From Sitka to Kodiak, small, independent commercial fishermen are taking an increasingly hands-on role in marketing their own fish.
Rhonda Hubbard and her husband Jim of Seward started selling and processing their own fish more than two decades ago. Since then, she’s seen more fishermen do the same.
Hubbard said that the markets many of those fishermen reach, like farmers’ markets in the Lower 48 and other small sales opportunities, are niches that traditional processors often can’t fill.
“There’s a lot of people that would like to get better access to good quality seafood,” Hubbard said.
Direct marketing is one way to eliminate much of the separation between people who eat fish and people who catch fish. It can be challenging, though; Hubbard said she wears many hats to make her business work, and the regulatory process can be cumbersome.
Now, community supported fishery programs that provide a link between catcher and consumer are on the rise, offering many of the benefits of direct marketing, without requiring that all fishermen also act as businessmen.
Nic Mink founded Sitka Salmon Shares, a Southeast community support fishery, or CSF, after living and working in Sitka. He works at Butler University, and teaches about sustainable food systems. While living in Stika, he saw the opportunity to develop a new market for the salmon, and other fish, being landed there.
“This became a theory-meets-practice kind of project,” he said.
Sitka Salmon Shares supplies Midwest consumers with wild Alaska fish. Fishermen receive a premium, and customers gain access to better fish than is typically available in local supermarkets, Mink said.
Sitka Salmon Shares has about eight fishermen who regularly deliver catch, and another three or four who do so less often, Mink said.
They’re paid well above dock price for their fish, with prices set about six months in advance to provide more stability, as well. In exchange, they’re expected to pressure bleed salmon, keep the fish on ice and meet other production standards intended to ensure a high quality product.
Initially the program started with salmon, but now customers can purchase eight species.
Sitka Salmon Share’s fish is processed in state before it’s shipped Outside. In each of the communities where the fish is delivered, customers receive their shipments at home. Mink said that end of the operation is kept efficient, and it costs about 60 cents to 70 cents per pound to deliver the fish.
In addition to getting fish, customers can see photos and videos of the boats catching them. Mink and his partners also work to educate them about how Alaska’s fisheries work when sometimes the catch is unpredictable and “nature is chaos,” he said.
Most of the company’s growth has occurred via word of mouth. Next, Mink hopes to spread in the major cities where it operates: Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. Historically, much of the region has had “horrendous access” to wild seafood. It’s also where many of the participating fishermen have roots, Mink said.
Mink did a trial run of Sitka Salmon Shares in 2011, and launched the program in full in 2012. It’s grown every year since then; in 2014, he expected to move 80,000 pounds of processed fish.
“I think that there’s a tremendous amount of growth that I see in this type of marketplace, and I only think that more and more fishermen are going to enter into these types of relationships,” he said.
Alaska Glacier Seafoods Plant Facilitator Peter Hochstoeger said his company has processed fish for Sitka Salmon Shares for two years. There’s plenty of room in the market for the top-end type of product the company is selling, he said.
“They’re not just selling fish,” he said. “They’re letting you know where the products come from, and the origin, and in a way they’re selling Alaska too.”
Hochstoeger said that essentially, the CSF is selling a story.
“You’re not just buying from a counter,” he said. “I think the idea’s great. Who doesn’t love a good story?”
Mink said he also sees CSFs as a way to help develop younger fishermen and stop the graying of the fleet. In addition to buying fish, the company provides no-interest loans to start the season and has helped some younger fishers get into trolling in Southeast, he said.
Mink said that Sitka Salmon Shares wound up working with younger fishermen in part because that was who he met when he was living with, and helped start the company. They also tend to believe in the company’s mission, he said.
“They’ve grown up in a world, like I have, where connecting to your food is an important thing,” he said.
Sitka isn’t the only place where locally-caught fish is delivered via the CSF model.
Kodiak fishermen partnered with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council on a Kodiak Jig program last winter.
Darius Kasprzak, a Kodiak resident and long-time fisher, has worked in most of Alaska’s commercial fisheries.
He’s jigged for about half of his 30-year fishing career, a gear type that he says affords entry level access and provides good control over bycatch.
In 2014, he participated in AMCC’s CSF, which paid more than other places where he could deliver his fish.
“This is the very beginning,” he said. “I’m still going to have to go volume fishing to make my living for the summer, but it’s got to start somewhere.”
The higher price is compensation for more intensive practices, including immersion bleeding in slush ice and hand layering the fish to avoid bruising, which produce a higher quality product.
Kodiak jig fish was marketed to individual consumers, as well as restaurants. Chef Natalie Janicka of Bear Tooth in Anchorage said she tried the fish at home, and the quality was as described; she knew she needed to purchase some for the restaurant.
“It was just amazing” Janicka said in April.
“The texture of the fish, the firmness, it was just really meaty. Crazy meaty and delicious.”
Other CSFs have cropped up in Haines and False Pass and elsewhere in the state.
Mink said he’s also tried to help other fishermen start their own similar programs. There’s plenty of demand, and he said the lack of a model was a challenge when he started; he wants to help others avoid that hurdle.
“It’s important to me that we continue to nurture this type of system,” he said.