Swimming upstream

How one man brought fresh salmon to Illinois

click to enlarge King salmon with blueberry sauce. - PHOTO BY PETER GLATZ
King salmon with blueberry sauce.
King salmon with blueberry sauce.

Fish can be a beneficial component of a healthy diet. Fish are the major sources of long-chain omega-3 fats, are high in protein and low in saturated fat. Evidence suggests that eating fish or taking fish oil is good for the heart and blood vessels. The American Heart Association recommends eating one to two servings a week of fatty fish (such as salmon) to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease.

However, fish can be a vehicle for harmful contaminants such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and pesticide residues. Very high levels of mercury can damage nerves in adults and disrupt development of the brain and nervous system in a fetus or young child. These contaminants are found to be significantly more concentrated in farmed salmon than in wild salmon.

Procuring good wild salmon in the Midwest can be problematic. Ninety-five percent of wild salmon sold in the U.S. comes from Alaska. Fresh salmon has an eight-day optimal shelf life. After a 4,000-mile journey, the fresh wild salmon you buy at a local store might be 10 to 14 days old by the time it ends up on your dinner table. Surprisingly, much of the frozen Alaskan salmon sold in the U.S. market is sent to China to be filleted and packaged. There are 36 pin bones in a salmon and the best way to remove them is by hand. Something that would cost $1 per pound in labor in the U.S. can be done in China for 20 cents.

Eight years ago Nic Mink, an academic with a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies and History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went to Sitka in southeast Alaska to work in fisheries conservation. Sitka was one of the last remaining small-boat fishing communities in Alaska not yet taken over by consolidation and industrialization. He helped organize salmon fishermen and community members to work in preserving the salmon habitat.

click to enlarge Salmon fisherman John Skeele - PHOTO BY KELLEY JORDAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Salmon fisherman John Skeele
Salmon fisherman John Skeele
In 2010 Mink took a teaching position at Knox College in Galesburg as a humanist and policy adviser with an interest in food systems. He commuted back and forth for a year teaching at Knox and doing fisheries conservation in Alaska. He started bringing students to Alaska to work with him in salmon advocacy.

To raise money for internships, Mink and his students started selling Sitka salmon to Knox faculty and staff. The first 750 pounds of salmon were well received: “People really liked knowing where their fish was from.” And the fishermen liked knowing that their catch was going directly to the consumer, bypassing the commercial processing and distribution networks. Two of his students worked with their business professors to write a business plan for selling small-boat, line-caught, high quality fish directly to consumers. They wanted to form a CSF (community-supported fishery), patterned after CSAs (community-supported agriculture), in which members or subscribers receive shipments of seasonal fish delivered to their doorstep.

Empty warehouse space, a victim of outsourcing, became available in Galesburg, and Sitka Salmon Shares was launched in 2012, initially selling to customers in Galesburg, Madison, Peoria and the Quad Cities. Eighteen months ago, Sitka Salmon Shares acquired a processing facility in Alaska and became a totally integrated organization. Over the last four years membership has grown from 70 to 2,500.

Participating fisherman Marsh Skeele describes his life before Sitka Salmon Shares: “When I started fishing it was not fulfilling selling my fish to the commodity market. During my second year, prices were low and I struggled to make ends meet. Prices were tied to the global market, and I was competing against fish from Asia and Chile. The traditional marketplace is interested in poundage, not quality.” Skeele, now a Sitka Salmon Shares vice president, finds it fulfilling to provide his products to people who love fish.

Subscribers of Sitka Salmon shares receive a monthly shipment of frozen fish delivered to their doorstep in a thermal bag with dry ice. One can elect to receive five, 10 or 15 pounds per month. Prices range from $14 to $22 per pound. The selections vary seasonally and may include: spot prawns, king salmon, sockeye salmon, Coho salmon, halibut, black cod, black bass, lingcod, Pacific cod, and Dungeness crab. Recipe cards and a newsletter describing the month’s featured fish accompany each shipment.

Sitka Salmon Shares also sells at farmers markets in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Sitka Salmon Shares offerings can be purchased at Springfield’s Old Capitol Farmers Market on Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

King salmon with blueberry sauce
Recipe courtesy of Sitka Salmon Shares
Serves 6

2 fillets wild king salmon, 1 pound each
2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
1 1/3 cups blueberries
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper to taste

Run your fingers over the salmon flesh and pull out any pin bones. Season fish generously with salt and let rest at room temperature while you prepare the sauce.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Oil a large baking sheet.

In a medium saucepan over low heat, simmer together shallots, wine, vinegar, thyme, cinnamon and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Toss in blueberries, butter and honey; cook until berries soften and turn the sauce pink, 2 to 4 minutes.

Place salmon on baking sheet. Spoon berry mixture over salmon and season with pepper. Bake until salmon is cooked to desired doneness, 8 to 10 minutes for medium-rare.

Peter Glatz and his late wife, Julianne, used to enter gumbo cook-offs in Lafayette, Louisiana. They never won, but they were the only ones who made the roux from scratch. Everyone else used jar roux from a grocery store. Peter and his son, Robb, have been perfecting their recipe and will be returning to the Black Pot Festival Gumbo Cook-off to defend their family’s honor.

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