By Matt Rodbard
In Alaska, sustainable seafood isn’t just a way of life. It’s the law. “Fish must be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principal,” reads the line in Alaska’s state constitution, penned in 1959 upon becoming America’s 49th state. It’s the only legislation in the United States requiring its citizens — from weekend anglers to million-dollar commercial operations — to treat natural resources in a truly un-American way. With measure and restraint.
“I love wild salmon for the story,” says Tom Douglas, a prolific Seattle chef and cookbook author who runs more than 20 restaurants, many with a seafood focus. “Every fish tells a story, every stream they come from has a unique environment, and that enhances the story of the fish.” But at the end of the day, when running fish restaurants, the story will only go so far. The fish needs to be delicious, and Douglas thinks wild species taste better. “The free-swimming fish has better bite and muscle structure than flabby farm fish. Period.”
As somebody living on the East Coast, Alaska feels like a pretty far-away place. So logically, there are psychological hurdles for the proud locavore chef to serve Alaska seafood not sourced within their time zone. And coupled with the affordability and richness of farm-raised salmon simultaneously capturing the public’s attention, it turns out that wild Alaskan seafood needs to work extra hard these days to stay in the minds, and on the cedar planks, of the salmon-loving citizens of the United States.On a recent visit to Juneau, and aboard commercial vessels working Alaska’s southeast inner passage, I found not only passion and state pride, but some of the finest examples of salmon, halibut and shellfish I’ve tasted in the world. Seafood caught in Alaska accounts for 60 percent of the country’s output (and 90 percent of the wild salmon yield), though many don’t associate Alaska-caught species with “eating local” — a food-world cliché that helped launch a revolution and at least a thousand versions of the “everything comes from within 90 miles” tasting menu.
Much of this task falls on the small and scrappy staff working at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a government- and private-funded organization that invited me up in late July to tag along during the peak of summer salmon-fishing season, when the local rivers swell with fish heading home to their spawning streams to complete their two-year life cycle. Tyson Fick is communications director, and like many of his colleagues at ASMI, comes from a commercial fishing background. So witnessing the press guy, dressed in yellow waders, navigate a hand-cranked trolling rig (hooking a couple 15-pound coho salmon), all the while reciting oceanic chemistry statistics from memory, is not unusual for an operation staffed by people with salt water running through their veins.