Nature, by nature, produces excess. Cut open a tomato and see how many seeds there are. Somewhere between none of these seeds and all these seeds will become a future tomato, depending on the level of desire, care and knowledge of the gardener. Beekeepers know that bees store vast excess quantities of honey to feed themselves through winter. Knowledgeable beekeepers take enough honey to satisfy their honey needs for a year but leave enough honey in the hive for the bees to sustain themselves through winter. Thereby the bees can get a good head start in spring on another season of gathering pollen and nectar, so that they can continue to produce honey for the beekeeper for the following winter.
Seafood and, most emblematically, wild salmon work in a
similar way. If managed correctly, wild salmon runs produce excess and can feed
us into perpetuity. Nature produces excess so that we can harvest salmon each
and every season for as long as we like. That is, once again, if managed correctly
by human beings, and there are plenty of examples around the world where wild
salmon populations haven’t been managed well.
But the state of Alaska has written into its constitution to
harvest by the sustainable yield principle, which establishes the baseline for
the excess to be harvested. As a result, Wild Alaskan Salmon populations have consistently
been abundant. All told, Alaska supplies more than half of the wild-caught
seafood in the United States. And Alaska will always be home to the greatest
salmon runs in the world, providing around 95 percent of North America’s wild
salmon. All finfish from Alaska are sustainably harvested and wild by law.
There is no finfish farming in Alaska, so you can count on all species from
Alaska being wild caught, natural, and sustainable.
Chefs and consumers alike struggle to know what is and isn’t
sustainable when it comes to seafood. There are various certifications, watch
lists, and environmental group lists. It’s hard to know who to trust. In
Alaska, we continue to focus on just how long our fisheries have been
sustainable. Globally, Alaska is viewed as the gold standard in responsible
fisheries management. As a result of the state’s commitment to sustainability,
and rigorous fisheries management, no Alaska seafood species has ever been
listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Note that now through the end of April, we have two wild salmon
specials: Get 10% off our Alaska Gold
salmon with the following coupon code: SalmonSpecial
But if you get more than two varieties
of our salmon, use the following coupon code for 15% off the salmon, and we’ll also throw in a
6-portion box of keta salmon (while supplies last): SalmonSmorgasbord
Our friend Samantha Ferraro is the author of The Weeknight Mediterranean Kitchen, a cookbook that extols the beauties of the Mediterranean diet with beautifully simple dishes and colorful photos. This Sweet Chili Keta Salmon recipe isn’t Mediterranean per se, but it’s a quick and impressive dinner that adds great flavor to the mild keta salmon. The sweet chili sauce is brushed on wild keta salmon to create a sweet and savory glaze.
Frequently, when you go to restaurants, menus list something like “Grilled Salmon with potatoes.”
But what kind of salmon is it? And wouldn’t you want to know?
Just as there are many different kinds of meat and a variety of ways that the meat may be raised, there are a lot of different kinds of salmon.
There are Pacific Salmon and Atlantic Salmon. Just about all the commercially available Atlantic Salmon for purchase is farmed. Farmed Atlantic Salmon comes from Norway, Chile, Scotland, Canada, and a number of other places. Note that Chile and Canada have farms on the Pacific Ocean, but they farm Atlantic Salmon there.
Then there are Pacific Salmon, and the great majority of wild Pacific salmon are harvested in the state of Alaska. There are five species of Pacific Salmon. Keeping track of their names becomes confusing because there are several names for each of the five species: King Salmon (frequently also called Chinook Salmon), Coho Salmon (commonly known as Silver Salmon), Sockeye Salmon (also known as Reds), Pink Salmon (colloquially dubbed Humpies, short for Humpback), and Keta Salmon (also called Chums). Each of these wild Pacific salmon species have different characteristics and different flavors.
Describing the flavors of all of these salmon is a subjective endeavor. A wild salmon’s flavor might vary based on a number of factors, including:
The salmon’s maturity. A salmon caught while actively feeding in the open ocean will be at its prime while a salmon caught near a river’s mouth, about to return to spawn cannot compare.
How the salmon was caught
How the salmon was handled on the boat
How the salmon was processed
What was the cold chain like between the landing the fish and ending up on a diner’s plate
How the salmon was prepared
Wild-caught salmon are harvested in several different ways. Typically, they are caught in either gill nets, by purse seine nets, drift nets, or by hook and line (also known as trolling). There are varying levels of cleanliness and care on fishermen’s boats and handling procedures, which will affect quality. As a general rule, most fishing boats in Alaska are small family businesses. Because of this, the small fishing boats in Alaska tend to have a deep and humble pride in the livelihoods that they are leading and the seafood that they produce.
In our business, quality starts in the water. And this is especially true for wild salmon. Everything we do after the salmon comes out of the water can only degrade the quality of the salmon. With regard to the different catch methods, typically a line-caught salmon should be of excellent quality because the salmon is by definition caught while the salmon are actively feeding. Troll-caught salmon should be ocean-bright and therefore not going through the degradation process that occurs when a salmon returns to its native stream to spawn. Trolling is a much “slower” catch method than harvesting salmon by net, which can catch hundreds or thousands of salmon at a time. The slower process of trolling allows fishermen to put more time into taking care of each fish, one fish at a time. The salmon are caught one hook, one fish at a time. By bleeding the salmon and gutting it once the salmon comes on board, the fishermen remove the parts of the fish that make its meat flavor taste off. There are a few net fishermen that bleed and gut their salmon, too, greatly increasing the chances of producing a quality salmon. But, in general, because of the extra care given to each salmon that comes with traditional hook and line fishing methods, a troll-caught or line-caught salmon is going to be the crème de la crème. Less than 2% of Alaskan salmon are line-caught, so they are indeed a special treat to be savored. Note that Alaska Gold Seafood comes from a cooperative of fishermen that primarily fish by hook and line methods. Our wild salmon is line-caught at the peak of its quality in the pristine waters of Alaska.
Of the Pacific salmon, there are king salmon. With meat colors ranging from orange-red to creamy white, these are the largest and least numerous of the Pacific salmon. King salmon tend to return to bigger river systems to spawn and to prepare for this journey up big, fast-moving streams, they build up a lot of (good) fat. Their big flake and succulent, rich flavor and very high oil content make them very much in demand and the most popular seafood item we sell. The best way to cook would be a slow grill at 275° F over a flavorful hardwood like alder or cedar. Capers or mustard-y acidic sauces will help balance out the fish flavor of a king salmon. Some customers pan sear for roughly 4 minutes a side. A simple bake at 400° F for 10-12 minutes will work, too.
A very close second is our coho salmon. Milder and more delicate, with a peachy orange color, coho salmon’s quality and flavor benefit greatly from being line-caught, as their delicate meat, prized for pairing with fine meals, is kept in pristine condition with the dedicated handling procedures practiced on trolling boats. Like king salmon, coho salmon are rich in oils and coho salmon are particularly rich in vitamin D, while being leaner than king salmon. Their mild flavor makes them easy to pair with all kinds of recipes and a family favorite and pleasing also to picky eaters and children alike.
Another species of salmon that benefits from being line-caught is keta salmon. Most keta salmon are caught in nets as they approach streams and the end of their lives with poor meat quality, making them eventually sold in lower-end markets. In contrast, our Alaska Gold wild keta salmon are caught on hook and line and by definition they are actively feeding and at the peak of their quality. The difference in being line-caught cannot be underestimated. Our Alaska Gold keta salmon are very mild, moist, and delicious, and can be used in a variety of recipes, like this Keta Salmon Curry with Lemongrass and Galanga Recipe or this Sweet Chili Keta Salmon recipe. One of the best ways to enjoy keta salmon is slow-grilled with teriyaki sauce. A blackening seasoning or creamy sauces like those used for a Halibut Olympia recipe also work really well with keta salmon.
Sockeye salmon is one of the more numerous Alaskan salmon. They are prized for their deep red color, firm texture and robust flavor. They are plankton eaters and do not usually take hooks, so they are rarely caught on hook and line. From time to time we offer the rare line-caught sockeye salmon we catch for sale on the Alaska Gold website. This is a really, really special item, as less than 1/100th of 1% of sockeye salmon available in stores are caught on hook and line and benefit from both the care given to each fish that is typical for a line-caught salmon and also being caught in a state of active feeding. Sockeye salmon, because of their bold flavor, can hold their own with super-flavorful spices and sauces.
Lastly, there are pink salmon. Pink salmon, with light color and tender texture, when handled well, are a great option for canning and smoking.
Noting that only 12% of world salmon production is wild Alaskan salmon and that the vast majority of the remainder is farmed marks our Alaska Gold wild salmon as something truly unique.
In addition, recent reports have identified that a good amount of seafood sold in supermarkets and restaurants in the United States is mislabeled. A report from Time Magazine noted that 43% of salmon was mislabeled in a recent study—and 69% of that mislabeling was farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild.
There are also some very important reasons to ask for Alaska salmon rather than “salmon.” All of Alaska seafood is wild-caught. There is no finfish farming in Alaska, so that all salmon is harvested in the wild, pristine waters of Alaska. In addition, Alaska’s seafood is managed to be sustainable. Alaska is the world’s most trusted source of premium quality, sustainable seafood. Alaska is emulated around the world as being a pioneer of sustainable seafood. Harvest by sustainable yield is written into the state’s constitution. In other words, Alaska’s fisheries are scientifically managed so that the long-term health of the fish stocks are top priority. Harvest quotas are managed so that the grandchildren of today’s fishermen should have opportunity to fish in the same way in the future. In addition, the Alaska salmon industry supports America’s economy. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of Alaska salmon fishing boats are small American family businesses. As a whole, the Alaska seafood industry accounts for 111,800 jobs in the United States.
All salmon is nutrient-dense and contain a goodly amount of lean protein, heart-healthy fats, and is packed with vitamins and minerals. What remains questionable is the feed that farmed salmon are given, which can account for an increased chance of toxicity with potential higher levels of pesticides and PCBs, and antibiotics. Salmon farmers would like the public to believe that eating farmed fish “saves” wild fish, but in reality aquaculture has done little to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks, as much of the feed for farmed salmon is wild fish. Some times, it can take as much as 10 pounds of wild fish to make 1 pound of farmed salmon. Salmon farmers have worked to improve these ratios, but salmon farming in Norway has almost completely wiped out the wild salmon runs there. In addition, salmon farms in Canada are contaminating wild salmon with a blood virus piscine ortoeovirus (PRV). It is believed that PRV causes king salmon red blood cells to rupture. Meanwhile a good number of king salmon runs are in decline in British Columbia. Canada has done little to shift salmon farms outside of wild salmon migration routes. It is the bane of many Alaskan fishermen that salmon farming continues in British Columbia, where it is believed that not only that PRV is being spread to wild salmon, but there are also numerous clean-up issues in waters where salmon are farmed. In addition, Farmed salmon tend to have a flabby texture and flavor, as they are in general fattier, but not with the right kind of fats. Farmed salmon have varying degrees of the heart-healthy Omega-3s for which wild salmon are prized, but usually not in the same beneficial ratio to Omega-6s. This Omega-3:Omega-6 ratio truly makes wild salmon stand out.
With all this information on the variety of salmon out there, wouldn’t you want to know what kind of salmon is on the menu?
Our Seafood Producers Cooperative was recently featured at The 2018 Food & Farm Film Fest in San Francisco. We presented a film about our producer-owned co-op, and the wild salmon our producers catch “Tasting Wild Alaska” directed by Sitka’s Liz MacKenzie. We also enjoyed some other wonderful films that displayed the intersection of art and food.
The sold-out Roxie Theater was packed and bristling with energy. The funds raised by the Festival support Cooking Matters, a program that teaches low-income families how to shop for and cook delicious, healthy food.
Attending the festival for us was a reminder that food stories are people stories. Food and the people who produce and cook food are driven by love and passion.
We really admired James Q. Chan’s “Bloodline,” a film about Top Chef Tu David Phu and the story behind his family’s culinary legacy, their lives as refugees from Vietnam, and how his parents taught him the secrets of fish and influenced Chef Tu to become who he is today.
Through the camera lens of filmmaker Liza Mosquito deGuia we met Tommaso Conte, chef and founder of D’Abruzzo, an award-winning New York City food vendor specializing in Abruzzese cuisine from Italy. Conte’s passion is the same passion that our seafood producers bring when they are fishing and taking the extra time and work into producing a spectacular fish for your plate.
“Great! Lakes,” a film about a family-run small scale candy maker in Knife River, Minnesota depicts the craft of making memorable and special food by a family that stays authentic to who they are. We had some of their candy at the after-party and it was to die for.
These were just a taste of the films we saw at the festival. Going to the festival was a reminder to share more of our producers’ stories with you. Which we will. Stay tuned. And thanks for following our stories and supporting our organization.
We’ve got all kinds of fishermen in our fleet. Some are poets, some are mathematicians. We’ve got painters, musicians, rocket scientists. Here’s Mike Rentel who comes from a mechanical engineering background with a minor in math and emphasis on machine design and metallurgy. With an MBA emphasis in finance and entrepreneurship and minors in philosophy and behavioral economics, Mike fishes with a crew that consists of a veterinarian and a cattle rancher, both of whom Mike considers smarter than himself.
Mike started fishing summers with his grandpa in high school, trolling out of Ilwaco near the Columbia River. After his grandpa passed away, he finished college, but started up again with a 32-foot pocket-seiner/gillnetter and in a couple of years moved up to leased crabbers and a crew of five doing “deadliest catch” king crabs and tanners in the North Gulf of Alaska in the winter while fishing dungies between Icy Bay and Yakutat in the spring.
Mike met his wife, a geology professor, while she was mapping the sea floor off the coast of Chilean Patagonia and Antarctica. As an engineer keeping all the water, heat and electrical systems running in the remote cold wilderness, she was impressed that Mike could fix just about anything. Being able to fix things on the fly is exactly what it takes to run a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, too.
This spirit of adventure, inherent in all of our fishermen, along with a knack for fixing things helped Mike and his wife win the Spirit of Admiralty sailboat race, the longest inland water sailboat race on the West Coast.
Eventually, Mike “downsized” to the Harmony Isle, a 42-foot Wahl/Seamaster freezer boat. “I specifically chose a freezer-boat because I was committed to producing the best quality seafood possible.”
Mike spends winters in Madison, Wisconsin. As part of our fishermen-owned co-op, Mike is just one of the fishermen owners of our company.
We think what’s special about our Alaska Gold Seafood is that it comes from a fishermen-owned company. What we sell is the fish we catch. It’s not uncommon that the fish sold in many places isn’t what they say it is—the fish passes through many hands before getting to you the customer. Though our fishermen would love to personally deliver fish to you, we think purchasing from our website is almost as good. Fish fraud has been around since before the days when Jesus’s disciples fished the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen being underpaid for their hard work has also been a common practice since biblical times. Which is why fishermen-owned co-ops like ours were formed. As owners of the business, fishermen-owners control their own destinies. We’re quite proud of the work we do. We do it with integrity and transparency. And with a deep pride in our quality.
Raising children on fishing boats is no small endeavor. Recently, Norm Pillen shared a photo memory of fishing with his daughters, and I caught up with him to get the details behind the picture.
“This was my last summer salmon trolling on the Katie J in 2000” Norm told me. Norm has since moved on to operating a tender boat, the Sea Lion, during salmon season. “I was hoping to focus more on family time, but it ended up being a really big salmon season, which made it more challenging. My wife and I took time when we could to walk on the beach, whale watch, and appreciate nature with our daughters, but I heard my coding partners talking about really high scores of fish, and then we’d go chase the fish.” (Before cell phones, fishermen friends or “coding partners” used to communicate on radio using a preset code to disguise fishing reports from others listening in on the radio.)
“Unfortunately, both of my daughters LeAnne and Marissa inherited their mom’s inclination toward seasickness, and they went through a lot, and I would feel guilty when they got sick, but it was hard to tame my competitive edge to catch more fish. It tore at my heart. But that summer we had a really nice balance of fishing hard and playing hard with the family. There was a time we pulled in to Gut Bay, just hoping to have a quiet evening to relax, but we ran into schools of salmon, and we did everything we could to work as fast as possible to make it look like we weren’t catching fish, and it worked for a while, but then we couldn’t hide it any longer, and half the fleet joined us in the bay.”
“Both of the girls have since worked with me on the Sea Lion,” Norm mentions, referring to his current salmon tendering operation, and how his daughters have kept up the fishing tradition. Marissa’s a mom and LeAnne’s studying to be a nurse now, but “fishing is still important, especially to LeAnne, who out-fished me trout fishing on a day off a week or so ago—she almost always gets the first fish. LeAnne took after her dad,” Norm notes proudly. “There was a time when we were anchored in Mite Cove. One of our fleet mates said there were no halibut in the cove that year, and what does LeAnne do but pull out a 106-pound halibut within a few minutes of fishing. That is so like her.”
“That summer I remember so many days of fishing hard, long days, and taking breaks to make sandwiches for the kids. We had a 12-volt TV that you can see in that picture and the only tape we had was Bugs Bunny, which they watched over and over when mom and dad were fishing. This was before cell phones and tablets. But they learned a lot of important lessons on the boat. Firstly, how to follow directions. They learned to always wear their life jackets and to always hold on to the rails of the boat with one hand. They learned to appreciate nature and the value of hard work. We had a lot of adventures and good family times on the boat that summer, but driving the Alcan Highway back home to Washington state, the engine blew up and we spent a week in the middle of nowhere waiting to get back on the road. It was a great family summer. It was a summer of adventures. They were young, but I think our daughters took good memories and lessons from those experiences.”
We hope this summer that you our customers celebrate dads, moms, and good family times with our Alaska Gold Seafood. Here’s a dish Norm recommends for the summer—halibut shish kebabs. Soaked in teriyaki sauce, with peppers, pineapple chunks, onions, put on the grill for a few minutes, let cool and they will melt in your mouth. Check out our Father’s Day Sale here.
Make a salad or something that doesn’t involve reheating.
This salad inspiration comes from a customer, who writes: “Made with corn salad (mache) and volunteer arugula from the garden, avocado, croutons made from stale homemade wheat bread, and pieces of leftover Alaska Gold coho salmon filets, plus a little orange-infused olive oil, this salad sure was a winner! My husband doesn’t usually get too excited about salads, but he liked this one so much that he grabbed his phone and took a picture of it totally ecstatic. The combination of flavors surprised him. He’s a recent salmon convert thanks to Alaska Gold, and he’s no photographer, but this salad, made on the fly when we came home from a morning hike, sure is pretty.”
Salads like this one made from leftover coho salmon are also a really great way to maximize macro and micro nutrients in one meal. The perfect mix is a quality sourced protein, like wild salmon, which is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and some good fats (an avocado, for example), a bed of nutrient-rich leafy greens, and tons of other veggies and add-ons (some Marcona almonds would also work really well) based on our activity levels and what our bodies are needing.
What’s also great about these salads is that they are easy to prep once you have the leftover salmon. 8 to 10 minutes tops.
A lot of our customers order the bulk sized coho salmon filets, and they grill or bake them for a meal. If there are leftovers, tear up the salmon into pieces, and you can make wonderful salads like these. Put them in some Tupperware and bring them with you in your lunch box, and you’ve got a healthy lunch!
Note: It’s also good to remember to not reheat salmon. In general, this causes the salmon’s natural oils to get rancid. Though leftover salmon works really well for example with scrambled eggs for breakfast, it can go into the pan at the very end of cooking.
If you’re going to do something, you have to set your internal compass toward excellence and go for it, because nothing else matters.
I recently ate a home pack of our Alaska Gold Salmon and, as I often do afterwards, thought to myself, “Wow! This is really good stuff!”
It made me think about just how special our Alaska Gold salmon really are. It took only a bit of research to discover that…
Of the total world salmon supply sold for food, only around 12% of it is wild Alaskan. (A huge portion of the remainder is Atlantic aka farmed salmon.)
Of all the wild Alaska salmon, only about 1.5% of that is caught by the traditional hook and line methods like we use.
Of the line-caught Alaskan king salmon and coho salmon out there, 30% is from our fishermen-owned cooperative, which has been known for its fastidious attention to quality and integrity for over 70 years.
So, the salmon we catch is the best 1/20th of 1% in the world! 1/20th of 1%= 1 pound out of a ton. Which means that our Alaska Gold salmon is the best of the best of the best!
Alaska Gold salmon is caught by members of Seafood Producers Cooperative, a fishermen-owned co-op based in Sitka, Alaska. We have immense pride in serving our customers the finest king salmon and coho salmon available.
More than any fish we catch coho salmon is arguably the heart and soul of our region and our fishermen-owned co-op. Each summer coho salmon return to the thousands of tiny creeks that stream through the ancient trees of the Tongass Rain Forest, which makes up a good part of southeast Alaska. You can watch them jump up waterfalls, giving it their all, with the aim of returning to a little pool to spawn. Our fishermen catch each wild coho salmon One Hook One Fish At A Time on the ocean at their peak, then dress and ice each salmon to keep them in perfect condition until they reach our customers. Available in boxes of 6 portions, 5 pounds and 10 pounds, we also have fill-your-freezer larger, discounted boxes of bulk coho salmon portions, too.
“You don’t grow old eating Alaska Gold.” The nutrients in salmon are many and it’s no wonder we can fish through the long 16-hour days of the salmon season. Wild Alaskan Salmon is truly a gift. Each year they keep coming back to take care of us and keep us nourished through the winter.
As a fishermen-owned co-op, we’ve been part of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest for a long time and we look forward to delivering you the highest quality seafood.
With the colder, darker season coming upon us, we have some important news on Wild Salmon and vitamin D content:
Just one of our 6-ounce wild coho salmon portions has over 90% of the recommended daily value of vitamin D.
A wise fisherman once said, “You don’t grow old eating Alaska Gold.” While we don’t claim to have the fountain of youth, we believe that the vitamin D and other nutrients in wild coho salmon are what keep those of us up north strong through the winter. The nutrients in seafood are many and it’s no wonder our fishermen are so full of life, even after working 16-hour days.
A lot of Alaskans say that the indigenous peoples of southeast Alaska, like the Tlingits, were able to not only survive but thrive during the dark and dreary days in the region by eating loads of fish throughout the winter. Numerous varieties of seafood, and in particular salmon, were essential to the early Americans’ diets. Food is a central part of the Tlingit culture—the rich land and waters of southeast Alaska the provider. Because of the rich bounties from the land and sea, the Tlingits were one of the richest societies in human history—both rich in nourishing food and rich in arts and culture, because the nourishing food they were able to hunt, fish and gather gave them time to develop rich storytelling and artistic traditions.
Don’t take it from us—we’re just fishermen. In the blog post here, we offer some links to studies and articles on the health benefits of vitamin D.
Get hooked on our Alaska Gold wild salmon to give you strength through the winter. Our coho salmon portions in boxes of 6, 14 and 28 are on sale for 15% off through October 31st when you use the following coupon code: GoldCoho17
The below technical article originally appeared in New Food Magazine and is a story about Seafood Producers Cooperative fisherman George Eliason and freezing salmon on his boat the Tammy Lin.
In Sitka, Alaska, a town of 9000 where 20% of the economy depends directly on wild salmon, there’s a well-known coffee shop decorated with images of commercial fishing. The Highliner Coffee Shop sells a coffee mug printed with a Sanskrit quote: “To judge a thing one must know the standard.” On this mug, there’s a picture of Captain George Eliason’s salmon troller the F/V Tammy Lin. The message insinuates that the Tammy Lin and Eliason’s fastidious attention to detail are the standard by which all other salmon are judged in the community. The Tammy Lin is installed with a freezer and Eliason produces frozen-at-sea salmon that once thawed in a restaurant 1000s of miles away weeks and months later, taste as if they’ve only been out of the water for an hour or so—as fresh as it gets.
The sea-frozen salmon produced on freezer boats like the Tammy Lin are a specialty product for niche buyers who know and are willing to pay a premium. This article will cover what it takes to reach that high ideal, the very pinnacle of seafood quality, the standard by which all other fish are judged. Certainly not every fisherman can achieve this standard, though George isn’t the only fisherman with an impeccable attention to detail to produce an outstanding salmon. And most customers are not able to afford the premium price demanded for this pinnacle of quality. However, as it is for any industry, we can start with the ideal of perfection and work down from there.
There are numerous resources on freezing seafood–Planning for Seafood Freezing by Edward Kolbe and Donald Kramer is one of the most extensive, well researched, and objective resources. Using Kolbe and Kramer’s principles, we’ll take a closer look at freezing seafood on a small vessel and how that helps achieve the highest standard in seafood quality.
In the seafood world, we work with a couple of basic guidelines:
1) Once a fish is pulled out of the water, a clock starts ticking and with each minute, or better stated, with each step taken, the fish has potential to lose quality. What matters more than time is care given to the fish and preservation methods.
2) Once we pull the fish out of the water, there is nothing we can do to improve the quality of the fish (assuming we don’t cover the fish’s taste with a sauce), so everything we do is to preserve its state as it came out of the water.
So, let’s say out of the water, the fish is a 10 on a scale from 1 to 10. Certainly, a fish could have a cosmetic defect like a scar made by a sea lion, or the fish might not be perceived by a buyer as a desired species or from a pristine place. For simplicity’s sake, the idea that the instant a fish comes out of the water it’s a 10 but everything that happens to it afterwards ticks off a line item on a scoring sheet, that the fish goes from being a 10 to potentially a 1. A careless cut, not getting the fish frozen before rigor mortis, or not getting every speck of blood removed from the fish are all demerits that would lower that score.
Let’s call George Eliason and the work he does on his boat the Tammy Lin the ideal to chase, the standard by which all other seafood is judged. George fishes for wild salmon with hook and line methods (also known as trolling), which in theory produce the highest quality fish. Catching a fish on hook and line gives the fisherman time to handle each fish with the most care. Each fish is bled and dressed and handled with care. Less than 5% of Alaska salmon are caught by trollers. Only about 15 percent of the trolling fleet has a freezer installed on their boat to produce the highest quality sea-frozen salmon. And few fishermen are as fastidious as George Eliason, who lives by the motto of doing things right the first time. To my questions about why you would do it his way versus another way, George is incredulous–you cannot sacrifice quality for any reason in George’s mind. Deviating from George’s methods only seems to negatively impact quality in George’s mind. Given the grading sheets for George’s frozen-at-sea salmon deliveries, it’s difficult to argue with him on matters pertaining to seafood quality. George delivers an extraordinarily high percentage of “perfect 10s,” which in the traditional seafood world are graded as “Number Ones.”
Trollers that have freezers on their boats have two distinct motivations when they decide to install a freezer on their boat as opposed to carrying ice: 1) they get on average a 20-30 % premium price for their fish versus that from an ice boat; and 2) they can extend their fishing trips to as long as 21 days. A troller keeping the fish cold with only ice must find a place to deliver fish within 3-4 days at most. They must either return to town to deliver fish to a processor or find a tender boat where the fisherman can deliver fish and stock up on ice. Having the freedom to keep fishing for 21 days saves time and money on trips back to town and opens up new territory to explore for fishing. Given the reduction in trips back and forth between town, on average a boat with a freezer can spend two more weeks fishing per season than an ice boat, which means more fish and more money for the fisherman, with or without the premium paid for sea-frozen salmon.
Here’s how that freezer works. The Tammy Lin has a 25kW genset, which runs a 25 horsepower engine, whose motor runs a compressor that keeps the air temperature in the Tammy Lin’s freezer at close to -48℉ (-44℃). This cold air brings the core temperature of the fish in the Tammy Lin’s hold to as cold as -37℉ (-38℃) within about 6 hours. Other fishermen might be content with -20℉ -(29℃). But George wonders why. Everything George aims to do is to get the fish as cold as possible and as quickly as possible. The ideal is to preserve the fish in a frozen state before it reaches rigor mortis. Cleaned and pressure bled with a pipette, the fish caught on a freezer boat are put in the freezer hold while the fish’s heart is still beating on the deck of the boat Physiologically speaking, time stops. Any of the fish’s flesh breakdown halts at this point, including key enzymatic processes that occur at a cellular level which affect texture and taste. The fish literally becomes frozen in time within hours, much faster than any fish sold in most fresh market situations can reach its customers.
The Tammy Lin has a 17,000-pound capacity hold and once it’s filled George can return to town to deliver the fish. George estimates that the freezer burns a gallon of diesel per hour, but of course gets more efficient with more fish in the hold, as the ambient temperature lowers.
George has a “custom” set-up. A fisherman could also get a “drop-in” freezer set-up from a company like Integrated Marine Systems (IMS) out of Seattle, Washington. IMS manufactures and helps install freezers for fishing vessels.
A critical point is having an extremely well insulated hold. Fishermen adding freezers to their boats with poorly insulated holds not only run less efficiently, but cause frost build-up and their fish won’t reach those colder temperatures as quickly, sacrificing quality. The Tammy Lin is so well insulated that, with no air leaks, defrosting the hold causes the hatch to pop open.
For salmon trollers, blast freezers blowing freezing wind at 10 knots over trays of frozen fish, are the preferred freezing system, but for some fishermen seeking albacore tuna, a number prefer the brine system with a mix of frozen seawater. A shrimp fisherman will use a plate freezer. It must be said that there are a number of schools of thought, as scientists at the Oregon State University’s Seafood Lab have studied. Edward Kolbe, Cormac Craven, Gil Sylvia and Michael Morrissey’s “Chilling and Freezing Guidelines to Maintain Onboard Quality and Safety of Albacore Tuna” runs through the pros and cons of each freezing method and the most critical principles to consider when running a freezer on a tuna fishing vessel.
The guiding principle, as it is with frozen-at-sea salmon, is getting the fish as cold as possible and as quickly as possible. In the case of tuna, which little does the average public know is a warm-blooded creature, their body temperature coming out of the water might be as high as 80℉ (27℃) at the core. Having a deck tank with chilled sea water helps ensure that the fish gets cold (ideally to 40℉) as quickly as possible before putting it in the freezer, which minimizes temperature fluctuation in the hold, reduces freezer energy load, and improves flesh quality. Maintaining colder temperatures minimizes autolytic degradation that can cause histamine build-up in a warmer water fish like tuna. Warm fish bring ambient heat, impeding the freezer’s efficiency and its ability to keep all fish in the hold as cold as possible. This chill rate will depend also on fish size, ambient air temperature or the water temperature in a deck tank and a “rapid rate” depends on the eye of the beholder. The heat transfer coefficient will affect freezing time and an appropriate catch rate should be determined for the vessel’s freezing system and hold. The initial freezing point of a fish will depend on its moisture content but is typically around 28 to 30℉. Freezing too slow causes dehydration, increased enzyme activity, decreasing the quality of the fish and causing spoilage, and protein denaturation, meaning that muscle proteins have unraveled from their coiled state, decreasing their ability to hold water molecules. Upon thawing, the water drains away as drip loss.
As noted above, once the fish is harvested there is no way to improve its quality, but you can slow down the rate of quality deterioration by properly handling the fish on board, freezing it quickly, and storing the fish at a temperature that does not fluctuate. This is the ideal for frozen seafood—the proverbial “perfect 10.”
There are a number of technical barriers to entry to a salmon fisherman installing a freezer on his or her boat. Firstly, some fishermen don’t want to stay out the 21 days that the freezer allows. Those fishermen forgo the premium dock price because there is certainly a romance to not having to hear a generator run all night. George “sleeps with one eye open” while fishing, so the noise of a generator running all night doesn’t bother him. In addition, George hired an extra hand when he installed the freezer because of the extra steps required. The Tammy Lin runs a crew of 3, including the captain. The extra hand makes the “big days” of 400 fish much more do-able. And some freezer boat fishermen have noted that there are 18 distinct steps one must take with the fish before putting it into the hold. An average to good day of 100 fish or so is manageable without the extra help, but boats that run only a crew of two can end up sacrificing quality or end up burning themselves out working a succession of 20-hour work days, which would be the norm in an Alaska summer salmon season. George’s deckhands work quickly and carefully, cutting heads off, making belly incisions, gutting the fish, pressure bleeding it with a pipette, and carefully stowing it on aluminum trays, using a batch system to make it goes as efficiently as possible. In addition to cleaning and pressure bleeding with a pipette pre-rigor, George has at least three hoses running, cleaning the deck.
Once a fisherman installs a freezer on their boat, they have to become licensed as a “direct marketing fisherman,” and their boat essentially becomes a “portable processor” with a HACCP plan and paperwork to fill out 4 to 6 times a day. George notes numbers of fish caught, parts per million in the bleach solutions, where they dumped their head, etc. As a processor, George needs to have a tarp over his deck, his processing area, whereas ice fishermen can work with the sun (or other elements) above them. Having to comply with regulations from the Department of Environmental Conservation and even Homeland Security becomes part of the workday for a direct marketing fisherman producing a frozen-at-sea product. More taxes to pay and regular inspections also become a concern.
Other little details matter, too. George says he goes through a lot more knives on his freezer boat, as the extra steps require more cutting. An ice boat will leave town with a few thousand pounds of ice that serves as a stabilizing ballast. George added some rolling stabilizers to help his freezer boat when leaving town with an empty hold. Each light in the freezer hold needs to be covered, should it be bumped and broken it will not contaminate the fish with broken glass. He puts a 6% seawater glaze on his fish and maintains a bleach solution in which fish are dipped.
Probably the biggest, somewhat unspoken barrier to entry to installing a freezer onto a small fishing vessel, is finding a market for a fish of that quality. Restaurants rarely have a space to thaw out a frozen-at-sea fish and might only take a few fish at a time. Fewer chefs have the ability to break down a whole fish. Nevertheless, when put to blind taste tests with fresh-never-frozen salmon, a frozen-at-sea salmon is going to be as good as a fish that has just been pulled out of the water. You also get the added benefit of more efficient, hassle-free transportation once it’s frozen, and a lot longer shelf life. It’s a “perfect 10” when done right. The troll-caught frozen-at-sea wild salmon is a standard by which all other seafood is judged. Reaching that standard isn’t for the feint of heart.
*Note: George Eliason is retiring this year. “After 50+ years on the ocean, why not get off? I’ve pretty much seen and done all that I wanted.” George’s attention to detail will be passed on to future generations.