Sitka Salmon Shares brings Southeast Alaska fish to Midwest markets

MarshSkeeleHoldsSalmonAsGuyFilletsBehind

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.

NicolaasMinkWithBookOnSalmon

Sitka Salmon Shares founder-president Nicolaas Mink holds a copy of his book “Salmon: A Global History” during a 2014 visit to 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.”

SitkaSalmonSharesSignThe 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.

TraysOfSalmonPortions“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.”

GuysFilletingFishEducation 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.”

AriannaShovelsIceIntoToteWithJasonCroftThe 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 HotelTotem 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.”

CloseUpOfSalmonFilletingIn 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/.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

• New Silver Bay Seafoods cannery gives bonus to Sitka Sound Science Center

Workers pack sockeye salmon on the final day of seasonal canning operations Tuesday (Sept. 8, 2015) at Silver Bay Seafoods. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Workers pack sockeye salmon on the final day of seasonal canning operations Tuesday (Sept. 8, 2015) at Silver Bay Seafoods. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

(Note: The following article ran on Pages 1 and 10 of the Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.)

Sitka Sound Science Center Director Lisa Busch, left, and the center’s board of directors receive a $75,000 check from Silver Bay Seafoods CEO Rich Riggs and plant manager Wayne Unger recently at SBS’s new canning facility. From left are Busch, Linda Waller, Steve Clayton, Unger, Riggs, and Trish White. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Sitka Sound Science Center Director Lisa Busch, left, and the center’s board of directors receive a $75,000 check from Silver Bay Seafoods CEO Rich Riggs and plant manager Wayne Unger recently at SBS’s new canning facility. From left are Busch, Linda Waller, Steve Clayton, Unger, Riggs, and Trish White. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

By TOM HESSE
Daily Sitka Sentinel Staff Writer

In a story that’s going to have a lot of digits, the number 12 might be the most important.

All canned goods have a coded number on the bottom that gives the location of where the food came from, when it was canned and who packaged it.

If the code on the bottom of canned salmon starts with a number 12, it means it was canned in Sitka. It also means the Sitka Sound Science Center received a one-cent donation for the production of that can of salmon.

And — if you’re Silver Bay Seafoods CEO Rich Riggs — it’s also a call-out to the fans of your favorite football team.

“So if you’re a (Seattle) Seahawks fan, that’s good news,” Riggs said.

Silver Bay has just wrapped up the inaugural year of its canning operation. The $7 million capital investment was the latest expansion of the Sitka-based company, founded in 2007 at the old Alaska Pulp Corp. mill site where it processed salmon for the fresh and frozen fish market.

Before Silver Bay Seafoods started canning fish there hadn’t been a cannery in Sitka for more than 50 years.

Earlier this week Riggs gave a tour of the canning line to the Sitka Sound Science Center board of directors. It was to celebrate a partnership between the two in which Silver Bay donated one cent for every can that rolled off the line.

Sitka Sound Science Center Director Lisa Busch said it’s one of the best examples there is of an industry supporting research in its own field of business.

“We are linked with the fishing industry and we really wanted to find some stable support, basically from the fishing industry,” Busch said. “We want to be partnered with fishermen and the fishing industry.”

Riggs said the rationale for that connection is obvious at any fish hatchery in the state. And then there’s the fact that the Sitka Sound Science Center is heir to the fishery science program pioneered by Sheldon Jackson College, which closed in 2007.

“You look and a lot of managers in the state have had some educational component at SJ. We firmly believe that sustainable fisheries are critical to Alaska’s communities and Alaska fishermen,” Riggs said.

Canning operations started in the second week of July, with three lines for three different sized cans. The largest cans run through the system at a rate of around 250 per minute, and the other sizes at around 215 cans per minute.

To the Sitka Sound Science Center, 60 minutes of canning results in a donation about equal to the hourly rate of some attorneys.

“I’m really excited that they’re so into this idea,” Busch said. “I feel like it’s really going to allow us to move forward to have somewhat stable funding from the fishing industry.”

Because of business interests, Silver Bay Seafoods won’t disclose how many cans it produced this year, but the first payment to the Sitka Sound Science Center was for $75,000.

The new canning line expands the total Silver Bay Seafoods warehouse footprint to more than 80,000 square feet, Riggs said.

The expansion was headed up by Mike Duckworth, who has 34 years of experience building and maintaining canning lines. One of the first things he had to do was acquire all the pieces, because most of the key elements for canning salmon date back to before his career even started.

“The filling machine has actually not been replicated the same,” Duckworth said. “There have been companies that’s tried to replicate them, but they found out it’s not feasible. They literally put millions of dollars into it and just couldn’t make money off of them.”

The technology dates back to the 1930s and ’40s, and Duckworth said the last major production of filling machines ended in the ’60s.

“Our equipment was probably cast in the late ’40s to the ’50s,” Duckworth said, adding that rebuilding those filling machines is a key piece of canning salmon in Alaska.

“It’s something everybody does. If you’re going to be in the industry then once every 7-10 years you completely rebuild these things,” Duckworth said. “We spent the last year (rebuilding). We had a crew of seasoned, Alaska canning machinists that were working with me in rebuilding and setting up the equipment and getting it ready for installation.”

The old equipment is then blended with new systems to create the modern canning system.

“That plant, it’s just a good blend of the old technology and the new,” Duckworth said.

A special slime line handles the salmon destined for canning, processing them in the usual manner. The fish are fed into one of the three canning lines where more than a dozen employees help monitor the process.

As salmon move along the line, they are packaged in cans that drop down a track from a room in the second story of the warehouse. A machine fills the can while employees check for bones and quality. Between the machine that affixes the lid and the track that kicks out defective cans is a printer that marks each can with a code, all of which start with the number 12.

Once sealed, the cans are loaded onto carts and taken to a separate station to cook before being stacked, wrapped and loaded into trucks to send them as far away as Australia.

Despite a low salmon year, Riggs said the canning operation was close to its projected target this season and there’s room to grow next year.

Tuesday (Sept. 8) was the last day of canning for the year, and it was frozen Bristol Bay sockeye that went through the process. The majority of the fish processed this year, however, cam from Southeast Alaska.

“The concept is the salmon season is over in Southeast, but then we can continue to operate the plant with the sockeye season in Bristol Bay going on,” Riggs said. “So we wanted to increase our capacity to process local fish as well as pick up some of those other Alaska fisheries, and the canning line allows us to do that.”

And if things continue to run as they did this year, the canning line also will allow for continued research into fisheries at the Sitka Sound Science Center.

“It funds all science center things,” Busch said. “So it goes toward research and education programs here in town and also toward our hatchery.”

Funding for independent science centers in Alaska can be tough to come by, and Busch said it can often be from unrelated industries, such as oil. Silver Bay Seafoods has worked with the Sitka Sound Science Center in the past, for example in the center’s cost-recovery fishery, and this new program is a logical continuation of their partnership, Busch said.

“We’re doing stuff that the fishermen are interested in,” Busch said. “To me this is so great that a big company, and a local company at that, are this invested in what we’re doing.”

Or, as Silver Bay Seafoods and the Sitka Sound Science Center are putting it, salmon makes cents.