Capturing fresh-caught quality is key for Charlie Wilber and his fishing co-op colleagues
Charlie and Adrienne Wilber
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.
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
These differences yield a standard of consistently high quality that's hard to match.
Trollers would happily catch sockeye in addition to king, silver and pink salmon … but sockeye tend to feed on small krill and plankton, so they're not normally attracted to a troller's lure. Its thought that when a sockeye strikes a lure, it's an aggressive action … the fish is defending 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 purse seine boats.
Alaska's Bristol Bay is the largest sockey fishery, where fish can come so fast and furious that they over-burden the processing pipeline: boats take longer to get unloaded and processing plants take longer to process the fish.
In contrast, most Vital Choice sockeye comes from lower-volume fisheries in Southeast Alaska, 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!
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
Post A. Why Fish Need Trees and Trees Need Fish. Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Accessed online at http://www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlife_news.view_article&articles_id=407