Nic Mink launched Sitka Salmon Shares to connect with consumers in the Midwest with sustainable seafood options. In August, 2012 Nic was hired by Butler University's Center for Urban Ecology to help establish the Indy Food Council, designed to support food-related initiatives that improve the sustainability, health, and community revitalization in Indianapolis. We had a chance to chat with Nic about healthy salmon, ecologically-sensitive fishermen, and the challenges involved in introducing ocean-to-plate fish to a land-locked city in the Midwest.
How did Sitka get started?I was working for the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska, a few years ago, and we were trying to figure out how to get citizens in other parts of the country involved in the protection of Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the nation's largest national forest, by far. It's also the world's great salmon producing forest. The forest supports about 30% of Alaska's commercial salmon production. The health of wild salmon depend on the health of the forest, and, of course, the Tongass is public land, belonging to everybody--you, me, and everyone here in Indiana and the Midwest.
So, we began working on ways to communicate messages about the Tongass through the sustainably-harvested salmon that the forest rears. There were discussions, at first, about developing a line of canned salmon. We decided we wanted a higher value product, and Sitka doesn't really have much of a canning industry anyway--just about everything leaves fresh or frozen. After we departed from the canned idea, I think our first real business plan was called "Tongass Salmon in your CSA," and the goal was to get Midwestern CSAs to offer wild salmon supplements to their members (We do have a few CSAs that still do this.) In the final stages of development, we decided it would be easier to deliver the salmon direct to consumers ourselves. We called ourselves Sitka Salmon Shares and began setting up infrastructure in the Midwest. We also began working directly with a few fishermen and Seafood Producers Cooperative, a quality and sustainability-oriented fishermen's coop in Sitka to source our fish. We knew the conservation message was important, we knew sustainability was important, but we knew that if the quality wasn't there, all of those benefits would be lost. Even today, we continue to work very closely with conservation organizations in Alaska: the Sitka Conservation Society actually supports one of our positions--a wild salmon community organizer--and, our CSF members support a Sitka Conservation Society intern. It's a complete circle, I guess.
What are the logistics involved in getting fish to a land-locked area like Indianapolis? How do you keep it fresh?
Growing Places, like many urban farms, operates a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)-- does a Community Supported Fishery work in the same way?
We are different in a few key ways, though. We guarantee product for our members, no matter what. If you buy a share of our salmon, you'll get 15 pounds of fish--5 pounds of king, 5 pounds of coho, and 5 pounds of sockeye. It's salmon for your family all summer to compliment those awesome veggies. Depending on fishing conditions, though, sometimes we have to move around deliveries in order to do this. Like our friends at Green BEAN Delivery, we also home deliver. Finally, the scale is a little different than Growing Places Indy. Even our smallest fisherman catches enough fish to feed several hundred families for an entire year. We want to be in a place soon where we can take everything that our fishermen catch all season. That's better for us and it's better for our fishermen. So, we have to grow.
How is Sitka's product better?
For us, we look at the line from production to consumption and think systemically about how we can make improvements to the current system. We think that putting more money back into the pockets of small boat fishermen is a huge improvement; we think offsetting all our carbon during transport is another biggie; we think our 1% to the Wild program, where we return 1% of all our revenue back to the marine and salmon conversation, is better; we think our new Salmon Give Back Initiative, where we make strategic investments in other local and sustainable food projects in the Midwest, is also a nice improvement.
As far as the product goes, we ask our fishermen to have all their fish bled, gutted, gilled, and packed on ice with 20 minutes of being landed. Fish spoil 4 times as fast at 40 degrees than they do at 32; it's also the blood and insides of the fish that causes decomposition. So, the idea is to get that fish cleaned and cold as fast as possible. As one of our fishermen likes to say, it's not how long it takes the fish to get from ocean to plate that makes the difference in quality; it's what the fishermen does within the first 20 minutes of that fish being caught that makes the difference in quality. We also ask that all of our fishermen be "On Shore in Four," meaning that from the moment that first fish is caught, they're back at the dock in four days. Most hook-and-line salmon fishermen go on five day trips. Technically, you have 8 days before you see a decline in quality. This just gives us a little added assurance.
What are the biggest challenges in educating a new market on why your product is better- both in quality and sustainability?
What we've begun to start doing--and this has been effective--is taking the market on its own terms, at its own knowledge base, and building out from there. Wisconsinites, for instance, know that Dan and Deb Carey at New Glarus Brewing Company make the highest-quality beer; Indianapolis residents know that Goose the Market makes the highest-quality bacon the world has ever known; Indianapolis residents also know that Mark and Josh at Fermenti Artisan are guided by sustainability and quality standards that are hard to match. Once we make those connections, we the let them know that the same principles that go into being a craft fermenter, a craft butcher, and a craft brewer can be applied to fish and fishing--care, intimate knowledge of the food that's being produced, years of experience. People get the difference between artisan production and mass production, and it's about making that connection.
How have you been received here? Next steps for Sitka?