From Frigid Fjord to Fork: Adventures in Alaskan Seafood

Helene York, Bon Appétit's director of strategic initiatives, recently visited Alaska, where she was speaking at Global Food Alaska’s biennial summit of producers from all parts of the food supply chain. Being Helene, she turned the trip into a jam-packed opportunity to learn all she could about the Alaskan seafood industry.


Tuesday, Day 1: I arrived in Anchorage. Even though I personally consume about a ton of Alaskan seafood each year, and part of my day job is to secure excellent seafood for our chefs, I have never been to Alaska. I agreed to speak under the “condition” that someone create an itinerary for me. I admit, I’ve been intimidated by Alaska’s vast geography, and I wanted to ensure that I made the most of a few days.  

Alaska_glacier Jim Browning, former Fish & Game marine biologist and now director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, met me at the airport and graciously drove me down the Sterling Highway to the Kenai Peninsula. AFDF is a nonprofit that promotes full utilization of fisheries resources (another way of saying “use the whole fish”). On the way we stopped briefly, and I saw my first glacier and glacial silt lake (photo, right). It was blue! (What was I expecting?) In three-plus hours on the road, and while gawking at gorgeous snow-covered mountains, I learned more about the Alaskan fishing industry and its attendant politics than I had picked up in six years of reading and thinking I knew something.

We arrived at Soldotna, where Jim’s family had homesteaded after World War II. The local Mexican restaurant (the only non-saloon within walking distance of my inn) served up enormous portions of halibut tacos. Sundown was 11:30 p.m.—I swear it never actually got dark.

Wednesday, Day 2: Given the role of “special keynoter” at the Global Food Alaska summit, I had to make my title compelling, so I chose “The End of Sustainability As We Know It.” I wanted to convey that we’ve reached a point beyond which food producers can no longer label their products as “sustainable,” because the term is misused, overused, and generally ignored as marketing fluff. Moreover, most buyers have their own definitions, and weigh a variety of factors (such as environmental or labor issues) on different scales. What’s needed, I argued, are for food producers to list their attributes honestly—e.g., sourced from a well-managed fishery, fully traceable back to the boat, etc.—and acknowledge what’s left to change, such as using their byproducts efficiently, or finding alternative ways to power their operations other than fossil fuels. Sustainability is where we are headed; not where we are.  

Alaska_mountain4 Most of the 200-plus attendees were small- and medium-size, husband-and-wife owners of food businesses—dairy farmers, commercial fishers, elk ranchers, scallop and oyster mariculturists, a barley farmer, even a tortilla-chip manufacturer who produces salmon wraps for public school lunches. Most were primary producers who aren’t yet creating “value-added” products or distributing beyond very local channels. One of the purposes of this summit was to introduce participants to ideas about how to scale up and partner with other producers.  

At the strolling lunch, I met Fred West, who’s been smoking salmon for commercial distribution for decades. He’s developed a “salmon bacon” that was extraordinary, but like many small business owners, he’s hesitant to scale up. I met the president of the Kachemak Shellfish Owner’s Coop, who delivers some of the best-tasting oysters I’d ever eaten to restaurants within a five-mile radius of her operation. In my talk, I’d suggested that the concept of “food miles,” the distance food travels from field or fishery to plate, was too simplistic. Sometimes we in the food movement get over something before it’s even percolated to the mainstream: She’d never heard of “food miles,” even though her company embodies the best that the term offers.

Thursday, Day 3: Today was just pure fun and decadence (though I managed to learn a lot anyway). Kathy Tarr from the Department of Creative Writing and Literary Arts at University of Alaska-Anchorage drove me to Homer, an hour south on the Kenai Peninsula. Homer is the self-described halibut capital of the world, but it is also a growing oyster mariculture center. Kathy and I took a two-hour ride on a three-seat float plane around Kachemak Bay, including Halibut Cove, fjords, and Grewingk Glacier.

The pilot landed the plane on the water to get a better view of the glacier. While we were there, the glacier “calved,” and pieces of ice fell into the water. The plane rocked. It sounded like thunder. From the sky, we saw a black bear and three baby cubs. Bald eagles are sights almost as common as pigeons are to me. We touched down at Tutka Bay Lodge, had lunch, and hiked around the property. Resident hummingbirds are tiny and bright orange. A water taxi returned us to Homer. Eating lunch was the only non-new thing I did that day.

Alaska_hy-Our pilot, Stephanie Anderson (in the middle of the photo at right), is the strong woman of which Alaska mythology is made. She came to the state from Minnesota at age 21 to work as a mechanic and welder with her uncle in a gold mine. Heavy snow prevented them from driving out at the end of the season, so she walked 30 miles to the nearest town, population 6. No one was there, so she broke into a building for shelter. The next day, a plane sent by her aunt rescued her and she decided then to become a pilot. Her knowledge of local geology is impressive. She is also captain of a boat, an EMT, and competes in cross-country ski races. If she’d also told me that she wrestles bears, I’d have believed her.

Alaska_hyyellowjpg Day 4, Friday: In the morning I met an economic development official for a ride in his boat from the Kenai River Bend. We got a river-high look at an important salmon fishery going 35 knots most of the way. Like most Alaskans, my host wears more than one hat. In addition to advising food businesses on how to scale up successfully, he also runs a family business selling jarred salmon salsa.

Alaska has four distinct fishing constituencies: commercial, sport, subsistence, and “personal use.” The commercial fishery produces all of the salmon, halibut, black cod, Pacific cod, and king crab we eat in “the Lower 48.” The sport fishermen claim to bring more economic development to the state because visitors hire them to fish on rivers and lakes. The subsistence fishery gives natives a right to claim what they need. Personal use strikes me as an odd add-on. In the light, late-night days of summer, folks go out to the rivers (before the fish are counted upstream) and use dip nets to catch their own. A significant amount of the waters’ bounty is taken this way without the catch restrictions. By regulation, the first three fisheries are to be satisfied first, but the days to fish for personal use occur before the other constituencies get a chance or the allotments are made. Hmm. Sounds like an entitlement that would be politically too hard to change at this point….

At midday, I flew from the Kenai airport, which has three gates but never more than one plane on the tarmac at any one time, to Anchorage before hoping a plane to Cordova. (In a flashback to more than a decade ago, I actually brought a 12-ounce bottle of liquid on board. There’s no TSA presence here.) The flight to Anchorage was a grand total of 19 minutes, versus a three-hour drive. A guy on board asked the flight attendant for a beer. She gave him an open bottle, but they don’t take credit cards and he had no cash, so she took $5 out of her pocket, put it in the kitty, and told him to tell the flight attendant on the next flight “that you owed her boss $5.”

Alaska_boat5 In Cordova, I met Scott Blake, CEO of Copper River Seafoods. It was the beginning of spending almost two days together to see the entire seafood supply chain from the mouth of the river, where the fish return to spawn, to the truck that ships sides of fish as far as New York. Scott, a former commercial fishermen and the son of fishers, cofounded the company with three other fishermen.

One of the Cordova streets on the Eyak Lake we passed is also a runway. (Even the streets in Alaska wear two hats). Small planes fly fishermen from their boats home and back to their boats, which are left at sea.

Alaska_boat That evening, I watched gill netters (30-foot boats) and tenders (the large-hold boats that pick up catches from smaller boats) unload their fish at the CRS dock until 11 p.m. Gill netters off-loaded their catch in large sacks with slush ice into iced totes that store 600 pounds of salmon. Tenders generally use a vacuum on the dock to suck up fish and the icy water in which they travel into large, 1,000-pound totes. Forklifts cart the totes short distances and stack them to be ready for production beginning at 5 a.m. the next morning. As much as anything, this dock is an ice factory, designed to keep the fish at a constant cold temperature. During the salmon run (roughly mid-May through September, depending on the species), the dock is rarely idle, and the sun never sets.

Alaska_frozen8 Saturday, Day 5: Scott picked me up at 6 a.m., and off we went to the plant to see what was happening to the salmon that was offloaded the night before. Dozens of young people were quickly doing primary-stage processing—getting it ready for smoking or cutting into sides. They cut off heads and extracted innards, or separated roe and milt from the rest of the salmon. Temperature control is measured and maintained at every step. CRS has an ikura room, where two kinds of roe are salted and packed for export to Japan or Europe.

We drove inland to the mouth of the Copper River. Mountains on both sides and a massive glacier surround the river, which runs for 300 miles. This spot, where the hundred-year-old Million Dollar Bridge connects the old copper mines to a transportation corridor, is where the Department of Fish and Game monitors returning salmon using a mesh screen that trips the sonar counter to determine quantities and allotments. The setting easily rivals the beauty of the Grand Canyon. I saw swans, Canada geese, more calving glaciers….but no moose. (I swear there’s no moose in Alaska despite everyone’s claims to the contrary. And no moose burgers on restaurant menus either.) Late that afternoon, Scott and I flew to Anchorage, and I finally gave him a break from my relentless barrage of questions. The gleaming “headless and gutted” (H&G) salmon took a boat ride to the same place.

Sunday, Day 6: My host for this amazing trip, Robin Richardson, CEO of Global Food-Connect, and I went to the Anchorage headquarters of Copper River Seafoods. Billy Green, vice president of processing, gave us a tour of the facility where the salmon is cut into sides, pin bones are removed (by machine and by hand), and sides are packed, inspected, boxed, and loaded onto a refrigerated truck for delivery throughout the U.S. I’ve been to fish processing plants before. Everything about this place was better: smells, sounds, lighting, quality. There was even piped-in music for the workers.

Our lunch at the facility was nothing short of wonderful, and I wrote more about it for the Atlantic, in the post "Alaska's Tartare and Burgers: Can We Learn to Save Wasted Fish?"

Salmon differences

A primer of salmon types and their various names, adapted from and other Web sources.

King = chinook (fished May to mid-June)

King salmon have blue-green backs, silvery sides, and white bellies with black spots on the back and tail. They average 10 to 50 pounds but can reach 130 pounds. They have an average average life expectancy of five to seven years. Their flesh is firm and rich in flavor. King salmon are found in the Pacific Ocean ranging from the San Francisco Bay to the arctic waters of Canada and Russia.

Sockeye = red (fished May through mid-July)

Sockeye have dark blue-black backs, silvery sides, and white bellies. They range from 6 to 9 pounds and have an average life expectancy of four to five years. Their flesh is ruby red. Sockeye is the most sought-after breed because of its color and flavor. Sockeye are found in the Pacific Ocean from Oregon to the Canadian arctic.  

Coho = silver (August and September)

Coho salmon are bright silver with small black spots on their backs and upper fin. They range from 6 to 12  pounds. Their flesh is light pink and has a delicate flavor. Coho are found in the Pacific Ocean from mainland Alaska to Monterey Bay, CA.

Chum = keta (mid-June thru mid-September)

Chum salmon have greenish-blue blacks with silver in the tail. They look very similar to sockeye. They range from 6 to 17 pounds and have a life expectancy of three to six years. Chum salmon have light-colored flesh and a very mild flavor. Chum are found in the Pacific from Oregon to Alaska.