Shown are some of the fishermen and boats participating in Alaskans Own Community Supported Fisheries program. The F/V Christi with Walt Pasternak (center) who has been fishing since the mid-70s, his wife Megan, and deckhand Jeff Farvor.
Shown are some of the fishermen and boats participating in Alaskans Own Community Supported Fisheries program. F/V Carole D captain Frank Balovich (right) with deckhands Erik Jameson and Waylon Evans.
Story last updated at 8/25/2010 - 12:21 pm
SITKA - Wild Alaska seafood often travels great distances with a few layovers before arriving at the dinner table of seafood lovers. The journey begins when fleets along the coast of Alaska haul in billions of pounds of seafood each season. Fish are then delivered to processors to be cleaned and packaged. A growing portion of the harvest is sent to fresh markets, but most is sent to warehouse. Often the seafood waits in cold storage until shipped to buyers in the lower 48 and abroad.
Surprisingly, some fish make a round-trip journey back to Alaska to be sold at large retail stores located in the same communities the fish came from. Other species never even make it back to the shelves of local stores because they can be sold for higher prices abroad.
This phenomenon of globetrotting Alaskan seafood results from the large-scale harvest of fish to meet the demand of national and international markets. Only a small percentage of Alaska's seafood gets sold locally.
"In 2008, Alaska's processors cranked out over 2 billion pounds of seafood," explained Glenn Haight, fisheries business specialist at the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. "If our population of some 650,000 people ate all of this seafood, each of us would need to eat over 8 pounds a day."
While some Southeast Alaskans are able to purchase locally caught fish from direct marketers, the majority of the seafood harvest is exported. One Southeast Alaskan community group is working to make local seafood more available to locals.
This summer, more fish caught in Sitka will stay in Sitka thanks to Alaska's first Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) program launched by the Alaskan Own brand. The boats that supply fish to the CSF are part of the Fishery Conservation Network started by the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association with start-up funding from the North Pacific Fisheries Trust and EcoTrust.
According to CSF program coordinator Beth Short, the Fishery Conservation Network is a group of like-minded fishermen dedicated to sustainable fishing practices.
"Boats in this network use technology to limit by-catch, and they're working to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations," Short said.
The CSF is based on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, popularly recognized as a subscription service that delivers a box of fresh produce directly from the farm to the customer. Instead of produce, CSF members enjoy locally caught seafood. In both CSFs and CSAs, customers pay in advance for their share of the harvest. This provides the producer a dedicated market with a fixed number of customers. Since all fishermen who contribute to Alaskans Own belong to a network committed to conservation principles and standards, the consumer knows more about the people who caught their fish and how their food is being handled.
Short emphasized that despite the abundance of fish and numerous processing plants in the region, many people do not have the opportunity to enjoy fresh, local seafood.
"Unless you have a boat and can sport/subsistence fish or know someone willing to sell you their fish, it's tough to fill your freezer," she said. "The CSF provides an opportunity for the bounty of our waters to make its way into the wider community."
For Carole Denkinger, the CSF's debut this summer was perfect timing.
"My husband no longer fishes and being senior citizens, we don't go out on the water anymore," she said. "The fish from Alaskans Own has been just wonderful."
"Wild-caught fish are a rich source of high quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other essential nutrients," added Lisa Sadleir-Hart, food activist and Sitka Local Foods Network board member. "When more people have access to these healthful foods, the long-term health and well-being of the community improves."
Jeff Farvor is one of the commercial fishermen who sends some of his catch to the CSF. He enjoys participating "because it's about building relationships and it just makes sense." Lately, he said more people have approached him wanting to know where their fish comes from. By bringing together fishermen and consumers who are interested in sustainable fishing practices, the CSF promotes the long-term viability of the fishery.
"Today, we're very fortunate to be able to harvest wild fish, live in a coastal community as fishermen, and bring that fish to the local consumer," he said. "We have to think about what we are going to pass on to the next generation of fishermen so that they can have the same opportunities that we have."
Being a part of the CSF is a little more work, than fishing as usual, but Farvour is willing to do it.
"It's not that hard. As with any new system, everyone involved has to be flexible," he said.
All it takes is a phone call or a text message to the CSF about where he is going fishing and what species he will get. The CSF then relays the information to its partner processor, Sitka Sound Seafood, a local processor that is partnering with the program to clean and package the fish.
Alaskans Own is starting small this first season with a handful of boats from the network supplying a variety of seasonal fish to 18 subscribers. CSF member Susea Albee enjoyed her favorite fish early this summer.
"Black cod is rarely sold at the store. It's easier to purchase black cod in Washington than here," she said. "The first delivery had black cod collars, and it was a real treat!"
Elizabeth Dubovsky, president of the Slow Food Southeast Alaska chapter in Juneau credits Alaskans Own's success with a change in consumer tastes.
"People want to be reconnected with where their food comes from," she said. "They want to feel good about where they're putting their money. By buying local fish, people are voting with their dollars and that helps encourage local businesses to sell local seafood."
For those living in communities that do not currently have a CSF, Dubovsky offers this suggestion: "Make an effort to go down to the docks when you see a sign or ask other people who get their fish from local fishermen if there is a direct marketing list you can join."
Programs such as the CSF can have a positive economic impact on Alaskan fisheries.
"Alaskans are the best judges of seafood quality," Glenn Haight said. "If Alaskan processors sell more to Alaskans, we can in turn provide them greater feedback on product quality and form. Over time, this should improve their competitive position against other seafood and protein producers in the world."
As Alaska's first community supported fishery, Alaskans Own in Sitka demonstrates an innovative model that enables diverse participants in the seafood supply chain to work together to ensure a healthy, economically and environmentally sustainable source of local foods to the community.
For more information about Alaskans Own CSF, contact Beth Short at email@example.com or visit their website at www.alaskansown.com.
For information about Slow Food Southeast Alaska and how to get involved in local food projects, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer living in Juneau, Alaska. Contact her at email@example.com .