By Grace Edquist
Living smack-dab in the middle of the country has its virtues and its vices. Among the former? We’re nicer, they say. There’s less congestion. Our work ethic is strong. And then there are those awesome accents.
But when it comes to fresh fish, specifically those species we can’t find in one of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes, it gets trickier. Even with overnight flights and priority deliveries, fresh fish from the coasts are still going to be a few days old by the time they get to a grocery store or into a restaurant.
Enter Sitka Salmon Shares, a community supported fishery (CSF) that is based in the Midwest but works directly with smaller-scale fishermen in Sitka, Alaska. It operates like a CSA in that the producer—in this case a fisherman instead of a farmer—is connected to the consumer via membership, with minimal interference from a middleman along the way.
Sustainable seafood lovers from the Madison, Twin Cities, Quad Cities, Indianapolis, Chicagoland and West Illinois areas can join Sitka Salmon Shares as members and sign up for one of multiple membership types. If a member isn’t from one of those regions, Sitka Salmon Shares will ship fish shares. Just as with a CSA share, Sitka Salmon Shares are delivered right to a member’s front door.
Sitka Salmon offers king salmon in July, sockeye salmon in August, coho salmon in September, plus halibut in October and black cod in November.
You can also find a limited quantity of Sitka Salmon in two Madison restaurants, L’Etoile and Harvest, starting when the first king salmon shipment arrives July 18. Milwaukee restaurants Braise, the Iron Horse Hotel and La Merenda, among others, will also serve fish from Sitka Salmon.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Based in Galesburg, Illinois, but with Madison-by-way-of-UW roots, Sitka Salmon believes that in order to get top quality fish this far inland, you have to take a different, sustainable approach, which is why they work very closely with the individual fishermen and set the bar high during the actual fishing process.
"We do a nice job of making sure that we get the highest quality fish that Midwesterners can probably get," says Nic Mink, chief salmon steward with Sitka Salmon.
To ensure such top-notch product, they set guidelines for fishermen that are higher than industry standards, Mink says. "The care that they put into the fish really produces a fundamentally different product."
The fish are caught using hook and line, brought on board individually, stunned, pressure bled, gutted, gilled and put on ice all within twenty minutes of landing on the boat. Back on shore, the fish are then filleted, vacuum-sealed and freeze blasted to minus forty degrees. This blast freezing means that a fish from Sitka Salmon that's been in your freezer for a few months will still taste fresher than the fresh, unfrozen fish you would buy at a store, according to Mink.
"The whole process of getting it to the processor and vacuum sealing and freeze blasting it is all very important," says Marsh Skeele, a fisherman who catches for Sitka Salmon. "And bleeding it right away. If you don’t that’s what makes it go bad."
"Bad" in this sense is that disdainful fishy taste we seafood-loving Midwesterners are all too familiar with.
Making the extra effort to handle and process the fish individually is more ethical and sustainable, Mink says, and it also results in a much better taste. "You’re actually getting a substantially higher quality product."
And a more transparent product: "There’s total accountability for my fish. Every fish that I sell has my boat name on it," says Skeele.
That transparency is important to Skeele, which is one reason why he chose to work with Sitka Salmon. Another is that more money from the sale of his fish returns to him.
"From the perspective of the producer, the producer is capturing way more value. One goal [of ours] is that the fisherman keeps as much money in his own pocket as possible," says Mink.
If all of this sounds a whole lot like the local food movement but with food from farther away, that’s kind of the point.
"The local food movement has become very popular, especially in Madison, so local tends to be the ideal. But there are some things that just aren’t possible to get locally," says Genya Erling, the founder of Slow Food UW who now works with Sitka Salmon Shares to introduce their fish to local restaurants. "We’re trying to capture the values of local food even though this isn’t local."
Madison’s love for community and sustainable food is actually what spurred the creation of Sitka Salmon Shares in the first place. Erling and Mink met at UW as grad students, and Mink attributes the philosophy behind Sitka Salmon to their experiences here.
"I don’t think this happens without growing up with the food scene in Madison," he says.
Full season shares for this year are closed, but late season shares are still available. Visit sitkasalmonshares.com for more information on how to sign up.
Grace Edquist is associate/web editor at Madison Magazine. She blogs about food and drink news in The Chow Down.