Salmon Extravaganza, Part I

On the gleaming, watery trail of wild Alaskan salmon, accompanied by greedy eaters (including me) and expert fishermen (not including me)


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 seafood—the 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 salmon—the 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 chain—not 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 prize—I 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 watch—and, for Cimarusti—to 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 frozen—and 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 salmon—the salmon you usually buy and eat in restaurants, almost every piece of lox, and most of what's in cans—is 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 wild—so 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 economy—fishing and seafood processing employ more people than any other industry in Alaska—and 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 soon—notice is short, often one or two hours—in 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 salmon—the fish I generally find underflavored and overly fatty—was, 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 Troopers—a group that sounds like the Royal Mounties but is actually mostly waterborne—patrols 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.




Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Sand Point isn't a tourist destination. Its modern incarnation was built for people who catch and process fish, and most of the buildings are low, new, and look prefab. (On a boat we were taken to see a town on Unga Island, built during the turn-of-the-century Gold Rush and finally abandoned in the 1970s. Its clapboard houses were weathered and sinking slowly into the soft volcanic soil and looked, as Auden said of his face, like wedding cakes left out in the rain.) There's essentially one paved road, and it leads from the airport to the harbor, site of the large Trident processing plant.

"Everyone here is in the fishing business and everyone is related," Carol Foster, a native Sand Pointer, told us when we boarded a yellow school bus to take a tour of the town. This is something that can be done in short order. There are very few public buildings: the Harbor Cafe, a blue freestanding garagelike building at the harbor; a Chinese restaurant; a nice bar; an even nicer and new school; and a PX-style supermarket and general market, where we were told to marvel at the six-dollar-a-pound nectarines and island prices. We city folk didn't marvel. With typical succinctness, Marion called them New York prices.


Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Everything is low. Trees snap in the strong and constant winds of the Aleutians. The land is tundra, covered with moss and low scrub. As with peat, which it looks like, you can sink several feet without warning. The organizers gave each of us the state shoe: a pair of Xtratuf boots, high as Wellies but much warmer, solider, and a dull tan rather than bright green. We all fell in love with these boots—you really do need a pair—and could think of no finer swag. The winds that keep everything low also carve grottoes and arches in the rock outcroppings around the many islands, almost as dramatic as the limestone calanques of Sardinia. On a later boating excursion we were told to look out for "elephants," high narrow arches forming, with a bit of imagination that took the denser among us (I was the densest) a while to use, the head and trunk. Oddly, herds of buffalo still roam the hills of the tundra, and odder still they are said to be the descendants of three buffaloes stolen in Oregon, one of them pregnant, that escaped a boat in 1955 and swam to shore. (I have yet to follow up with the elderly local who evidently knows the story.)


Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Most spectacular for us, there were several families of bald eagles, which roosted on telephone poles as we passed. One nest is beside the Russian Orthodox church, Bob Barnett, a local fisherman, told us; nests can reach six feet across. So how big are the eggs? "I don't want to get close enough to know." Pets need to be kept indoors, paritcularly cats, and people aren't immune, either, especially if they inadvertently come close to a nest. Ravens, fellow carrion-eating raptors, are big as wild turkeys. No wonder puffins, of which we saw dozens on the boat (their wings beat like hummingbirds) nest in rookeries in the high, jagged island cliffs.

We stayed at Carl and Elma's Marine View, a bed and breakfast whose owners, Carl and Elma Dirkers, gave us a welcoming lunch that was a high point of the trip. As I was leaving Sand Point, they told me that they'd met online, and that after a long correspondence Carl had spent a month in the Philippines meeting Elma's family before bringing her over. (In an email responding to my question of whether I could mention this, Carl said yes, adding: "Quality people do this when circumstances line up, and we are not crib robbers, misfits, or exploiters of these women.") Carl also works as director of special education for the school district. Practically everyone we met holds down several jobs, and one person can also hold several official roles in town government. We didn't talk to any of the seasonal workers who sleep in barrack-like apartment buildings and essentially live in the processing plants while they're there.


Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

The welcome lunch was surpassed only by the farewell banquet Michael will describe in an accompanying post: fresh salad and vegetables, the luxury of which we already knew from the store to appreciate; fresh-baked rolls; and endless quantities of baked sockeye—three Pyrex pans full, the fish wrapped in foil. This was really the visitor's dream come true: all the extremely fresh sockeye you could eat. Though I'm in the minority, I much prefer sockeye, with its intense, deep color and meaty, firm texture (good for canning) to the richer, soft, fattier, pinker king.

Elma had baked the thick, dark-salmon—they vividly define the color, and make king, not to mention paint-chip, feed-fed farmed salmon look anemic—simply, with onions and a bit of parsley in foil packages. She'd also cooked it till it was very firm, the texture of kippered salmon. My fellow guests were sparing, as if they were jaded, or plain polite. I was not. I kept going back and cleaning up the ragged pieces others had left, standing on ceremony. Then I dove into the one unopened foil package, and kept going back to that, too. I still dream of those three panfuls.

Part II tomorrow: Hauling up salmon and watching chef Michael Cimarusti clean them—and a post from him on catching and cooking his own.