October 24th, 2013. Posted by stephanie young
ALASKA – SEAFOOD AND SUSTAINABILITY
By Sarah Swan
Last month I was lucky enough to visit Alaska. What a place! It is more Alaskan than I ever conceived Alaska could possibly be – if that makes sense. The towering snow capped mountains and glaciers, clean air, fresh seafood, abundant wildlife and friendly folk. It has officially been added to the ‘must return’ list and with a big wide universe out there that’s no mean feat!
Our trip began in Bellingham, WA as we boarded the Alaska State Ferry for a 5 night trip up The Alaska Marine Highway inside passage, then Anchorage, Seward, Denali and more…but I’ll fill you in on all of that later. I thought I’d begin my Alaska story in Juneau, a small but very important salmon town along the Marine Highway…and Alaska’s capital.
Juneau was first settled by the Alaskan natives 1000s of years ago. When the first white men, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris arrived around 1880, they found an AUK Indian fish camp at the mouth of the Gold Creek and with the help of Chief Kawa.ee, they soon discovered gold in Silverbow Basin. Times are a fair bit different, needless to say. The day we jumped ashore for a little exploration, the port was alive, or possibly ‘rammed’ with cruise ship visitors. These massive cruise ships are a huge part of Alaska’s tourism industry and during the Summer months there could be 3 pulled up at one time, dwarfing this mellow and not particularly big working salmon town. Crowds swell and local businesses work overtime to make the most of the short Summer months. No casinos or floating basketball courts for us ferry passengers though – we were dwelling in a cosy 4 bunk room on the MV Kennicott with barely space to swing a king salmon, and we were top tier. Many travellers on these boats actually erect their tents on the top deck – it’s a brilliant way to travel and you are well rewarded along the way with not only interesting folk to meet (anyone from fellow antipodeans to fishermen heading North to work the boats for the salmon season, to servicemen heading to the air force base in Anchorage) but ridiculous amounts of fantastic wildlife. Bald eagles, seals and hump back whales became as common as pigeons…but the orcas were something else! I digress…back to Juneau…
We had half a day so decided to visit the Taku Salmon Smokery. Taku’s processes, from the fisherman to the plate, promote environmentally sustainable fishing; procedures which in turn, of course, ensure maximum health and taste. They had a bunch of different products on display and for sale and it was great to be able to watch the processing, smoking and canning / packaging take place.
King salmon – the jewel in the Alaskan seafood crown – also known as Chinook. Some are red and some white; the white being so because they cannot absorb astaxanthin and it leaves their flesh a beautiful creamy colour with the taste being a little more delicate than the red. Taku had hot smoked red and white king salmon, sockeye salmon and halibut – as well as a fantastic Scandinavian style cold smoked or “lox” – mildly cured and lightly smoked, the texture was incredibly delicate. They also had cold smoked halibut – a fish that was to become one of my favourites and one that is caught in the very cold waters here of SE Alaska! They had salmon caviar, Alaskan king crab, South East spot prawns – a sweet, firm, local prawn (there are 7 species of prawn harvested in this area) and smoked salmon jerky. This was a cracker – string and chewy and salty and peppery. Hard to put down.
Of course a popular version of the smoked salmon and one that is super easy for people to take away are the canned and jarred options. We stood for ages watching the salmon get flaked and jarred. It was particularly good later with a glass of Oregon pinto gris. Before that though…we headed up the hill to a great little deli and indulged in toasted bagels with cream cheese (lots of it) and lox. It was great…something so simple that became one of the great eats of the trip.
Something a little left of centre they were doing at Taku was Natural Salmon oil. Pure Alaskan salmon oil; basically an extra virgin fish oil made with free swimming Alaskan salmon. Using a gentle cold press method, no additional refining or chemical treatments are necessary – just a pure, balanced fish oil and we all need those Omega-3s!
I was keen to check out Tracy’s King Crab Shack (“best legs in town’, apparently) but we were a little early…I wanted an Alaskan crab cocktail or a bowl of bisque, but would easily have been tempted by a”King crab bucket” – $110 gets you ½ crab of the premium Bering Sea Red King, 4 large legs with shoulder meat and claw – and the obligatory coleslaw. Huge amount of food as these guys are massive so this would easily have fed 4 people. Next time. They also served Alaska root beer on tap – you love it or you hate it. I hate it. I’d rather do the hot knitting needs thing in eye balls…
And that was Juneau – there is a whole lot more to it to be fair but I’m only sharing the seafood story for now…and a little word on Alaska’s sustainability practices…
Alaska supplies more than half of the wild-caught seafood in the US. Home to the greatest salmon runs in the world, it also provides nearly 95% of North America’s wild salmon. 5 species of salmon come from Alaska – king, sockeye, coho, keta and pink. They also produce a good amount of white fish including halibut, black cod (delicious!) and sole. Crab – the famous king, snow and Dungeness – along with scallops and prawns of varying varieties.
Sustainability – simply said…having enough fish to go around.
Seafood that is managed and fished using practices that ensure there will always be more to catch in the future. I think it is fair to say that Alaskan seafood sustainability practices are second to none. It’s an iffy and confusing subject and one often misunderstood. Here is how they do it over yonder in the last frontier…
I was reading a piece put out by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. They claim that the state of Alaska is a “world model for sustainability and perhaps too for governmental genius”. Alaska is the only US state with a mandate for sustainable seafood written into its state constitution. This was done way back in 1959. Their success lies in 2 basic principles:
- Take care not to harm the fish, other marine plants and animals, nor the environment
- Fish populations are never overfished. Overfishing happens when too many fish are taken from the sea and not enough are left to replenish the natural population. No Alaskan seafood has ever been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Fishing and seafood processing employ more people than any other industry in Alaska and the men and women who fish the 34,000 miles of Alaskan coastline know that taking such measures is the only way to protect the fish and their livelihood.
When it comes to the environment, these fish live and thrive in a naturally clean environment. They eat only what nature provides and the marine habitats remain protected from harmful fishing methods, unnecessary human disturbance and industrial activities/ pollution.
From a scientific point of view – and if you are someone who needs the numbers to believe – new guidelines are constantly being set for the total number of fish that can be caught.
First, the scientists calculate the ‘acceptable biological catch’ (ABC) which is the maximum number of fish that can be sustainably caught.
Then, fisheries managers determine the ‘total allowable catch’ (TAC) – the total amount of fish that can legally be harvested. Because this number never exceeds the ABC, the state of Alaska thus ensures there will always be plenty of fish in the sea.
It’s not always the easiest thing to understand but it’s far from rocket science – and there is so much more to this story than I’ve told here – I’ve simply breezed the perimeters.
Alaska is an incredible place, on so many levels, and I look forward to sharing part 2 of my journey with you.