Sockeye Salmon: First-Hand Fishing Report

Local Alaskan seafood: At Bloomingfoods we like to have a connection with our food. We’re on a first-name basis with many of our local fruit growers, and work hard to provide fresh, local, sustainable and cooperatively produced goods to Bloomington. To our store, the term “local” refers to products that were produced within 100 miles of Bloomington. Obviously we don’t have any oceans that close, but we can sometimes achieve a local connection to something produced so far away, like our seafood. Being in a landlocked state, we don’t have many links with our products from the coasts. We work closely with our seafood suppliers to obtain sustainably caught or farmed sea foods while giving shoppers good value and selection, but we don’t know the fisherman who caught our Portuguese sardines or the fish farm where our tilapia was raised. However, after my own experiences this summer I’d like to share some insight into how wild-caught Alaskan salmon arrives at your table.

At the Near West Side store I am often running a register when you’re checking out with your lunch or groceries, but this June and July I was on a boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska, catching sockeye salmon. The opportunity to work on a commercial fishing vessel this summer came through a close friend who needed an extra hand on the boat he would be captaining this season. He told me a great deal of what to expect while on the water and how to prepare, but when I stepped onto the forest-fringed tarmac at the Dillingham airport, I had little idea what I was really in for.

Dillingham is a small village that swells during salmon season and has few year-round residents. It can only be reached by air or by boat, and there are only about 26 miles of road. My first five days were spent helping my skipper, Zach, do repairs and yearly maintenance on the boat. This involved the requisite cleaning jobs left for “greenhorns” like me, such as cleaning the fish holds and changing the oil on the engine and generator. Once the boat was stocked and the nets were inspected we put out into the Nushagak Bay to await our first opener of the season.

Part of my education this trip was about our gear: when I was younger, I was often taught that “drift nets” were ubiquitously evil in their destruction of marine ecosystems, but they have their place. Drift netting is a matter of using the right tool for a given task. In river deltas like the Nushagak Bay, where seawater meets freshwater from the mountains, there is not much life in the water there. The sandy bottom and incredible tide changes have allowed few species to adapt to this harsh and inhospitable environment. Salmon are, in many ways, the keystone of this ecosystem because during their spawning, other species can congregate for a good meal. The Beluga whales, sea lions, sea birds and fishermen drift into the bays for a shot at the moving buffet headed for the lakes and rivers upstream.

Once caught in our nets, the salmon are hauled aboard by a hydraulic reel, and the nets are picked by hand. Salmon are dropped into holding tanks on board the boat to keep them cold and wet until they can be sold to the tenders anchored at various points in the bay. There are two types of holding tanks used on the boats; many smaller boats must use salted ice to keep the fish chilled, while our boat had a Refrigerated Seawater system (RSW) that circulates cooled water directly from the bay into the tanks and over the fish. Having this latter method on the boat fetches a higher price for the fishermen because it helps to better ensure the quality of the fish until it can be processed. Then, once every 12 hours, we’re required to deliver our catch to larger vessels called tenders which have larger holding tanks and more effective cooling systems. These boats are often off-season crab boats (we even got to see some of the famous boats from the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch) who work for the cannery collecting fish and refueling fishing vessels before taking the salmon to the cannery to be processed. While small fishing vessels like ours remain on the water for the majority of the season, the tenders ferry the catch and supplies back and forth from the harbor.

When our catch reaches the cannery it is processed into the plethora of salmon products enjoyed around the world. Besides producing canned, salted, smoked, or filleted salmon, the canneries also boost the local economies of small fishing villages like Dillingham by employing many locals at the cannery. All the fishermen who flock to town for the season demand a great deal of peripheral services that help keep them supplied and on the water. The seasonal flood of people who come to fish fuel the local economy by purchasing everything they need to be on the water for a month or more — items like food, drink, fuel, parts, nets, net-repair, welding, electronics, etc. Unfortunately, due to the remoteness of villages like Dillingham, staple items that we take for granted in the lower 48 can be extremely expensive.

After spending four weeks in Dillingham I was relieved to return home to the sweltering heat. I have developed a greater understanding of where one of my favorite foods comes from and the hard work that goes into getting it from the Pacific and onto my grill. I look forward to next summer’s fishing season, but until then, there’s always Lake Lemon. If you want to know more about my trip or how your fish has made it to our store, come see me at the Near West Side store and I’ll tell you what I know.

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1 Alaskan fisheries have the honor of claiming to be one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, due to strict management and enforcement. There is a fine dance done between the fishermen (and women), the canneries and fish processors, and the scientists who work with the Department of Fish and Game in Alaska. With salmon it’s a numbers game during their spawning season. The scientists forecast an estimate of how many fish will return to spawn and will subsequently determine how many must avoid catchment in order to return to their spawning grounds and replicate their numbers for a future season. Once a certain number of fish have made it past the counters (who are often people sitting in a tower upstream keeping a clicker count) then the DFG will broadcast an “opener” on the radios telling fishermen when and for how long they may fish.