The Catch Sitka Salmon Shares Member Newsletter November 2021

The Catch - November 2021

It takes all kinds.

On the cover: Fisherman Lance McCutcheon. Photo by JD Schuyler.

Hello Salmonsharesians,

In March of 2020, I was sitting in my office on the sprawling campus of Michigan State University, preparing to teach history to a classroom full of pre-med students when I received a text message that in-person classes were suspended. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last day I would spend on campus after a decade-long career as a professor of environmental history.

The semester ended with me accepting a role with a plucky, values-driven company that practiced the environmental values that I preached in the classroom. I wasn’t alone in making dramatic, unexpected life changes. My students, many still baby-faced and below the legal drinking age, found themselves thrust into the front lines of the pandemic caring for the sick. History doesn’t wait for you to be ready.

What amazes me and gives me hope is how our unconventional experience and diverse paths make us stronger as an organization. As we take stock of 2021, Sitka Salmon Shares is celebrating the uncommon origins of many of our fishermen and staff who bring you premium, wild-caught seafood each month. It takes all kinds of people to build a better seafood system and we have created a home for artists, adventurers, and (yes) college professors alongside the ranks of multi-generational Alaska fishermen. Regardless of the path you are on, we thank you for your support of wild seafood and the small-boat fishermen who catch it.

-Jonathan Wlasiuk, Director of Research & Writing

Jonathan is our resident "fishtorian" and editor of The Catch. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.


It Takes All Kinds

Sitka Salmon Shares began with an unlikely partnership between a college professor from the Midwest and a second-generation fisherman from Alaska. Since our founding 11 years ago, we have benefited from looking in unlikely places for new ideas, talent, and members. As we take stock of another year operating in extraordinary circumstances, we want to celebrate the diverse and sometimes unconventional paths our fishermen (and staff) took to join our team.

As families throughout the United States prepare to break bread for a second Thanksgiving marked by the coronavirus pandemic, we wanted to share these stories with you as an appreciation for everyone who shares our passion for wild seafood.

The Adventurer

Some of our fishermen, like founder Marsh Skeele and fellow fishermen Karl Jordan, were born into the trade with deep roots in Alaska. Then there’s Lance McCutcheon, skipper of the F/V Kathleen, who grew up as far away from the ocean as possible. “I was born in San Diego, but we moved to Denver when I was six or seven,” McCutcheon says. He would return to San Diego to visit his grandparents during summer vacations and enjoyed day trips on their sailboat around the harbor. “That's probably where my love of the ocean came from,” McCutcheon says.

His love for the sea manifested into a powerful dream: “I had grand visions of sailing around the world,” McCutcheon says with a chuckle. “I thought I had to have a little bit of sailing experience, so I should go learn about boats a little more and what better place than Alaska?” McCutcheon says, “[It’s] a great proving ground! Rough and wild Alaska, right?”

Fisherman Lance McCutcheon with a king salmon fresh off the line.

After a season working at a local fish plant, McCutcheon was ready to get out on the sea and earned a spot as a deckhand. The experience challenged his romantic vision of life on the sea. “It's cold and wet with long hours standing and your hands are aching at the end of the day,” McCutcheon says.

After a couple seasons at sea, McCutcheon took a much needed break and drove his motorcycle down the Pacific coast and didn’t stop until he hit La Paz, Mexico, on the Baja California Peninsula. While helping a friend rebuild a sailboat, McCutcheon received an offer to lease a boat in Alaska and return to commercial fishing. He accepted the offer and never looked back. “It turns out, being the captain of the boat is pretty freakin’ awesome,” McCutcheon says.

The F/V Kathleen trolling for king salmon in beautiful southeast Alaska

Since purchasing the F/V Kathleen, McCutcheon keeps the perspective from his days as a deckhand. “I always try to remember that sometimes it’s not very fun,” says McCutcheon. He takes time to scratch his itch for adventure. “I go back in some little bay and drop anchor,” McCutcheon says. “We take the kayaks to shore and hike around this pristine landscape that is just beautiful. That’s an amazing feeling.”

The Scientist

Stan Lopata is the ultimate small-boat fisherman. Lopata purchased the 37-foot long F/V Gothic for just $10,000. Built the same year as Alaska became the 49th state, the mostly fir and cedar F/V Gothic is a relic compared to modern vessels crafted with space-age polymers. This has created unique problems for Lopata, who had to remove some of the original wood to make room for upgrades. “The original wood has such small grains in it and it's such an old, mature wood that I can't find any [comparable] wood to replace it,” Lopata says.

At only 37 feet, the F/V Gothic is one of the smallest trollers in operation

Like McCutcheon, Lopata came to commercial fishing inadvertently. Lopata grew up in Wyoming and graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in fisheries biology. “I started working up in Alaska as a fish biologist working with mostly all the species I've dealt with as a fisherman,” Lopata says. While living at research stations for five years, Lopata bumped into his fair share of fishermen who fueled his curiosity about the trade. He got his first taste of life at sea as a deckhand on fisherman-owner, Casey DiGennaro’s boat, F/V Eileen.

Lopata says the deal was simple: “Casey said ‘You run the gear and I’ll find the fish.’” The work was hard and the conditions were challenging. “We're dealing with waves, wind, and rain and we're drifting out in the ocean,” Lopata says. “It’s not as easy as it looks or as romantic as it sounds.”

Lopata says that DiGennaro understood the value of a good deckhand and that mutual respect took the bite out of the long days in the elements. “Casey was adamant about feeding his crew really, really good,” Lopata says. Lopata also enjoyed the rare break at a coastal hot spring to rest his body and take in the scenery. “It’s one of the best views you can imagine,” Lopata says of his “office” view from the deck.

Fisherman Stan Lopata with a king salmon.

Lopata’s background as a biologist gives him a unique perspective. “I feel like every fisherman that's out there is a scientist,” he says. “We have to understand weather patterns, pressure changes, the currents, and the tide.” Lopata says his degree makes it easy for him to identify fish, but he admits “there's really not any college degree that's gonna teach you how to be a troller.”

Our Wild Team

From our dock to your doorstep, the Sitka Salmon Shares team pulls from a wealth of experience. Our member service agent, Scott Millman, managed restaurants and storage facilities before joining our Salmon Support team in Galesburg, Illinois, in 2020. Melissa Swanson now manages our warehouse, monitoring the arrival and departure of seafood shipments, after an 11-year career in the US Air Force scheduling deployments, logistics, and operations. Your box is decidedly lower stakes than a military deployment, but our commitment to member experience leads us to rare talents like Swanson.

Our copyeditor this year, Meghan Murphy-Gill, came to us with experience publishing in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Murphy-Gill was serving as a hospital chaplain when the coronavirus pandemic struck and she helped families navigate through the impossible. Murphy-Gill left Sitka Salmon Shares this summer in preparation for her ordination as a priest and we are so grateful to have shared part of her journey.

As copyeditor, Meghan Murphy-Gill provided compassion and professionalism through extraordinary times.

Whichever path brought you to Sitka Salmon Shares, we want to thank you for investing in a better seafood system that nourishes your body and supports Alaska’s small-boat fishermen, like Lance McCutcheon. “Without our subscribers, we have no business,” McCutcheon says. Although our members have a myriad of reasons for joining, our fishermen all rank the connection to subscribers high on their list of why they love fishing for us. These fishermen care for each fish individually and knowing folks like you get to eat their catch is rare in an economy that often reduces their labor to a simple transaction.

Fisherman Stan Lopata has a direct request: “Show us how you cook it and tell us how good it is!” You can share photos of your meal with our fishermen and other members today on our private Facebook group, Sitka Salmonsharsians!

Illustration by Libby Geboy.

Grace in the Kitchen

My journey into the food world, which began after college, took some pretty odd twists and turns.

As a recent art school grad with a focus on painting and semiotics, I had to find a practical way to feed myself, so naturally, I turned to restaurant work — the inevitable dumping ground for those of us in flux. I worked in some gnarly kitchens, learning speed and efficiency while trying not to lose a finger. After a few grueling years, with bad pay and little hope to advance, I packed up my knife roll and quit the business. I still loved working with food but hadn’t yet found the right fit.

Not long after, a TV producer friend of mine introduced me to a commercial food stylist who was looking for an assistant. She had me gluing individual sesame seeds to burger buns, spraying french fries with shellac, and plumping barely cooked turkeys with mashed potatoes. While it was food, it wasn’t food you could eat, and so again, not quite the right fit.

My brother Carl was a contributor to Food & Wine Magazine and asked me to develop recipes for an article on holiday entertaining. It was creative and technical, but above all, it was edible. From the moment I put pen to paper and knife to cutting board — the nexus of food writing — it was clear that this was the right fit.

I’m most gratified to have built a career helping people feed themselves — in this case, at Sitka Salmon Shares, with exceptional wild-caught seafood.

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