a viable career. Over the past five years, only around 50 new fishing vessels have been added per year.
By supporting Sitka Salmon Shares, you create an alternative to the global commodity market. This CSF values quality over quantity and supports small- boat fishing communities like Kodiak. The best stewards of these wild fish will always be local communities, because their future depends on conserving marine habitats so their children have a bright future.
Keep an eye out for fish from our Kodiak fleet this year. When you gather your family for a meal of this delicious fish, remember the tireless work of fishermen like Darius and Len who made it all possible.
To learn more about Darius and the rest of our fleet visit Our Fishermen page.
Grace in the Kitchen
Tip to Tail Eating
My little Italian grandmother was a skilled urban forager. She’d pick dandelion greens, succulent purslane, and pungent mustard garlic that she’d add to a salad bowl or soup pot to stretch a meal. I remember sitting at the table with her and picking every morsel of fish from its frame until the bones were spotless.
The conversations I’ve had with some of our fisherman have taught me they’re much like my grandmother: they make every morsel count. Collars, cheeks, tongues, and tips — discards from processing gorgeous fillets of halibut, salmon, sablefish, lingcod, and more. You won’t find those cuts in a grocery store or in your monthly share. They go to those clever and resourceful folks who know how to tease out every bit of edible deliciousness.
Sablefish tips, the meaty bits tucked between the jaw and the collar, reminiscent of clam strips, are marinated in teriyaki sauce and pan-fried. (Apparently, Yoshida’s is the sauce of choice in Sitka). Meaty king salmon heads go into traditional Filipino soups flavored with tamarind or coconut milk and sinus clearing chiles.
We can practice tip-to-tail eating in our own kitchens using the amazing seafood in our CSF shares. Crab and shrimp shells make great seafood stock, but did you know that you could infuse butter with them? Crush them up and simmer gently in lots of butter, then strain out the bits and chill until firm. Spread some onto crusty bread or spoon into risotto or pasta. Divine! Salmon skin becomes sweet black pepper “bacon” by sprinkling with brown sugar, black pepper, and salt and baking until crispy for a stellar bar snack!
My grandmother called it cucina povera (poor food). Some call it upcycling. Whatever we call it, let’s enjoy every morsel.
Ask Grace your culinary questions to level up your cooking skills in 2021!
Q&A with author James Mackovjak
James Mackovjak is the author of a half-dozen books on the maritime history of Alaska. He has participated in the commercial fishing industry since he first arrived in Alaska in 1969. His experiences as a fisherman and in operating a small fish plant in Gustavus, Alaska gives him a unique perspective. He has won multiple awards for his writing, including the Pathfinder Award by the Alaska History Society. We recently sat down to talk to him about his most recent book, Alaska Codfish Chronicle.
You’ve captured so many stories from Alaska’s past. Why did you decide Pacific cod deserved its own book?
The Pacific cod fishery is the oldest commercial fishery in Alaska, predating the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Today, the Pacific cod fishery is, by species and in terms of volume, the second largest fishery in Alaska. The genesis and evolution of the fishery is a fascinating, important story and was the low-hanging fruit of Alaska fishery histories.
Did you discover any recipes during your research that made their way to your dinner table?
Because they have been locally abundant and relatively easy to catch, halibut has been the standard in “white fish” recipes in Gustavus. I simply substitute Pacific cod in established halibut recipes, and I am extremely pleased with the results.
Has climate change impacted the Pacific cod fishery?
Definitely. The marine heat wave known as “the blob” that developed in the North Pacific Ocean in 2013 and persisted until early 2016 reduced the amount of feed available, which impacted Pacific cod growth and subsequently limited catches of the fish in the Gulf of Alaska. Fortunately, Pacific cod reproduction in the past two years seems to have been good, which bodes well for the future. In the Bering Sea, Pacific cod stocks have moved northward in recent years.
From your perspective, what does the future of Alaska’s fisheries look like?
The impact of climate change, including ocean acidification, is the big question. That said, there are some encouraging efforts to direct market Alaska seafood and to cease shipping frozen fish to China for reprocessing, then reimporting it into the United States. In addition to providing domestic jobs, I think people have more confidence in the quality of the domestically processed product, and we should all appreciate that the carbon footprint of the fish we consume is reduced.