From the Waters of Alaska: Community Supported Fisheries
By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By contributed 0
Joe Daniels has just docked his fishing boat, a 50-footer called “The Amnicon,” for what’s expected to be a gusty three-day storm with winds at 50 to 60 knots. He’s a little worried about losing the fishing time, but now he has a moment to talk. Daniels fishes year-round for king salmon, coho salmon and lingcod, and lives on his boat in Sitka, Alaska. He grew up in a smaller fishing village in Alaska, where his dad, too, was a fisherman. Now in his eleventh season, Daniels first fished from an old wooden boat, and then upgraded to his current fiberglass vessel, which was built in 1978, the year he was born.
In Southeast Alaska, fishing is food and business, life and work, with family members handing down fishing permits and tales of the trade for generations. But Daniels is the first in his family to become an investor in a community supported fishery (CSF), which buys his catch and delivers it directly to home cooks who have in turn paid for an upfront share.
Daniels approached the owners of Sitka Salmon Shares about three years ago when he heard about their concept. “I like the idea that the customer will know where this came from,” says Daniels. “I thought it was a beautiful idea.” Before his deal with Sitka Salmon Shares, Daniels sold his fish to processors in the typical way, not knowing if his fish would be mixed with other fish, or anything about where it would be sold. Fishermen owners of Sitka Salmon Shares also have a little more assurance as they set out on the water, as customers are already committed.
Sitka Salmon Shares was started in 2010 when Nic Mink, an environmental studies professor, arrived in Sitka to work on fisheries conservation. Mink met Marsh Skeele and other local fishermen, and together they came up with the idea to offer fish directly to individuals, while telling them exactly where and how, and often by whom, it was caught. While the company is officially based in Galesburg, Illinois, where Mink teaches at Knox College, the reception in Madison has fueled much of the success of the business. Of Sitka Salmon Shares’ 4,000 customers, 900 are in Madison. The company now has 15 fisherman owners, including Daniels, who each have about $20,000 invested in the company, and the company recently bought its own processing plant in Sitka to keep better control over what happens to the fish after they come off the boats. “Local is about community and justice,” says Mink of his philosophy of environmentally sound fishing practices and supporting the livelihood of those who catch the fish. “We’re looking at ways to change the way people eat seafood on a fundamental level.”
Madison, with its beautiful, bountiful lakes but far distance from any ocean, may at first seem an unlikely hot market for seafood. But now that Madisonians have come to know and love local produce and responsibly sourced other foods, they are receptive to great, sustainable seafood, especially the kind that is difficult to find in the city. Salmon, too, draws customers who want the health benefits of the fish, including omega-3 fatty acids, but may be overwhelmed by choices of farm- or wild-raised, added colors or unknown origin.
Sitka Salmon Shares now has a processing location in Middleton, and Mink plans for the company to open a storefront in the Garver Feed Mill in Madison next year, in a renovated space that will feature many local food producers. “This is very much a Madison company,” says Mink, who received his PhD in natural resources and history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This is where my food sensibility was built.” Madison restaurants such as Forequarter, Harvest, Sujeo and Heritage Tavern have also become customers.
As Sitka Salmon Shares grows bigger, it is also offering more community events, such as dinners and cooking classes, and has expanded to offer an array of ordering options that include halibut, black cod, spot prawns and other varieties. It includes recipes in its packages, which arrive on ice, delivered directly to the door of the customer. But growth comes with challenges, too, as the long-time fish processing plants in Sitka have started to realize Sitka Salmon Shares, with its unusual model of having fishermen owners who are tied to and supportive of their own company, is not going away. Mink is also getting advice from experienced business people on how to get bigger, while keeping the mission intact.
Chris Kelly, who lives in Madison, became an investor and joined the Sitka Salmon Shares board of directors after being a customer impressed with the fish and the sustainability goals. Kelly and his family run a venture capital business, Venture Management, LLC, that primarily focuses on technology companies. Kelly says the seafood supply chain, which often involves letting fish sit or re-freezing them, is broken. “The premium seafood market is undeveloped,” he says.
Noah Locke saw the opportunity, too, in 2013 when he began offering CSF shares in Madison through Kwee-Jack Fish Co., based in Billings, Montana. Locke’s friend Joe Echo-Hawk had grown up in Alaska, and the two have been fishing together for years. Echo-Hawk started Kwee-Jack in 2009.
Kwee-Jack’s system differs from Sitka Salmon Shares in a few ways. Kwee-Jack has three employees, including Locke, who do the fishing themselves in Bristol Bay, Alaska, during a sixweek period in June and July. “You’re buying the fish from me,” says Locke. The company has one boat, a 25-foot aluminum skiff, and uses set net fishing. Kwee-Jack only fishes for one kind of fish—sockeye salmon.
Of Kwee-Jack’s 500 customers, 150 are from Madison. The company’s members pick up their shares—20 pounds of sockeye salmon—on one particular day in September. As of now, no direct deliveries or choices in packages are available. Locke says this simple, direct offering is what his customers want and that the boat can hold a few thousand pounds of salmon, enough to fill his orders. The processing is fast: on ice almost immediately, pin bones removed by a special machine.
Locke says Kwee-Jack is not interested in expanding types of fish, but plans to market more regionally to Chicago and Milwaukee. “Letting it grow organically works for us right now,” he says. Locke says it’s pretty exciting to be out in Bristol Bay when the some 40 million salmon are running upstream. He says he likes to hear when customers open their packages that the fish “smells like the ocean,” and he can tell them the story of where and when it was caught.
Back in Sitka, Joe Daniels is getting ready to go out on the water again. It’s not easy, but he likes the idea that a family in the Midwest will enjoy the salmon he might catch that day. “The working conditions are lousy,” he says. “It’s dangerous. We work 18-hour days.” He pauses. “It’s nice to feel appreciated.”