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The Catch Sitka Salmon Shares Member Newsletter September 2020

The Catch - September 2020

Our Wild Community

Cover Photo: Looking down onto the Chilkat Inlet from the Takshanuk mountains near Haines, Alaska, with the aptly named Chilkat mountain range towering through the clouds to the right. Some of this month’s sockeye salmon was sourced from trusted fishermen-partners in this area.

Dear Salmonsharesians,

Salmon’s return spotlights the significance of connection to place.

For the salmon themselves, a lifelong connection to their natal streams defines their entire existence. Salmon practically spend their entire life planning for their trip home—which is why salmon that migrate long distances upriver accumulate more fat than those that hatch closer to the ocean. In this sense, salmon’s place-based instincts guide their biology (and how deliciously rich or lean they are).

Salmon’s return defines their relationship with humans, too. Fishermen depend on salmon’s arrival for their livelihoods. Fishing communities rely on the economies generated by salmon. And we as fish-eaters revere the nutrition salmon provide. These relationships bind us all together and to the wild places that produce our fish.

That is, if these ties aren’t frayed by complex international supply chains and destructive fishing practices.

In this issue of The Catch, we explore our dynamic relationship to the food on our plate, investigate how an alternative food system reinforces those ties, and explain how Sitka Salmon Shares offers a better way for everyone (and every fish) involved.

Stay wild!

Your Sitka Salmon Shares Fishermen & Crew

Rooted In Place

Some places have become synonymous with great food: Cheddar, England. Burgundy, France. Sichuan, China. The Arabica coffee bean is named after its center of domestication, which stretches from the fertile valleys of Ethiopia to the port of Mocha. Foods reflect the flavor, or terroir, of place. Thanks to global trade networks, we can enjoy the unique flavors of these regions without leaving the comfort of our homes. Unfortunately, that access has come at a steep price that isn’t always reflected in your receipt. The last thing we want to think about when we bring our families together to share a meal are the unethical practices some corporations pursue in order to deliver the lowest cost product. A growing number of Americans are seeking an alternative to the industrial food system by joining community supported agriculture (CSA) and fishery (CSF) programs. As Salmonsharsians, you do not need to abandon your responsibilities as conscientious consumers when deciding how to feed yourself.

Waterfront view of Sitka, Alaska
The storied waterfront along Katlian Street in Sitka, Alaska, beneath the towering mountain range known as the Sisters.

Sitka Salmon Shares believes that, like place, labor and environmental practices imprint themselves in the quality, or merroir, of our fish. We offer our fishermen far higher prices than commodity fish processors for their catch, because we know that fishing is hard work and that treating the fish and the ocean with respect while doing it is even harder. When our fishermen care for a fish from the moment they pull it from the sea to the moment they deliver it to the dock, it tastes better. We also know that every fisherman at sea creates about four jobs on land, from our expert team who fillets and blast-freezes your fish dockside in Alaska to our friendly delivery drivers throughout the Lower 48. Sustaining our fishermen allows us to acquire a talented staff, including Kelly Harrell, our chief fisheries officer, who holds us accountable to our mission of environmental and social responsibility. Few seafood companies make such investments because they have created an industrial food chain that values price and profit above all else.

Captain Eric Jordan with a king salmon
Captain Eric Jordan of the F/V Samara holds up a bright and beatiful king salmon caught near Sitka.

Sadly, much of the amazing wild-caught Alaskan seafood that Americans purchase at grocers and restaurants enter this industrial food chain before arriving on your plate. The trouble begins once a fish, crab, or shrimp leaves the sea. Some of the seafood labeled as “wild Alaskan” is first shipped to overseas processors, some linked to exploitative labor practices, before being shipped back to the United States. This long journey some of our seafood is subjected to not only pushes prices down for fishermen, it also destroys the quality of these magnificent fish. So while around 35% of the seafood that Americans purchase is caught in American waters, only about 10% is caught and processed on American shores. Processing in the United States ensures a smaller environmental footprint, sustains our fishing communities, and guarantees the freshest seafood possible. We believe the fish, our fishermen, and you deserve better!

Graphic displaying seafood processing statistics
Eating seafood processed in the U.S. reduces the carbon footprint of your meal.

In the end, our seafood will only taste as good as the health of the environment where it lives and is caught. Alaska is home to some of the richest habitat on the planet and manages fisheries based on scientific standards designed to sustain them into the future. For example, this year state biologists monitoring fish populations in the Copper River chose to close the fishery to let it rest for the year to support future runs. As our cofounder and CEO Nic Mink has said recently, sometimes the “best fish is the one not eaten.” While that is good news for the fish in the Copper River watershed (and great news for the bears and eagles that feast on them), it doesn’t necessarily spell bad news for us. Alaska contains numerous diverse fisheries and every year some require a timeout while others flourish. As the Copper River salmon recover, the sockeye in Bristol Bay are thriving. This fertile ecosystem in southwest Alaska is home to the largest runs of wild salmon on the planet. These enormous sockeye salmon runs nourish abundant populations of wildlife including eagles, wolves, and bears and sustain centuries-old cultures and traditions of Native Alaskan people in the region.

Sitka Salmon Shares Crew
Meet the crew! Members of our processing, management, and leadership team pose together on the company truck outside our processing facility in Sitka, Alaska—just a few of the many people who make our CSF model work.

Likewise, the pandemic has reminded us that every distant location and every individual decision is connected through economic and ecological links that bind the world together. COVID-19 has tested the resiliency of highly centralized, industrial food systems. Organized for efficiency above all else, these systems are floundering, leaving empty shelves and higher prices for the consumer. CSFs are not immune to these problems, but by building our organization upon values of accountability and transparency we are quick to respond to the concerns and needs of our fishermen, staff, and shareholders. We can build a more diverse fleet and supply relationships to respond to variations in fish stocks, add new staff to tell their stories, and offer you, our members, bounty sales that further enrich our fishing communities. As a CSF, we can harness the power of connection to overcome challenges exposed by global trade networks. Your participation not only gives you access to the best wild seafood available, you are also building an alternative economy for fishing communities throughout Alaska.

The best food has always connected us to place. Today, the quality of that connection matters more than ever. If we live up to our mission, eating a fish can actually safeguard its habitat and the communities who catch it. Bon appétit!

Chilkat & Chilkoot Rivers

View of Chilkat and Chilkoot inlets
A day’s hike from Haines, Alaska (foreground), is this majestic view that comprises both the Chilkat (on the right) and Chilkoot (on the left) inlets, rimmed by glacier-fed waters and snowcapped mountains.

The Tlingit people have called the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers home since the last glaciers receded and uncovered this rich watershed. Spilling into the Lynn Canal (the deepest fjord in North America), the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers support large, multispecies salmon runs. In addition to drying and smoking, the Tlingit people also packed late season salmon in snow to ensure a reliable food supply during the otherwise lean spring months. Our blast-freezing method is a bit more convenient but builds on the same idea.

Located just north and east of Glacier Bay National Park, the Chilkat & Chilkoot fishery is protected by multiple state parks and forest preserves and is home to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which hosts the largest population of Bald Eagles in the world. Our Chilkat & Chilkoot River sockeye are as wild as they come and we are proud to work with Haines Packing Company to bring these special fish to your doorstep!

Bristol Bay

Nestled in the outstretched arm of the wild and rugged Alaska Peninsula lies the ecological treasure of Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay and the surrounding Bering Sea region encompass productive shallow shelf waters that extend onshore to a complex network of pristine wetlands, rivers, and streams. These rugged lands and waters drip with ecological superlatives, and a good portion of them lie within protected areas, including two national parks and the largest state park in the nation. Most important, Bristol Bay is home to the largest runs of wild sockeye salmon on the planet! In 2020, an astounding 39 million sockeye salmon were harvested in Bristol Bay with a total run of over 57 million fish.

View of Bristol Bay and fish in water
Bristol Bay is home to the largest runs of wild sockeye salmon on the planet.

But salmon are only part of the picture; the region is also a stronghold for migratory birds, marine mammals, and other fish species. All told, about 29 fish species, more than 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial animals call the region home, including large populations of brown bears that feed on the rich salmon.

Over 30 indigenous Yup’ik Eskimo, Alutiiq, and Athabaskan nations have relied on clean water and healthy salmon for thousands of years and still do today. The region’s commercial and sport fisheries support 14,000 jobs for locals and non-residents alike who descend on the region every summer with the salmon’s return. It’s hard to capture the magnificence of Bristol Bay in words, but there are few places like it left on earth where ways of life, culture, and economy depend on the continued health of habitat and fish at the scale they do in Bristol Bay.

Infographic displaying different cuts of fish
The anatomy of different cuts of salmon.