Sharing Sitka’s salmon across the country
Helen worked for two summers with SCS on wild salmon education and outreach programs and advocacy. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Regional Planning at Cornell University, focusing on sustainable food systems, and working for Sitka Salmon Shares.
As a Midwesterner, I enjoy meeting and learning from local farmers committed to producing quality food in sustainable ways. In college I loved crafting meals at home, experimenting with new vegetables from my parents’ Community Supported Agriculture share. Yet for all my excitement, I rarely thought about food systems beyond the Midwest.
That changed when I moved to Sitka, a fishing town build on salmon, nestled within the Tongass National Forest. There I ate pan-seared king salmon—straight from the docks—at the home of a fisherman friend, with sautéed greens harvested from the backyard. I learned quickly that, in this community, the sustainability of local food means something very different than what I knew in the Midwest. The health of the Forest relates intimately to the strength of the wild salmon runs that make Sitka one of the greatest premium ports in the country. Walking through the forest, along the docks, and through the processor, you see how salmon connects the environment, culture, and economy—and the central importance of Alaska’s sustainable fishery management to ensuring these relationships continue.
Returning home to the Midwest, I was excited to share this salmon and its story. From my work with Nic Mink at the Sitka Conservation Society, I helped him establish Sitka Salmon Shares, the first Community Supported Fishery in the Midwest. We link fishermen we knew in Sitka with friends and neighbors in cities like Minneapolis—folks who crave the best salmon, but want the trust, transparency, and quality they currently seek from their farmers.
As part of Sitka Salmon Shares, we collaborated this fall with the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota to hold a Tongass salmon dinner. Chef Beth Jones used produce from the University’s campus farm, crafting a sweet corn succotash and a heirloom tomato relish to accent the unique flavors of coho, king, and sockeye from our fishermen in SE Alaska.
The guests that evening, however, wanted more than a nourishing meal that celebrates small-scale, sustainable food and its producers. They wanted to understand the significance of the wilderness and watersheds that give life to the salmon. Nic gave a talk called “How Alaska’s Salmon Became Wild,” exploring the histories of farmed and wild salmon. Afterwards, we invited guests to join us in asking the U.S. Forest Service to design their budget to reflect the importance of salmon and their habitat within the Tongass. In return, SCS and fisherman Marsh Skeele thanked them with one pound fillets of troll-caught Tongass coho.
The enthusiasm that our guests had to take part in this effort illustrated the important role food can play in forging connections. I support eating locally, but we should not forget the power that emerges when we form strong connections across regions. Our dinner at the Campus Club revealed that by starting with the allure of a boat to plate meal, we can show how the process really begins in the forest. From Sitka to Minneapolis, the value of the Tongass and its salmon holds true.