Fresh fish in the Midwest has always been as hard to find as a worthwhile fishing hole. If your family is anything like mine your fish intake growing up consisted of Long John Silver’s, patties made of salmon out of a can and, if you were lucky, the bluegill, crappie and small mouth bass you and your dad caught in a local pond, lake or stream and then filleted, breaded and fried. You may have even been fortunate enough to take some trips to the coasts to get a taste of fresher seafood. But the fact is finding quality sustainable fish in the Midwest has always been pretty much an impossibility, especially for home consumers.
And then, as if out of nowhere, I started hearing a name pop up: Sitka Salmon Shares. In the past few months I’ve been to two meals featuring their fish. And it was good. It was better than good; it was phenomenal. Jonathan Brooks and the team at Milktooth made a dish featuring king salmon and king crab that may have been the best bite of food I’ve ever had, and it was made with Sitka Salmon Shares’ product.
I had to get to know more about this product, and luckily Audrea DiLiberto, a local Indy lover of food, had all the information I needed and got me in touch with the President and Chief Salmon Steward of Sitka Salmon Shares, Nic Mink.
“Everything that we do is about creating a transparent and traceable chain of custody,” Nic tells me over the phone. He seems highly passionate when talking about his company. “It’s where we’re really kind of creating an innovative supply chain. Our fishermen own the company, the company owns the processing plant, the company owns the shipping infrastructure, the company owns the marketing infrastructure, the company owns everything up to that moment the fish is handed off to the consumer. We spent a lot of time and a lot of money investing in that supply chain. But when you look at the problems we see in our seafood system with labeling, with fish fraud [a recent study by Oceana found that 39% of the restaurants and fish purveyors in NYC committed fraud], with poor quality, we think that all goes back to a lack of transparency in the way in which seafood is typically harvested and processed and delivered.”
This transparency he is talking about is just one aspect that sets the company apart. The company’s fishing fleet is comprised of small boat fishermen in Sitka, Alaska. Sitka is a fishing village that seems to have some sort of gravitational pull for certain people. During the dinner at Milktooth I was lucky enough to sit with one of the fishermen from Sitka Salmon Shares.
Drew Terhaar is quiet and reserved, but when I get him talking about Sitka he lights up. Drew tells me over the course of the meal how he left the suburbs of Chicago with a one way ticket to Sitka. He tells me he got there, walked around, talked to people and then got to work on a boat. After a single year on someones crew he was able to buy a boat and now he runs his own vessel, The F/V Mary Carl. He tells me the area just pulled him in and the lifestyle is something he loves and that genuinely excites him.
Nic speaks of Sitka in the same way, “I was working as a history professor in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and just thought that I was ready for a change. I had a background in natural resource management as well and thought ‘what a cool opportunity to move to Alaska.’ Originally I was just planning to move to Alaska for the summer and ended up staying — you know, if you ever get to Sitka you’ll see — it’s a tough place to leave if you like outdoor recreation or mountains or anything like that. It’s just a beautiful, pristine place. And so after being there for only a couple of weeks I got to thinking, how do I stay here forever.
“I actually moved to Alaska to do work in salmon conservation in 2010 and I was working at a conservation society to help protect salmon habitat and to help protect and promote policies for more sustainable harvests of our coastal resources. In the process I had the opportunity to meet all of the fishermen who basically started the company with us. I just got to working on a bunch of conservation issues with conservation minded fishermen and as our relationships developed we just began to start talking about forming a company.”
The “conservation minded fishermen” are the backbone of Sitka Salmon Shares they are fishing in a different way than any other fishermen, even in the small mostly hook-and-line town of Sitka.
Nic explains what sets their fishermen apart from others: “Sitka has a fleet of about 500 fisherman and what we do isn’t for everybody. You have to be one to do marketing, you have to be able to reach out to people that are buying your fish, you have to feel good about Instagramming and taking photos and blogging and all the kind of stuff that our fishermen do to help create a more transparent and traceable system. And also the fishing is a little different: Our fishermen all have to spend more time handling their fish, they all have to spend more time ashore. You know, we ask our fishermen to take shorter trips. They have to deliver to certain specs that are a little bit different than how other fisherman deliver in Sitka.”
These practices are what lead to the fish tasting fresher, which I can attest to from the two times I’ve had it. And while I’ve only had them in restaurant settings, it is easy to get that same quality at home. The way the shares work for households is straightforward. You choose how many months you want to receive fish to your doorstep — either three, seven or nine months. Then you choose your family size. And then during the months you select, you get fresh fish sent to your house monthly, which can include: Black Cod, Halibut, King Salmon, Dungeness Crab and more.
Audrea has been a member of the program for two years now, and she has nothing but great things to say about her experience. She first heard about the program from a Chefs’ Night Off dinner at Recess, and she signed up after meeting Nic and one of the fishermen and Vice President of the company, Marsh Skeele.
“I've been nothing but impressed,” she says. “The quality is great, the communication is timely, the cost is less than I'd pay locally and it's conveniently delivered to my home monthly. I rarely purchase seafood at the fish counters around town because any given time of the year I have 5-8 different species of fish in my freezer ready to use within a day.
“I put a high importance on knowing where the food I eat comes from. All of Sitka Salmon Shares' seafood is wild-caught in Alaska. I don't have to search for wild-caught seafood in stores. It takes the hunt out of purchasing seafood in a landlocked state; instead, it just shows up automatically.”
She added a further detail which shows just how dedicated to members the Sitka Salmon Shares team is: “At Sitka Salmon Shares they really do care about their members. Earlier this month Marsh Skeele personally cooked for a family party at my Mom's home, no cost, just a service to Sitka Salmon Shares members.”
Nic and the Sitka Salmon Shares team see the burgeoning Indianapolis market as a the perfect place to get more members like Audrea. The team recognizes the change in Indianapolis’ food scene and how many of us, like Audrea, are placing importance on knowing where our food is coming from and if it is sustainable.
Nic lived in Indianapolis for a few years and taught at Butler University, and he tells me he sees the changes happening here: “Really in the last three months we decided it was really time to start focusing a lot more on Indianapolis. We think that there’s a growing food scene, I mean, you know, you’ve seen it, right?
“Even from when I moved in 2012, now in 2016 it’s a totally different food world. People are beginning to wake up to a lot of the issues that industrial food production is causing to farmers and the environment, and people are really beginning to wonder in Indianapolis where the food is coming from, and we thought that it was a good time to refocus our efforts in Indianapolis and to start reaching out in Indianapolis in a way we haven’t really done.”
Hence the slew of events featuring Sitka Salmon Shares lately. In fact, there is another one coming up on December 8 at the newly opened cidery, Ash and Elm. The event will highlight a burgeoning partnership between Goose the Market and Sitka Salmon Shares. Nic tells me, “We got to know Chris [Eley of Smoking Goose/Goose the Market] pretty well. We were both in Food and Wine in 2014, we were named one of America’s Best Food Artisans the same year that he was, and in the process we got to talking and began having discussions of what it might be like.
“So we just kept talking. Chris came up, I think the first visit he made was in the fall of 2014, so about two years ago. He’s come up a couple of times. Chris and Molly [Chris’ wife] are just great people and care passionately about good food. And good food goes all the way back to the producer to and that’s what makes it great to work with them. They’ve got the ethics and philosophy down and not only do they make amazing charcuterie, but their philosophy about treating producers fairly and treating animals well goes all the way back down the supply chain.
“We’ve sent him a few pallets of salmon and he’s been kind of experimenting, and yeah, we’ve got some really great stuff coming out right now with some of these sausages that he’s created and these artisan, handcrafted salmon patties, and that partnership has just been great.”
At $22 a person, this event is the perfect way to get a taste of some of Sitka’s products, Chris’ concoctions and Ash and Elm’s ciders. But when it comes to Sitka Salmon Shares, the important part of the product is the home delivery option.
As Nic points out, “Unfortunately the seafood that we get in the Midwest is usually, well, bad. I say that even with fish that a lot of really good restaurants get in. It is usually not the best quality. It is usually old, and not just old, it’s had heat damage, it’s been poorly handled, it’s not the quality that you want. And that’s because no one is really setup to do direct distribution in the Midwest, even to restaurants. You know restaurants are getting better fish than home consumers; at restaurants you’re usually eating fish that is usually fairly well-handled and only seven or eight days old. At home it’s likely poorly-handled and 12 or 13 days old.” But with the Salmon Shares program, there is a major difference.
“We can get it into people’s hands, really perfectly-handled fish, perfectly-bled; some of it’s fresh, some of it’s flash frozen. We have a flash freezer that is state of the art and pretty much top-of-the-line flash freezing technology that allows us to freeze fish in a way where you practically see no difference from a fresh product. Frozen fish has a really bad rap because it’s frozen poorly, for one, but it’s always frozen at the end of its shelf life. If you take a fish and flash freeze it perfectly right at the beginning of its shelf life, you deliver a fish that is perfect. That is what we strive to do, and we do it for chefs, and you know what’s cool is we do it for home consumers as well.”
Not only do they deliver the fish with photos of it and the fishermen (and sometimes the fishermen deliver it themselves to your door) but they also have recipes for the fish for you to try out. Nic says of their recipes, “We spent a lot of time and invested a lot of resources in creating a culinary program to go along with our fish. It has recipes for people that are novices and for people who are foodies and have a better understanding of ingredients. There is a little something for everybody.” The dishes provided are truly unique and many of them sound and look better than what you’ll find on the menus of your favorite high-end seafood joints. For example chef Ali Banks provided a recipe for seared Coho Salmon with a fresh succotash salad or a panko crusted Rockfish with Israeli couscous salad.
It truly is an incredible opportunity for us in Indianapolis. Not only are we getting fresh, quality salmon, crab, Halibut and more, but we’re helping fishermen that care.
“The members that we have are making a difference in the lives of fishermen who want to fish more sustainably, more thoughtfully and fish in a way that really honors this amazing food, this amazing creature,” Nic tells me. “I mean, there is probably no better, healthier wild food in the world than salmon. Setting up a system that allows consumers to want to support fishermen to ensure the integrity of the ingredient all the way down the supply chain is just great.
“Hook-and-line fishermen, community-based fishermen are the best stewards of the resource. They’re the ones that are looking to take care of it over the long term, they’re looking to hand down their operations to their kids, they’re not looking to just fish everything and leave. Which unfortunately is how most of the world’s oceans are fished, where you have someone who catches a bunch of fish and leaves and they don’t care if that fish is there for the next person to fish it. When you’ve got small-scale fishermen who live in the communities where they fish, they’re invested in the resource over the long time. I think that’s the ultimate expression of sustainability. It’s more than just the fish itself; it’s the fishermen and the community, and that's really what our members are doing is creating opportunities and creating better opportunities for that way of life, for that way of fishing to exist.”
Learn more at sitkasalmonshares.com