Not all seafood is created equal; this is a truth Alaskans know deeply. In Anchorage, we live at the epicenter of the some of the most abundant, diverse and well-managed fisheries on Earth. Many of us don't rely on restaurants or markets in town to put seafood into our bellies.
Still, we likely end up dining out on some type of seafood during the year and maybe picking up some fish from a store in town. But just where exactly does this seafood come from that you might order or take home? If you ask can they tell you? I've had numerous experiences with no good answers, or false answers, to "where did it come from?"
Unless it's troll-caught king salmon that is being served, good luck finding out what kind of gear type caught your fish. And what about the salmon served in Anchorage's many sushi spots? Most likely it's farmed salmon. Just ask next time you contemplate ordering that "Alaska roll." And if you see king crab for sale at an unbelievably low price, it's a sure bet it is Russian king crab, and not Alaskan.
Our state's fisheries are diverse and range from large-scale industrial trawl fleets to small, family operations that use selective gear. Trawl gear has higher bycatch rates of species like Chinook salmon and halibut, and can harm bottom habitat important to fish, crab and other species. More of our fisheries in Alaska are being consolidated into the hands of fewer owners. Large companies are buying up fishing rights, boats are being run by hired skippers, and absentee owners of fishing quota are charging high "lease rates" to independent fishermen. But can most Anchorage restaurants or markets provide you information as to how and who caught your seafood? Probably not. Does it matter? Definitely.
While the local food movement in Alaska is growing, we have a long way to go on the seafood front. Luckily, there are new opportunities budding that make it easier to support local fishermen. Some restaurants and markets are demonstrating a growing commitment to supporting local foods and community-based fishermen and farmers, and should be applauded for that. There are also a handful of direct-to-consumer seafood delivery programs cropping up in Anchorage.
My organization, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, has been running a "boat-to-table" program - called Catch of the Season - for several years that offers Kodiak Tanner crab to both consumers and restaurants during the winter. Another community supported fishery, Alaskan's Own, is expanding from southeast Alaska into Anchorage this summer. Residents can purchase four or six month shares that include an amazing mix of seasonal species such as halibut, black cod, rockfish, and king salmon caught by community-based fishermen. For more information on how to order your share visit alaskansown.com. A handful of independent fishermen are also direct marketing their catch right to consumers in Anchorage.
Efforts like these are helping to develop pathways for the products of community-based, conservation-minded fishermen and working to educate consumers on the issues of the "who" and "how" of seafood.
Consumer choice is a big part of the equation when it comes to creating more value for local fishermen and our local economies in Alaska. While individuals, markets, and eateries all have to juggle various factors when making decisions about what to buy, their seafood choices impact the businesses and livelihoods of Alaska's small-boat fishermen, and the future health of our fisheries.
Let's keep moving the needle and asking where our seafood comes from, how it was harvested, and make choices that support our local fishermen. Chances are you won't get good answers to these questions now, but together we can raise awareness, and hopefully over time, create demand for more sustainable seafood harvested by our fellow Alaskans.
Kelly Harrell is the executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. Find out more at www.akmarine.org.