Sustainable Salmon Fishing: An Interview with Sitka Salmon Shares fisher, Marsh Skeele

By Staff
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By Josh Brewer and Marsh Skeele

Photographs By: Kelley Jordan

Sitka Salmon Shares opened to bring sustainable fish harvests straight from Alaskan lures onto Midwestern plates in a way that respects the targeted and non-targeted species, the ocean environment, and Alaskan ecosystems vital to aquatic populations. Lofty as that goal may seem, the Sitka, Alaska- and Galesburg, Illinois-based organization did succeed in landing a handful of the most flavorful King Salmon, Black Cod and Dungeness Crabs to ever grace my skillet, onto my plate and into my belly, deep in the Great Plains. In addition to the taste, wild-caught salmon and cod provide a rich source of long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and ALA, panaceas in much health-oriented literature. As news continues to detail poor nutrition at home and collapsing fisheries around the world, I’m heartened by the organizations like Sitka Salmon Shares with sound ecological practices.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Sitka Salmon Shares fisherman, Marsh Skeele, whose responses have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

How would you define a healthy stock population?

A sustainable fishery harvests at a level that leaves enough fish in the wild to reproduce and sustain healthy populations. This is the gist of what it means to be sustainable, but there are many other factors to consider. What type of gear is used to harvest the seafood? Is it harmful to marine ecosystems? Does it capture many unwanted non-targeted species? Is the ecosystem healthy enough to support a directed commercial fishery?

Alaska is a global leader in sustainably managed fisheries because of the policies that are in place, but also because it’s such a productive marine ecosystem. Alaska’s marine ecosystem is so healthy and productive, that a small percentage of the total wild stock is still a lot of fish. In 2014 alone, 717 million salmon were sustainably harvested in Alaska’s waters. Even with this great volume of salmon, enough were allowed to spawn to ensure healthy future fish stocks. 

 

Tell us a little about your fishing methods.

I troll for King, Coho, and Keta salmon. Essentially I am dragging 20-80 lures through the water with heavy lead cannonballs weighing the lines down. There are 4 lines, and clear, monofilament fishing lines, called leaders, run from each one. With the help of hydraulic fishing reels, I reel in the lines by hand until I reach the leader. After I let the line back out, I clean and pressure-bleed the fish. The pressure bleeding process uses a gentle stream of water to remove all the blood from the fish, extending its shelf life dramatically. Once the fish is cleaned and pressure bled, it goes directly into a slush-ice mixture in the boat’s fish hold. Since I land each fish individually, I can live release any non-target species or “bycatch.” I believe that individual handing and thorough cleaning ensures proper care and respect for every salmon.

 

After 2-3 days at sea I return to port in Sitka, Alaska, where a fish butcher will fillet my catch. That person will hand the fillets off to others who vacuum seal, and blast-freeze the meat to -40°. 

From Alaska, the frozen fish are shipped to our Galesburg, Illinois office, from which they are delivered to customers’ homes, primed and ready for some culinary pampering. 

Could you explain competing fishing practices that consumers should specifically avoid?

Sadly, many of the world’s wild fisheries are overfished. This is due to an increased global demand, destructive fishing technology, and lack of regulation. The trawl is one of the fishing technologies that dramatically increases the rate at which fish are caught.

Trawlers drag a large net through the water, scooping up their target species and whatever else is near what they are targeting.

 

This is, by far, the most efficient way to capture many fish. Some stocks have never recovered since trawling was introduced. Many unwanted fish—called “bycatch”—are discarded, often dead, back into the ocean. Some trawlers that target the bottom of the ocean floor tear up important habitat in search of their catch. The lack of regulation in much of the world’s oceans ensures that foreign fleets can fish an area until fish stocks are critically low, often without repercussion.

Other fisheries have enslaved workforces that are forced into terrible working conditions for little or no pay. These factors make it nearly impossible for small-scale domestic fishermen to be price competitive.

What is your relationship with the Sitka Conservation Society? What can other sustainable businesses and conservation groups learn from that model?

There are so many issues that are important to keep the sustainable small scale fisherman on the water. Our current project, Last Man Fishing, is a film about small-scale fishermen throughout the country and the challenges they face. Sitka Salmon Shares gives one percent of gross sales to the environment, and for a company that relies on healthy ecosystems this is the least we can do. Fresh water habitats are vital to healthy runs and we have worked with the Sitka Conservation Society to fund internships that work on restoring salmon habitat. We also work with Salmon Beyond Borders on their fight to keep Canadian Mining interests from polluting our valuable salmon rivers.

 

You’re a ways from us here in Kansas. How do you respond to the local critique? How about the vegan/vegetarian critique?

When looking to buy local, what are the values you are supporting? If you look at small-scale sustainably managed fisheries and the values of the local food movement you see many parallels. Your dollars go to support fishermen who are doing it right. You are voting with your fork and pocketbook to value sustainably managed fisheries. Just like buying directly from a farmer, you also get better products. 

 

Vegans and vegetarians have their own valid reasons to eat the way they do. I strongly believe in the humane treatment of animals and in supporting farming practices that don’t degrade the environment. A wild fish that spends its life in a pristine environment is going to have the best life. It will also offer the most healthful meal to consumers. Yes, we harvest fish, but we try do it in the most sustainable and humane way possible. 

We hear so much about fish mislabeling and other market deceptions. How does your model change this?

I often see mislabeled seafood while in the lower 48, and it’s a tough problem to fix. When a fish touches so many hands, it only takes one dishonest person to reap the price advantage by labeling it wild. Our model, tracing it back to the boat and fisherman who caught it, ensures that you get what you pay for. Mislabeling really hurts fishermen who are doing it right and who are working within strict sustainability constraints.

A simple way to tell the difference between farmed and wild salmon is to look at the white bands of fat in the flesh. In wild salmon, lines of fat are concentrated in the belly area of the fish—the thinner part of the fillet—getting thinner or disappearing completely as you get to the thicker part of the fillet. In farmed salmon the bands of fat are consistent through the flesh.  

Many consumers use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to find sustainable fish. How can those well-meaning consumers continue improving fish consumption? What phrases, certifications, etc. should I look for when buying seafood?

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council labels are a great way to help consumers choose more sustainable products. Look for those labels on fish packaging, or use those resources to find sustainable fisheries.

That said, the more directly you can buy from a small scale domestic fisherman, the better. Your dollars will not only continue to support the fishery being managed sustainably, you will ensure that individual fishermen are able to keep fishing.

Through traceability you also get better accountability, which means better quality. Because those fishermen are incentivized to treat their fish better, the consumer gets a better tasting product, which they can feel good about eating. To me, a perfect piece of fish is an amazing ingredient, and, when I meet my customers, I feel an extra obligation to provide them the best fish possible. 

 

Where do Alaskan fish fit into the equation? As long as we have healthy river and ocean ecosystems we can continue to enjoy Alaskan Seafood in perpetuity. It may not be able to feed the world, but you can rest assured that our fisheries will shut down before we overfish our stocks. 


Josh Brewer is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS who covers Renewable Energy, Green Homes, Omega Fatty Acids Nutrition, and Nature and Environment.

Marsh Skeele is a Sitka Salmon Shares fisherman, and a foodie who loves to put the best fish possible onto Midwestern plates.