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Crossing Borders: The Journey Of Alaskan Salmon

Vas Sfinarolakis
Captain Nick Lee and his crew fish for salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Phrases like organic, sustainable, eco-friendly, and farm-to-table have been around for a while. The concept of finding healthy and environmentally friendly ways to eat is becoming more popular. More and more, people want to know where their food is coming from, and the process their food undergoes before arriving on their plate. 

For those of us who live in the interior of the United States, it’s relatively easy to conceptualize where our meat, vegetables and fruits come from because we’re pretty close to the process. But when it comes to seafood, we aren’t always as certain.

Seafood is one of the world’s most highly traded global commodities. But it’s not always well known that the fish we consume often cross multiple state and international borders before arriving in the marketplace. Where the fish travel during that journey and how they are handled alters the quality of the meat, and can influence the environmental impact of the catch. During this Crossing Borders episode, we explore the journey that Alaskan Sockeye Salmon take to get from the ocean to your plate.

Fisherman Nick Lee is a traveler too, crossing borders for his work. He has a home in Moab, Utah but commutes to Bristol Bay, Alaska every summer where he captains his own fishing boat. Lee has been fishing for Sockeye Salmon in Bristol Bay for more than 25 years. But after a trip perusing the seafood section at his local grocer a few years ago, he decided to open his own seafood distribution business.

“That experience with my brother was life changing,” Lee said. “That’s when I was like I really think there is a story to be told here and a lot of consumer education to be had.”

He markets his company, Alaska Select, as selling flash-frozen, high-quality, sustainably caught Alaskan seafood directly to consumers around the country, including here in Utah.

“I am in the industry,” Lee said. “I have been on all sides of it. I’ve been on the catching side, the processing side, the sales side, international quality control expert, but I can go into the store and be confused. And if that’s the case the consumer doesn’t stand a chance.”

Figuring out whether the fish we buy are eco-friendly and sustainable can be a daunting task. It is also pretty hard to know which fish will actually taste good when cooked. Now a captain of his own boat, Lee has helped develop several techniques to ensure the quality of his catch. The first and most important he says, is making sure the fish stay cold on the boat.

“So like 2-3 years ago, 50 percent of the fleet wasn’t even chilling their fish at the point of harvest,” he says. “That’s like the most rudimentary thing you can do. What we were doing on our boat, not only were we chilling at the point of harvest, we were using a salmon slide to put the fish onto so the fish don’t bruise. While the other guys are pitching it right onto a hard deck and they are getting bruised and they are not getting bled, and they’re putting them into a dry hold that’s not chilling the fish.”

Lee has worked on all sides of the fishing industry, but says he learned the most working as a buyer.

“That was probably one of my most important positions,” he says. “The buying rep where I would go up and inspect the quality to make sure that the product met our specifications. And when I first was going up we didn’t have any specification, so I had to make those.”

Lee watched as other fishermen handled their product, taking mental notes and offering recommendations on how they could improve their practices. So, when it came time to sell their catch, they were delivering a product consumers want to buy.

“There is the right way to do things” he says, “where you have good on-board handling practices, you put up a good high quality product, and you know, you get a better price for it, no arguments, and you have repeat customers.”

Lee's boat is one of over 1,000 fishing for Sockeye in Bristol Bay every summer. Each boat offloads their catch to a tender every 12 hours or so. This is when the fish change hands for the first time. From there, tender crews pass the fish along to processors. When the salmon run in Bristol Bay, Sockeye are caught at an extraordinary rate. At the peak of the run in 2017, over 3 million sockeye were caught in just 24 hours. Now, all of these fish need to be processed.

“The highest value product form is putting that into fillets. And a lot of the processing plants up there are not set up for doing fillets on site,” Lee said. “Some of the Sockeye caught in Bristol Bay are filleted in Alaska, or in nearby Washington or California, but to save money on processing, a lot of the salmon is shipped across the ocean to China. To make that journey, the fish have to be frozen, and then thawed for filleting. During this type of long-haul processing, fish are also injected with artificial ingredients.

“During the thawing stage, there is what you call drip loss,” Lee continues. “So there is a certain amount water that comes out of the fish. If you are a businessperson, that’s weight and you paid for that. And you don’t want to lose it, so to increase your recovery you want to reabsorb that water. So that’s where you see the tripolyphosphate. They’ll use that, inject it into the fish to reabsorb that water.”

Tripolyphosphate is harmless, but the thawing and refreezing, that can lower the quality of the meat. After the fish are processed in China they are refrozen, loaded onto cargo ships, and distributed to markets around the world. A lot of the fish is actually reimported back into the United States, now labeled as a product of China.

Every time a wild-caught Alaskan salmon boards a ship, its carbon footprint grows. Lee fillets his fish locally in Bristol Bay, which keeps the carbon footprint to a minimum, and the need for artificial ingredients goes away.

“Fish don’t need a comma,” Lee said. “When you look at the back of the package at the ingredients, if you are buying sockeye, it should just say sockeye. What I am trying to provide and what I am trying to preach is know your source.”

This is key because as a consumer, it can be difficult to track down where your fish was caught.

Brian Perkins is the regional director for the American's section of the Marine Stewardship Council, a 3rd party certifier that maintains sustainable fishery and chain of custody standards.

“What we require,” Perkins said, “is that the fish be traced from point of first landing through each step of the supply chain. It ensures that when that fish gets to the consumer with our MSC eco-label on it, that fish is in fact the fish that the person thinks they are buying.”

While the MSC is approaching 4,000 certified chain of custody holders worldwide, including some in China, it’s not really known how much of the fish coming out of China actually meets chain of custody standards.

There are other ways to ensure the consumer knows where their fish comes from, other than MSC certification. Lee says the bottom line is that if you can’t determine the source, if you don’t know where the fish was caught, then it’s essentially lost its story.

“It has no story,” he says. “You lose touch with where it came from, and if you know where the product was coming from then you start caring about that environment. But if you don’t know where it’s coming from, there’s this disconnect, there’s a total disconnect, and there are consequences to that.”

Although many retailers demand MSC certified fish, Perkins says consumers are more complacent. They don’t pay attention to where their fish come from, and there is no demand for accurate labeling. So the Marine Stewardship Council is planning to launch an awareness campaign.

“So that people understand that they can actually have a positive impact on the environment through their purchases,” Perkins said. “When you spend your dollar to be able to have a positive impact to support the fishermen who are doing the right things, the processors that are doing the right things, the communities that depend upon the fish. We are at a point in time where, particularly among the millennials, there is a greater interest in where their food comes from and a greater willingness to, if need be, pay a higher price for a food that they understand where it came from and has a certain providence that they can be certain of.”

Lee hopes the savvy consumer trend continues, so that he can continue to provide high quality, wild-caught and Alaskan processed, sustainably managed seafood to people across the United States, including to those in his home state of Utah.  

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here.