Charlie and Adrienne Wilber
Capturing fresh-caught quality is key for Charlie Wilber and his fishing co-op colleagues
by Craig Weatherby
Most folks who know wild salmon savor the distinctive attractions of sockeye and silver. But there's a reason why Chinook salmon are also known as “king”.
Their fat content exceeds that of any other Pacific salmon species, making king fillets regally succulent and rich.
And when you choose Vital Choice king salmon, it’s almost as though you’d traveled to Alaska to catch the fish yourself!
You can attribute that advantage to our decision to select king and silver salmon from the owner-operators of small boats called trollers… a niche, quality-focused fishery that supplies only a tiny two percent of the Alaskan salmon harvest.
We recently spoke with Charlie Wilber, the seasoned skipper of the “Alexa K”, who trolls for king salmon in the wild waters around Southeast Alaska’s Baranof Island.
Trollers like Charlie Wilber’s “Alexa K” feature long poles that extend out over the water to pull two to four weighted lines through the water. Each pole pulls eight to 12 leaders bearing a lure or baited hook.
As a consequence, trollers catch very small numbers of salmon, compared with gillnetters or purse seiners, which target large salmon runs as they converge on their birth rivers to spawn.
Before we relate Charlie’s story, it helps to understand the full spectrum of Alaska’s commercial salmon scene.
Charlie and Adrienne
with sparring spot prawns
Artisan fishing in Alaska: Harvesting salmon by hand, a few at a time
In contrast to other fishing styles, trollers roam open ocean waters in pursuit of small groups of vigorous, bright silver king, silver (Coho), and pink salmon. And they clean and pack each fish in ice within an hour of harvest … or less.
These differences yield a standard of consistently high quality that’s hard for most net-fishing boats to match.
Except for our incredibly rich, fatty smoked Yukon king, all flash-frozen Vital Choice king and silver salmon is harvested by trollers.
Trollers would happily catch sockeye in addition to king, silver and pink salmon… but sockeye tend to feed on small krill and plankton, so are not normally attracted to a troller’s lure. The theory is that when a sockeye strikes a lure, it’s an aggressive action… he’s defending his territory, rather than feeding.
All sockeye salmon are caught by nets, whose crews haul in multiple fish at a time—sometimes hundreds, or even thousands—as in the case of large purse seine boats.
And most sockeye come from high-volume fisheries, where millions of salmon may pour through the fishing grounds in a single day. In these areas fisherman have no choice but to focus upon quantity rather than quality.
In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, fish can come so fast and furious that they are roughly handled, and over-burden the processing pipeline: boats take longer to get unloaded, processing plants take longer to process the fish.
The average end product of high-volume fisheries can’t compare to those caught in lower-volume fisheries, where ample “TLC” produces perfect fish consistently.
Vital Choice sockeye comes from lower-volume fisheries where fish are immediately bled and iced, and delivered to the processing plant within hours of harvest for immediate processing and freezing.
In fact, our select sockeye is an uncommon exception to the rule that troll-caught fish are usually superior to netted salmon.
One troller’s story
We spoke with Charlie about his life on the water, his family, and his stance on sustainability.
After graduating college in the early 1970’s, Charlie moved to Alaska to find work fighting forest fires. But after being lured onboard a friend’s fishing boat, he caught the fishing bug and never looked back.
Charlie lives with his wife, Molly, and daughters Adrienne and Berett in the small town of Sitka on rugged Baranof Island … which helps mark the western edge of southeast Alaska’s “Inside Passage” waterway.
Molly's worked as a fisheries biologist, public radio broadcaster, preschool administrator, college advisor, and serves as vice president of the Sitka school board.
And during seasonal breaks from Minnesota’s Carleton College, Charlie’s eldest daughter Adrienne has been serving as a share-owning crew member.
As he says, “Adrienne’s been a big help. We both land and dress the fish, while she does all the cooking, ices the fish, and runs the lines on her side of the boat." With a laugh Charlie added, “I guess being stuck with your Dad on a 45-foot boat all summer, there isn’t a whole lot of social life, but it’s a great way to see the ocean.”
Charlie explained why the fish caught by trollers is of such high quality:
“The big difference is the amount of time involved. We often catch them one at a time, and handle each fish individually. We clean them immediately, and pack each one in ice within a half-hour of harvest.”
“I range 100 miles north and south of Sitka, usually within 15 miles of shore. We catch the fish in the open ocean when they are still bright silver, before they get near their birth rivers. That’s where they begin to consume their own body fat, change color, and get caught by the net boats.”
Charlie wants people to know that he and his fellow fishermen care deeply about preserving Alaska’s salmon fisheries: “I can’t speak for every fisherman, but I know that most of us realize that our lives are tied to the sustainability of the resource… our homes, families, and everything depend on sustaining the fishery.”
And his interest goes beyond self interest: “These fish feed an entire eco-system. The abundance of salmon here explains why we’ve got one grizzly bear per square mile, while the interior of Alaska has only one bear in every 50 square miles. Scientists are tracing nitrogen from salmon in trees a half-mile or more from the spawning rivers.”
Charlie is right, according to biologist Anne Post of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game: “As the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients become available to streamside vegetation … [which] … gets just under 25 percent of its nitrogen from salmon. Other researchers report up to 70 percent of the nitrogen found in riparian zone foliage comes from salmon” (Post A 2007).
Troller’s co-op is committed to quality
Aside from being an expert salmon fisherman, Charlie Wilber serves on the board of the widely respected Seafood Producer’s Cooperative, which operates much like a farmers’ co-op.
Along with the very finest Alaskan king salmon, we also source some of our premium Alaskan halibut and Alaskan sablefish from Charlie’s quality-conscious co-op.
The SPC has about 500 members, and consider quality “job one”.
They must charge more for their fish because of their labor-intensive harvest method… but that price premium is more than offset by the sparkling fresh flavor and vibrant color of this superbly succulent harvest.
The high quality of the member’s fish is ensured not only by the care they take on board their boats, but also by the co-op’s ownership of a state-of-the-art processing plant right in Sitka.
Having their own plant lets co-op members evade the processing delays often experienced by high-volume net fisheries. And it allows them to keep close control over quality at every step, until their fish land in a food market … or in our big Vital Choice freezer!
Luckily for us, the sales office for the Seafood Producer’s Cooperative is located just down the street from us in Bellingham, Washington… a coincidence that helps us secure some of the very finest wild Alaskan seafood from Charlie’s quality-conscious co-op.