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Expanding program brings Southeast catch direct to Anchorage homes

Alex DeMarban
Alaskans Own, a Sitka-based, community-supported sustainable seafood program will begin shipping frozen, wild-caught fish directly from Southeast Alaska fishermen to consumers this summer. Courtesy Alaskans Own

Anchorage anglers fed up with fighting crowds to dip their nets into the Kenai's blood-soaked and gut-covered waters might want to consider another option for putting Alaska seafood on the table.

Alaskans Own, a Sitka-based program that supports sustainable seafood harvests and local fishermen, will begin shipping frozen fillets of wild-caught fish directly to Anchorage consumers this summer.

The process will work much like a subscription to Full Circle Farms, an organic produce delivery service based in Washington state, with customers ordering the season's harvest and accessing the delivery at a pick-up site. But instead of organic kale and carrots from the Lower 48, subscribers will get flash-frozen fillets of popular finfish, from king salmon to halibut to black cod, all landed by Southeast Alaska fishermen around Baranof Island.

It's a unique effort, said Kelly Harrell, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, which has offered advice to organizers of Alaskans Own but isn't part of the effort.

While individual fishermen occasionally sell their bounty directly to Anchorage residents, say, at farmer's markets, this is the first time a group has offered multiple seafood species and "direct-to-consumer delivery" in Alaska's biggest city.

"This is very exciting," she said. "This makes it possible for fishermen to get greater value and for some of the profits to go back to the community to support a healthy future for our state."

Alaskans Own, part of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, launched in 2010 at the urging of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association to sell seafood directly to Sitka residents, cutting out grocery stores and wholesale distributors so fishermen could reap more of the benefit. It expanded with shipments to Juneau in 2011.

Starting May 29, it will begin shipping seafood to new Anchorage subscribers about 550 miles away. The deadline to sign up for Anchorage orders is May 1, and shipments will arrive monthly after that, for pick-up at an as-yet undetermined site.

The menu, depending on availability, should look like this: Halibut and lingcod in May, black cod and rockfish in June, king salmon in July, silver salmon in August, black cod, ling cod and rockfish in September, and king salmon, silver salmon and halibut in October.

Customers can sign up for four months or six months. Sign up for a full order, and you'll get 10 pounds a month. A half order brings you 5 pounds a month.

Going all in will result in the most economical deal: A six-month, 60-pound full order comes out to $12.90 a pound. The smallest subscription -- a four-month, 20-pound plan -- costs the most at $14 a pound.  

"In some cases, the processor sets aside catch from specific fishermen, so the fish can be traced back to the conservation-minded fisherman who landed it,” said Andrianna Natsoulas, a spokeswoman for Alaskans Own.

The program has grown each year, with 79 customers in Juneau and Sitka in the last season, Natsoulas said. With Anchorage in the mix, organizers expect to ship about 4,500 pounds to more than 100 buyers this year.

Profits are returned to Sitka, a community of 9,000, to help support research involving fishermen, such as an ongoing effort to develop gear modifications that keep whales away from longline hooks in order to protect both whales and harvests, Natsoulas said.

Some of the profits are also being used to create a fund that offers loans for those hoping to buy individual fishing quotas. The idea is to make sure young Sitka fishermen have the capital to get into fishing, she said.

Paying for those quotas can be a high hurdle for a young man or women, so the program helps keep fishing alive in Sitka, said Terry Perensovich, one of the program's participating fishermen. Those quotas can cost tens of thousands of dollars even for a small share, and can take years to repay.

"It can be difficult for a young person to go through the process of buying a quota and getting a boat, so the average age of the fisherman here is getting older and older," he said.

Perensovich said his operation is different than most commercial fishermen. He runs a skiff -- a 16-foot fiberglass Boston Whaler -- and hauls in the hook-festooned longline by hand. Other Sitka fishermen in the program usually operate 40-foot to 60-foot boats, but they are small, family-run efforts.

Lisa Sadleir-Hart, president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, started ordering from Alaskans Own in early 2010. Now she submits recipes that show up in the Alaskans Own newsletter -- a flyer that comes with shipments and includes profiles of the fishermen.

Sadleir-Hart and her husband do the four-month, full-share option, about 40 pounds. They eat the fish about twice a week, and it takes them about a year to eat it.

She's been "absolutely, 100-percent satisfied" with the quality of the seafood. On the rare occasions when a certain fish hasn't been available, organizers with Alaskans Own have sent her emails telling her what to expect.

"We're big gardeners, but not so much hunters and fishermen, so this was a great way for us to get more locally harvested seafood that's harvested in a sustainable way," she said.

Semi-retired these days, Sadleir-Hart said she's currently working part-time on an effort to assess food security in Sitka, as part of a program organized by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. The Alaskans Own effort is "fabulous" because it helps keep Alaska seafood in state, promotes healthier eating and, best of all, gives her the satisfaction of supporting a local industry.

"I know my neighbor around the block, Jeff, who goes and gets the fish," she said. "By doing this, I'm supporting him, and I'm doing it in a sustainable way. And that to me is the most important thing."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com