Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
This piece is the first in a two-part series about Corby's recent trip to remote Alaskan salmon fisheries that few journalists ever visit.
Alaska brags about the way it manages its fishery. It invests in both protecting it and showing it off, as in the trip Marion Nestle and I went on a bit over a week ago. Paid-for (and fun) junket aside, the state has reason to boast. The state supplies half the country's wild-caught seafoodâthe only kind many of us want to eat. No Alaskan seafood has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as Marion points out in her series of three excellent posts about the trip. In his new book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food ( an excerpt of which, on tuna, ran in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine ), Paul Greenberg says of the state's Department of Fish & Game, "When it comes to salmon, Alaska is a little like a wise old man sitting on a far northern perch overlooking the destruction that humanity has wrought farther south."
The group that invited us, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute , is a public-private partnership that seeks to promote the state's seafood. The idea was for a couple of journalists and one star chef, Michael Cimarusti of the restaurant Providence , in Los Angeles, to get a close look at wild salmonâthe glamour fish, the one cooks and eaters like me wait all year for. (As I'm from Connecticut, my own internal clock is set to spring shad and summer bluefish.) The group started in Anchorage and went to a remote island in the Aleutian chainânot only because it produces excellent sockeye, one of the four main species of Pacific salmon, but because, unlike Sitka, Cordova, and other famous fishing towns, it's not a place most journalists, or tourists, ever go. And we were promised some king salmon, the kind most chefs, though not I, most prizeâI prefer the redder, richer-flavored though lower-fat, sockeye. The organizers made good on their promise: a group of fishermen and processors who had seldom talked to journalists and were thus unusually candid, and some great fish to watchâand, for Cimarustiâto catch and clean and cut, at very, very close range.
Greenberg, who picked salmon as one of his four fish, likely chose it because it's what could be called a charismatic fish, one that resonates with fishermen and eaters alike. The salmon-fishing season is short, from mid-May through mid-October, and the trip was scheduled to coincide with its height. Although a small number of king salmon are allowed to be caught during the winter, if you're eating wild salmon in any other month it has been frozenâand even during the summer it might well have been frozen too. This is not the sin it once invariably was: carefully frozen fish often arrives at a restaurant in better shape than fish that has traveled on ice.
Refresher: no Atlantic salmon of any kind, whether from Canada, Scotland, Chile, or Norway, is wild. Atlantic salmon were decimated in New England by the end of the 19th Century, and then around Greenland, their home territory, during commercial-fishery depredations of the 1950s and '60s. Today all commercially available Atlantic salmonâthe salmon you usually buy and eat in restaurants, almost every piece of lox, and most of what's in cansâis farmed . How farmed fish are penned and fed are subjects of enormous controversy (see Marion's What to Eat ), and in the not-distant future we could be eating salmon genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as they currently do, if a Waltham, Massachusetts company called AquaBounty wins FDA approval, a case that could open the door to many other kinds of engineered animals. As Barry Estabrook just wrote , these Frankenfish (I know, we're being knee-jerk Luddites) already exist, and were the main sight on one of the most alarming and depressing excursions he ever made, while on Prince Edward Island. All Pacific salmon you buy, which is from a separate genus whose breeding grounds are rivers in Russia and the Pacific Northwest, is wildâso far.
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
Alaska's constitution mandates that it manage its fisheries for sustainability, and the standards we saw in practice have been in place for more than 50 years. (Recall, Alaska became a state only in 1959; its constitution was written in the midst of wholesale destruction of Atlantic salmon populations by Scandinavian fleets.) Seafood's importance to the economyâfishing and seafood processing employ more people than any other industry in Alaskaâand the state's tiny population of just 670,000 (in 2006; that's one person per square mile), gives the department more power than its counterparts in the Lower 48, where development pressures have always warred with sustainability.
The principles seem simple, in outline. The state determines an "acceptable biological catch," the most fish that can be sustainably caught, and then the "total allowable catch," a number smaller than the first. Then it gauges its season "openers," the periods during which fishermen can catch a certain fish, accordingly.
I had occasion to watch this process four years ago, when I visited Cordova , a fishing town with a distinctly hippie vibe, for the Copper River Nouveau, an annual benefit. Copper River has successfully marketed itself as synonymous with the highest quality of wild salmon, in a way other Alaskan regions known for salmon, like Bristol Bay and Sitka, might like to do. And in a way that Aleutia , a nonprofit consortium of fishermen around the Aleutians, is doing now, paying fishermen and charging buyers a premium for fish caught and processed with special care. (Aleutia is a "regional seafood development association," following in the footsteps of the one that Copper River formed with such good results.)
When I first visited, the conditions salmon fishermen work under seemed particularly odd and random: waiting by their radios for an announcement that Fish & Game would allow fishing to start very soonânotice is short, often one or two hoursâin a certain area, for a limited number of hours. "There's an actual countdown," John Hilsinger, director of the department's division of commercial fisheries, told me over a dinner of king salmon and fresh halibut in Anchorage at Orso , a restaurant whose chef, Rob Kinneen, pays close attention to local ingredients and of course fish, the night I arrived. He had the misfortune of sitting beside me, in easy range of my fork: I'd ordered the halibut, which turned out to be a bit mealy, whereas his king salmonâthe fish I generally find underflavored and overly fattyâwas, in season and so close to the source, truly kingly. I was able to distract him from his ever-shrinking chunk of fish by asking about the timing of openers. A Fish & Game official, he told me, will announce at the start of each one: "The fishery will open at the sound of my voice and my voice alone." When the countdown ends, "the guys go crazy."
They go crazy because there is no limit on the number of fish caught. The limit is time alone, and anyone can catch as many fish as they're able to during that period. The department does limit size of boat and type of fishing gear allowed, and prohibits mass-catch long lines, sunken nets, and traps. A rogue heat-sensing, fish-finding trawler can't swoop in and suck up everybody else's fish, at least not legally. Alaska Wildlife Troopersâa group that sounds like the Royal Mounties but is actually mostly waterborneâpatrols and enforces the limits, boarding boats to check whether they're using illicit equipment or methods, and monitoring to see that boats are in authorized waters during authorized hours.
Licenses to fish various species are restricted and prized, sometimes fetching prices that seem suited to New York City taxi medallions. Most residents of fishing towns hold at least one permit. Permits are classified by type of fish, fishing method, and geographical area; though someone can hold several permits, she or he can use only one permit a season. The burden of documentation is high. License holders must fill out a "fish ticket" for every single fish they catch, listing, according to the Fish & Game website, "the species landed, the weight of each species, the gear used to catch the fish, catch dates, the fisher, the processor, and the statistical area fished."
It's an enormous amount of paperwork for a messy, unpredictable, and often understaffed process. "Regulated inefficiency," the department calls it. An opener, with boats literally careening into each other like waterborne bumper cars, is more like regulated chaos.