Many of our customers want to know all about our salmon and why they should purchase from us. Salmon is one of nature’s healthiest foods — when it comes from the right place. This may be a bit lengthy, but will hopefully help if you want to know as much as you can about where the salmon we sell comes from and what quality to expect. If you are not familiar with the salmon fishing process in general, hopefully this background will help!
Bristol Bay accounts for the largest salmon run in the world with an average in excess of 30 million sockeye running each year. In the region of Bristol Bay, we fish on the Kvichak river, pronounced Kwee-Jack, hence the name. Given the remote geography of Bristol Bay, the canned salmon industry has been a dominating force here since the logistics for moving the product become so much easier in canned form. As processing technologies have developed, that trend has shifted in the last decade. Much of the salmon used to go to Asian markets in cans; now there is a significant rise in filet product exported from Bristol Bay to US markets.
There are two forms of salmon fishing in Bristol Bay when it comes to the commercial sockeye harvest. Set net (which is what Kwee-Jack uses) and drift fishing. Both forms of fishing use gill nets, and before we get further into the styles, I want to talk for a moment about gill nets. In many locations, gillnetting is frowned upon and I would whole-heartedly agree. The reason for this is that there are many areas where by-catch (the Columbia River for instance) would result in many different species of fish and water species being caught and entangled in the gill nets. For this reason, gillnetting often has negative connotations associated with it. Gillnetting in Bristol Bay is a different situation. Our bycatch is extremely low, and the only thing I have caught other than salmon is flounder. Since the flounder is not gilled due to the shape of the fish, they are almost always (completely unofficial information here) alive and flipping when we find them in the nets, and they look no worse for wear. In my personal experience, I would estimate 99.something percent of what we catch is salmon, and of that .something percent that is not salmon is flounder. Of those flounder that we catch, over 95% are unharmed. I was originally unaware that gillnetting could be a harmful process when I started fishing due to the extremely low bycatch that I was seeing on our fishing grounds in Alaska. I have only recently begun trying to figure out why the by-catch varies so much in different areas , so I am not educated enough to state why exactly. I think for Alaska’s part, it has to do with the size of the mesh on the nets, cold and muddy/murky saltwater, and extremely large tide changes limiting what lives in the area to begin with.
Now back to how we fish…Drift Net Fishing VS. Set Net Fishing.
Drift fisherman use larger boats, and are allowed to use much longer nets. In addition to this, the nets must be elevated to greater heights when they are being picked. These are all downsides, and here is why. Longer nets require large hydraulic rollers to pull the net into the boat, and during this process, the fish are often put under significant amounts of strain. The process of pulling the nets out of the water can also cause fish to come out of the net and be lost, most likely not alive if gilled for any significant amount of time. As I said before, the boats are larger, which gives them greater capacity. When fish are stored on the boats, there is often 1,000 lbs. or more in one brailer bag. This weight causes the fish on the bottom to be crushed under the weight of the fish above it. The advantage to drift fishing boats is that they are starting to have refrigerated salt water tanks on board to chill-down the fish and hopefully prevent the fish from being packed too tightly in the hold. This trend is in the right direction and will greatly improve the quality of salmon being exported out of Bristol Bay.
Set net fishing, which Kwee-Jack does, involves small boats often in shallow waters. We are the minority of fishermen up here. The allocation of salmon to be caught in our district is 16% for the Naknek/Kvichak district. This means simply that on average, 16% of the salmon caught in our district was caught by set net fishermen. Our boats use modern fuel efficient 4 stroke outboard motors and consume minimal fuel. Set nets are just that — nets set, or anchored into the mud. Hydraulic rollers if used at all, are smaller in nature and rather than pulling the net into the boat, the boat is pulled along under the net as the fish are hand-picked from the net, often in shallow waters where currents are significantly less. This technique puts significantly less strain on the fish while it is in the net and allows for less loss of fish out of the net, and a greater recovery of fish in shallow waters that can be waded. At Kwee-Jack, we limit our brailer weights (the brailers are the industrial strength bags that contain our fish until we deliver them to the processor) to 500 lbs. at a maximum. If our weights can be kept less than that by dispersing weight evenly over more bags, we do that. Our techniques preserve the quality of the flesh by preventing crushing and strain during the picking and holding processes.
The downside to set netting? Refrigeration. Our boats are too small for refrigeration, and icing is limited due to the remote location of the fishing grounds. We solve this by starting a 2 hour clock when we begin picking our fish. Our processor requires 4 hours, but we believe 2 results in a significantly better product. Before that 2 hour clock has expired, our fish are delivered to a larger boat called a tender, which transports the catch to our processor. This tender has holds filled with a saltwater brine that is refrigerated to below freezing temperatures . The tender is also restricted to a capacity that allows the fish to be suspended in water for chilling and prevent weight crushing the fish on the bottom.
So what do we do with our excess fish?
We sell to a second market that often cans but sometimes filets the fish. During the course of a tide, we often deliver to both of our markets, usually multiple times each. Our premium fish in size, texture, bleeding, and meeting that less-than-two-hour time limit, are taken to our processor to be brought back for sale at our co-ops. The other market takes the fish that are best suited for canning. Some tides, due to the sheer volume of fish being caught, we are unable to maintain the standard we feel is necessary for the fish we sell, so the catch on those tides goes to the canning market.
To put it in perspective, since there is often a 20′ or more change in water level between high and low tides, at each low tide the nets go dry on the mud, requiring us to be caught up in order to avoid a dry net full of fish on the mud, or a boat beached on the mud. If a tide has too much volume for us to maintain the standards mentioned above, then we don’t bring home fish from that tide. A two-market system allows us to be uncompromising with stringent standards of quality for the fish brought back to sell, while NOT wasting perfectly edible fish well-suited to the canned market.
On the consumer end, filets in a grocery store may or may not be fresh. “Fresh” can be air freight salmon that was caught yesterday, or it could be salmon that was frozen and then thawed in the market to sell as “fresh.” Often, if it is a low price for wild salmon, it has been frozen previously, and I have heard of salmon being thawed and frozen multiple times for re-packaging or re-processing from H&G (headed and gutted) to filets. Fresh fish is great, if you can get it within 24 hours of being caught, however, we feel the economics and environmental impact of this does not pencil out. We offer a frozen product that is vacuum-packed, and here is our reasoning on that. If you can’t consume fish immediately after it has been caught, it degrades rapidly the longer it is left unfrozen. Since we catch our fish and immediately chill, process, and freeze our salmon for transport, it maintains the highest possible quality while balancing the cost for freight and shipping. I would even go so far as to wager that our fish is of a substantially higher quality if thawed properly than most fish you would buy at “fresh” markets. I am used to eating salmon within an hour or two of it being caught in the summer, and I enjoy our product long into the year. We ask our customers to use time-sensitive thawing practices where the fish is left in the fridge overnight. Salmon has a resilient flesh that will return back to its original state if allowed to thaw gradually instead of being shocked by warm temperatures. Along the same lines of texture, our salmon has the pin bones removed before packaging. The downside to this is that the flesh of the salmon is not as pristine as when the salmon was fileted, but our customers have responded positively to not having to deal with the bones.
One point about frozen fish over fresh fish is that it makes it safer for raw consumption if folks are wanting to use it for sushi. Salmon, like many meats, can have parasites that are killed by the deep freezing process. Our salmon is all deep frozen to below 0 degrees F, vacuum-packed, pin-bones out, sushi-grade, wild, glaze-less, sockeye salmon.
So now to switch gears to another topic people usually wonder about… sustainability. I’m going to leave a link below that shows a short video of the set net style fishing that we do to help with some visuals on how we fish. I shot the fishing footage, and the good folks at Sea2Tableedited the video. The gentleman speaking in the video is Christopher Nicholson, and he is who I originally began fishing with in 2004.
As the video mentioned, the fishing run on Bristol Bay is highly managed. Our fishing times are based on daily updates about the forecast run to Bristol Bay, and the amount of fish that have actually made it past the fishermen to the spawning grounds. I’m a very firm believer that if we ever have to stop fishing on Bristol Bay due to a lack of fish, it will not be because the fishermen caught all the fish! There is a hot topic right now surrounding Pebble Mine, and the fisherman are leading the fight to protect this area for future years of fishing.
We know first hand that this industry requires sustainability and our futures as fishermen depend upon it. We are blessed right now with an abundance of fish, but I know that could disappear for a myriad of reasons. As far as the fishermen’s part in this, we are highly regulated. Announcements occur up to 4 times daily over AM radio about our fishing period start and end times. Helicopters and boats from Alaska Department of Fish and Game are regularly patrolling the fishing grounds, and you better believe they will fine you and confiscate your fishing nets and the fish you caught if they find you fishing outside of the allotted fishing periods. These Fish and Game officers are enforcing the periods established by the marine biologists observing the data of the salmon run as it begins to unfold over the summer. Salmon runs are often cyclical in nature and our fishing times reflect that. I have had seasons where I sat for a week straight waiting to fish, and then I’ve had seasons where I fished 20+ days straight without a tide off. Over-escapment on the salmon run can lead to low returns in following years, so this run is managed with a goal of maintaining the highest runs for future years.
As you decide if you will choose to purchase your salmon from us, please know that we are committed to providing salmon that is of the highest quality to be found anywhere in the world. If you love salmon, we know you’ll love what we offer, and you can feel good about how it was caught. Fishing during the summer is not just a job for us, it is truly our way of life.