Allure of Alaska's wild fish

Why expensive Alaskan salmon have conquered the fish counters across the Lower 48.

Trolling through the misty fjord of Chatham Strait in Alaska's Inside Passage, commercial fisherman Dick HofMann pulls a 20-pound king salmon from the water and gently packs it on ice.

"How many Americans know where their food comes from?" Mr. HofMann asks aloud. "I'm happy to provide them with details." He evinces a stoic grin as a pod of orcas swoosh past his boat.

In fact, some of Mr. HofMann's salmon come replete with a certificate of authenticity, revealing information about the breathtaking places like this one where they were caught. "You don't get that story with a can of tuna," he quips.

HofMann is part of a new wave of fish commerce that focuses more on quality rather than quantity of fish delivered fresh to distant markets.

Once upon a time, Alaska's geographical isolation represented a liability. Yet today because of popular diets that trumpet the benefits of eating salmon along with growing public concerns over reports of contaminants in some fish, the state has reaped the benefits of harvesting its native catch for premium prices.

The US Environmental Protection Agency and others have been sounding the alarm that some popular ocean and freshwater fish may be tainted by pollutants. The one exception is Alaskan wild seafood, recently given a clean bill of health by scientists. Demand for it is soaring in the Lower 48, officials say.

Two years ago, 174 million salmon worth $209 million were harvested in Alaska. In general, seafood from Alaska is a $3 billion industry, contributing $1.6 billion to the nation's economy.

"We have always asserted that Alaskan seafood is delicious and healthier than other products, but now we have the proof," says Laura Fleming of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI).

Ms. Fleming points to a toxicology study, the most comprehensive to date, released late in 2004 showing that Alaskan seafood, from salmon and halibut to king crab, possesses low levels and in some cases undetectable amounts of contaminants. Alaska is one of the few places in the world that does not have consumption restrictions attached to its fish. At least 44 states have mercury warnings related to fish.

ASMI, a quasi-governmental organization, was formed to help keep the state's fishing fleets alive. With a majority of consumers turning ever more discriminating, Fleming says the studies position Alaska well and bolster the livelihood of fishermen like HofMann.

"Traceability of food, from the kitchen back to its place of origin, is what the future demands for the seafood industry," Fleming says. "The European Union, which is way ahead of the US, already is moving toward strict legal requirements."

Analysis of farmed fish in other areas of the world have revealed contamination by PCBs stemming from the fish meal pellets they are fed. In addition, Canadian researches released a report this week that says young wild salmon can become contaminated with sea lice just from swimming by ocean farms with prevalent levels of the parasite. And some consumers reject farmed fish because their flesh is dyed to make it appear pink.

Some lawmakers, however, claim the worries about farm fish are exaggerated. Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, who chairs the House Resources Committee, accused environmentalists and public health officials of "crying wolf" in their concerns about mercury contamination. Mr. Pombo receives disagreement from his close friends in Alaska's congressional delegation.

Alaskan fishermen for their part have realized that if they are going to survive in a volatile and uncertain global seafood market, they must be ahead of the curve.

A few decades ago, Alaska accounted for 70 percent of the world's salmon market, but because of fish farms in Chile, Canada, and New England, just 30 percent of salmon bought by consumers, all of it wild, comes from Alaska.

As fish farms were able to produce huge volumes, many mom-and-pop fishermen went out of business. Alaska's new aggressive strategy, aided by federal funding, is an attempt to show that wild fish have a secondary benefit: keeping fishing families - the heart and soul of small Alaskan fishing villages - afloat.

HofMann is a member of a cooperative that has 400 members who are commercial trollers and long-liners.

"Alaska is all that is left of truly healthy commercial fishing fleets," says HofMann, who has fished for a quarter century. "The dream that many young men had of joining their fathers and grandfathers in the commercial fishing business is rapidly disappearing."

Following statehood in 1959, Alaska implemented tough harvest rates after commercial canneries decimated fish populations. The health of its fish numbers today is a benefit not only of exercising restraint but also of protecting forests along rivers near where the fish spawn.

This summer, HofMann and his small crew of college students on break, will deliver 35,000 pounds of salmon bound for consumers living thousands of miles away. Until then, he plies his realm solo.

The romantic allure that consumers have with "safe" fish also has lead HofMann to start a "dude fishing" enterprise in which visitors actually pay him to work on his vessel - and keep the fish they catch.

At the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Mont., Alaskan salmon is more popular even than beef. "Our business is living proof that people are willing to pay more for ... fresh salmon," says the store's general manager Kelly Dean Wiseman. "We go through thousands of pounds."

Mr. Wiseman's store also invites fishing captains, who are members of HofMann's organization, to meet customers. "How often, anymore, are consumers able to talk with the actual fishermen?" he asks.

At a Juneau wharf HofMann greets Shana Crondahl and Craig Wilson, who are waiting to buy kings they pre-ordered days earlier. They like the idea of exposing their two children to the age-old delights of buying fresh catch on the dock.

"In Alaska we have a high standard for freshness but this is as good as it gets," Ms. Crondahl says, as her kids try to hoist their dinner high.

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