When a salmon is fresh out of the water, it is shimmering and bright and it smells of the sea. It’s something most people in the U.S. will never get to experience, but at Sitka Salmon Shares, Marsh Skeele and Nic Mink are working to send fish this fresh to as many people as possible.
Marsh grew up spending summers in a rural Alaskan town, off the grid, in the middle of a protected wilderness. “As soon as I was old enough, about eight, I would go out fishing with my family.” Today, Marsh and his sister, Nora, are the second generation of Skeeles in a robust community of fishermen in Sitka, Alaska. We’re “community-based fishermen,” says Marsh. “We’re invested in this place and these resources; it’s so different than a commodity crew on a trawler, or a captain on a 30 million dollar boat, in it to make as much money as they can.”
In Sitka, fishermen like Marsh load up their boats and head out into the open ocean in sun, wind, and snow to catch one of the many species that swim these waters. Sometimes alone, sometimes assisted by a small crew, they sink lines to the seafloor for halibut, drop lures for king and coho salmon, trail gill nets for sockeye, and set traps for spot prawns. They make repairs when they must, eat and rest when they can, and otherwise live for days at sea, entirely in the zone of the work.
Fishing, says Marsh, is work that is “intimately tied to the weather, the wind, the sea, and the currents. Sometimes it’s not pleasurable, being in a little boat on a big ocean, tossed around by waves, but it’s stunningly beautiful. You’re connected with nature in ways that you don’t get to be in normal life.”
The deep blue Alaskan waters represent what are perhaps the best managed fisheries in the world, rich in biodiversity and as yet unspoiled by industry. Fishing practices that damage the ocean habitat, like trawling, are not permitted, and fishermen like Marsh adhere to a rigid system of catch quotas and licensing to ensure that populations of the countless species — the sockeye, coho, and king salmon; halibut; spot prawns; black, ling, and pacific cod — that live in these waters remain healthy and robust.
In this way, Marsh and his cohort represent what he calls “true hook-and-line artisan fisheries. This doesn’t exist in many places in the world anymore.” They are stewards of the sea in the same way that diversified farmers work to maintain the health of the soil: with future generations in mind. This is what sustainable fishing looks like.
Once fishermen like Marsh return to shore however, their fish is scarcely out of the boat before it enters a global market. Salmon — like wheat, corn, soy, and sugar — is traded as a commodity. This means that once docked, fishermen typically sell their catch to a processor for a fixed price that has more to do with the global price of salmon, either wild-caught or farmed, than it does with its point of origin. From there it goes into the distribution system: It might be flown to Japan for sale at fish markets, shipped to Asia for further processing, or packed up for sale in grocery stores.
As a result of this system, fishermen like Marsh might only earn seventy cents to two dollars a pound for fish that will be sold at your grocer’s fish counter for ten to twenty times that amount. Nic Mink, Marsh’s business partner, explains that through this system, “the industrial food system is horrifically destroying small-scale food producers, in agriculture, but even more in fisheries.” The commodity model obscures the fact that “fish is food,” says Nic, “Fishermen get into a mind-set where they think of themselves as natural resource extractors — miners or loggers — instead of as artisan food producers.”
What’s more, says Marsh, “because your fish is just pooled together, sold with everyone else’s fish, it means that there’s no market incentive for fishermen to take better care of the fish,” says Marsh. “To me that seemed like a fundamentally broken system.”
When he and Nic met, they developed an idea to fix it. In 2012, Nic was in Alaska working with the environmental advocacy organization Sitka Conservation Society. A professor in the Environmental Studies Department at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Nic and Marsh connected over a shared love of food and sustainable food systems. Marsh was hosting a series of pop-up dinner parties at the time; “I invited him to one of these dinners and we became friends over cooking together.”
Later that year, Marsh made the decision to buy a boat of his own, Loon, and Nic returned to Illinois and his teaching job. In the hopes of raising the funds to support further conservation work, Nic and his students reached out to members of the Knox College community.
The idea was to sell “shares” of Alaskan salmon, mimicking the structure of community supported agriculture (CSA), where subscribers buy a share of vegetables, then enjoy the harvest throughout the growing season. Instead of vegetables, subscribers would buy a share in a CSF, a community supported fishery, for Alaskan salmon. “I sent out an e-mail saying, hey, theses students and I are working on this conservation project,” Nic recalls, “We’d like to go back next year, will you support us? We sold a thousand pounds of Marsh’s fish just like that.” Barely a month later he was fielding e-mails from supporters eager for more.
Fresh fish in the Midwest is not often at its best. Even in major cities like Chicago, it is often trucked in from the coasts and that extra time in transit is often evident in the product forsale. Nic saw, in this set of circumstances, an opportunity to cultivate a regular market channel from fishermen like Marsh to Midwest consumers eager to buy high-quality frozen fish from a known source. He and his students wrote a business plan and began the work of building the infrastructure to sell Marsh’s coho and sockeye salmon directly to consumers.
Nic continues to teach at Knox occasionally, but in 2012 he formally began the business of Sitka Salmon Shares and diverted most of his attention toward cultivating the resources to support it. “I left a steady job to do something that I did not quite have the same certainty in,” says Nic, “but on some level this is what I’ve always wanted to do, to take this knowledge and build a better food system.”
Marsh also bought into the company, working to convince other fishermen to partner with them, selling the idea of the start-up to a community deeply suspicious of change.
“When we first started people were super skeptical,” Nic recalls. In fact, “the only one who was really with me from the start was Marsh. Sitka Salmon Shares doesn’t work without Marsh,” says Nic. “Sitka is so small; the fishing community is only 500 vessels, so everybody knows everybody’s boat and everybody’s business. I’m an outsider, and that’s a powerful deterrent to a lot of things. Marsh can present ideas to our fleet in a way that I couldn’t possibly. His initial connections, his network, is delivering fishermen from their own networks so now we have a deeper pool of fishermen.”
The first full season, Marsh convinced four other fishermen to adhere to their company’s rigorous standards and sell some of their catch to the start-up. Four became ten, and then thirteen, and by the end of the 2017 year they’ll be working with 25 fishermen. Sitka Salmon Shares now owns its own facility in Sitka where they process fish from fishermen who, like Marsh, want to know where their fish goes once it leaves their boats.
“Now we have complete control of the process,” says Marsh. “From the fishermen, through the plant, to the final consumer, we have total control of how the fish is handled.” As soon as fish are caught, Sitka requires their fishermen to use a process that rinses blood from the flesh, then immediately pack them into slush ice to chill them quickly and keep them as fresh as possible. Relatively speaking, it’s a labor-intensive process but it makes a noticeable difference in the end product. Sitka also requires that all fish be returned to shore within three days of leaving the water. Once at their facility, the fish is filleted, vacuum sealed, and blast frozen, to ensure that it reaches their subscribers’ homes as close to the quality of a fish fresh from the water as possible.
“We really geek out on quality,” says Marsh. “The fish is so good coming out of the water, we want to share that with people so they have this perfect fish experience.” They pack the frozen fillets of fish into five-pound boxes — labeled with the name of the fisherman who caught it — and filled with photos and recipe suggestions from the fishermen themselves.
Eighty percent of Sitka’s fish still goes to their subscribers throughout the Midwest, and now they’re shipping their fish — packed with dry ice — through a common carrier as well, which means that they can deliver to the East Coast as far north as New York and as far south as the Carolinas. While they’re hoping to add another shipping hub to potentially get Sitka Salmon Shares to the west coast, they’re not in a hurry. Unlike some food start-ups, “we’re not looking to grow this as fast as possible to sell it,” says Nic. “We’re in this to build a better food system.”
Besides their subscriptions, some of Sitka’s fish goes whole to restaurants, and they’ve also begun selling direct to shoppers at several farmers’ markets in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. This offers potential subscribers the chance to try the fish before committing to a full share. “People are sometimes intimidated by fish, and we want to help them feel confident. We figure that if people are interacting with it,” Marsh explains, “asking questions and tasting it, they’re more likely to sign up for a share in the future.”
To further help with the educational and outreach aspects of Sitka Salmon Shares, Marsh is hosting pop-up dinner parties again, this time in the Midwest in the homes of their subscribers. “My greatest strength in the world,” he claims, “is cooking fish at dinner parties.” He arrives with a whole salmon, breaks it down, and then cooks it, low-and-slow, in the oven or on a grill, before serving it with roasted fennel, blood oranges, or ramp pesto, depending on the season.
“It’s mind-boggling to see what we’ve done,” says Nic, “but the entire basis of the company rests in our relationship and the fact that we happened to meet each other at a dinner party.
Photos by Kelley Jordan Schuyler