Sitka Salmon Shares vice president-fisherman Marsh Skeele holds up a chinook salmon during a recent tour of the company’s new plant on Smith Street in Sitka.
What started out as a one-off fundraiser for a Sitka nonprofit has grown into a thriving business with sales approaching $4 million, with 2,500 members and 100 wholesale accounts spread out over six states.
Sitka Salmon Shares is a community-supported fishery (CSF) program, where members buy shares in the harvest similar to the process of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. But instead of the members being local to Sitka, where most of the fish is caught, the members of Sitka Salmon Shares live in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa.
“Each member gets a five-pound box of fish delivered to their door nine months of the year,” said Marsh Skeele, who serves as Sitka Salmon Shares vice president/co-founder and one of its 13 fishermen-owners. “A lot of them are former Alaskans or from Seattle, so they know good fish. The fish in the grocery stores there tends to have poor quality.”
The company distributes four types of salmon (chinook, coho, sockeye and chum), rockfish, ling cod, halibut, spot prawns, Pacific cod and blackcod, with most of the fish caught out of Sitka or Juneau. Sitka Salmon Shares also sells fish at 23 different farmers markets around the Midwest. Last year, Sitka Salmon Shares bought the former Big Blue Fisheries plant in Sitka, and is renovating it so the company can keep up with the special processing and freezing needs of its growing customer base while also developing new value-added products such as smoked salmon to add to the mix.
Sitka Salmon Shares got its start in 2011, when founder-president Nicolaas “Nic” Mink was in Sitka with a couple of his Knox College students working on a sustainable fishing and food-sourcing project with the Sitka Conservation Society. Mink, who still teaches environmental science part-time at Knox (he had a brief stint at Butler University a couple of years ago), decided to take some fish back with him to Galesburg, Ill., which he personally delivered to customers. Then those customers asked for more fish, and Sitka Salmon Shares was born.
“I think that first load of 750 pounds of fish raised about $10,000,” Mink said. “This year, our sixth, we sold more than 100,000 pounds of fish, just under $4 million.”
Some people laughed at his business plan when Mink decided to sell fish more than 2,000 miles away from its source, with a headquarters in a landlocked Midwest town away from most fish markets. But Mink and his partners found out that even people in the Midwest want high-quality fish from sustainable sources, fish that’s well-treated along the journey so it’s still in good shape when it reaches its customers.
“They want to be fish-eaters, but they don’t know how,” Mink said. “Sitka Salmon Shares gives them steps to know how, and it gave us a lot of opportunities to sell fish. Midwesterners are used to eating farmed salmon, but they heard about wild salmon. They want to eat wild, because it’s more resilient and sustainable than farmed.”
Education is a big part of the Sitka Salmon Shares story. In addition to providing the monthly boxes of fish, there is a newsletter with information about the fishermen-owners, where and how the fish is caught, and a variety of recipes geared toward wild fish and not farmed. The recipes come from four sources — Sitka Salmon Shares members, our chefs, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) Cook It Frozen site and from online sources.
“If you take a piece of coho (aka, silver salmon) and cook it as long as a piece of farmed salmon, the flesh becomes mealy and doesn’t taste good,” Mink said. “There’s a lot of education. With farmed salmon, the flesh is soft and thicker than wild salmon, so people need to cook it twice as long as wild salmon. We know wild salmon doesn’t need a lot of time on the grill, and that’s been one of the biggest hurdles.”
“We provide a lot of information,” Skeele said. “They definitely want to know more when you provide them with quality fish. We teach them about pressure bleeding, flash freezing, accountability and traceability. They want to know as much information as we can tell them about the fish that comes through our plant.”
The owner-fishermen are longliners and trollers, for the most part, with some who gillnet sockeye and use pots to catch the spot prawns. Skeele said all of the fishermen are owners in the company, “so they have some skin in the game.” By having skin in the game, the fishermen are more likely to treat the fish better once it comes onto the boat, so it maintains its high quality.
Right now, Sitka Salmon Shares doesn’t sell a lot of its fish in Sitka, although it does sell fish to a couple of local restaurants such as the Westmark Hotel, Totem Square Inn and Sitka Hotel. Sitka Salmon Shares doesn’t want to compete locally with the Alaskans Own Seafood CSF program that sells to members in Alaska. But now that Sitka Salmon Shares has its own plant, it does offer local processing of fish to charter fishing operations, personal-use and sport fishermen from Sitka, and to commercial fishermen who sell their own fish to various markets around the country.
“We’d like to sell more locally, and it would be great to have our fish in Sea Mart,” Mink said. “We’re excited about our community processing program, and we’re trying to do more processing for Sitka fishermen.”
In recent years, Sitka Salmon Shares has received national exposure with articles in Food & Wine, New Food Economy, Entrepreneur and Forbes, plus a variety of regional publications and Sitka exposure with a story on KCAW-Raven Radio. Mink said there is still more Sitka Salmon Shares can do in the Midwest and Alaska.
“With our plant, we have our own ice and our own value-added room,” Mink said. “We have a talented individual, Pat Glabb, rebuilding Big Blue. He built Silver Bay Seafoods plant. Right now we’re focused on the Midwest, and we have a ways to go to develop our markets there. But we have assets on the ground and systems in place and tons of room to grow. We think there are a lot of cool things to do with value-added. For example, we have Chris Eley, a chef-butcher from the Smoking Goose Meatery in Indianapolis, developing some salmon sausages for us.”
Fishermen wanting to learn more about the Sitka Salmon Shares community processing program can call Jason Croft at 966-9999, or stop by the plant on Smith Street (across from Baranof Island Brewing Company). You also can visit the Sitka Salmon Shares website at http://www.sitkasalmonshares.com/.