Alaska’s seafood industry dates back a couple of centuries and generates billions of dollars in yearly revenue, so it hardly qualifies as a hot new trend. But lately wild Alaskan seafood is having a cultural moment due to its sustainability, nutritional value and culinary appeal.
Wild Alaskan salmon has long been a big seller because so many varieties inhabit the state’s rivers and streams. But wild Alaskan pollack has gained in popularity as well, finding its way into eateries throughout the Lower 48 states thanks to an initiative by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods to put more of the fish in restaurants. Today, you can find Alaskan pollack in a wide range of restaurants, from fast-casual places such as Charley St in New York to fine-dining establishments like Eden in Chicago and Lord Stanley in San Francisco.
Much of the recent momentum has to do with something pretty basic to the culinary world: wild salmon and pollack taste good. They’re also good for you. Wild Alaskan seafood is rich in omega-3s, protein and micronutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin B-12, zinc and selenium.
But another draw of Alaskan seafood – and perhaps its biggest one right now – is that it’s produced in an environmentally friendly way. As Michael Kohan, seafood technical director with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, told the Grocery Dive in January: “Everybody in the world agrees Alaska is a model of seafood sustainability.”
Sustainability was even written into Alaska’s constitution six decades ago to ensure that the commercial fishing industry closely monitors its impact on the state’s environment and ecosystems.
This focus on sustainability underscores the importance of fishing and seafood to Alaska’s overall economy. The state produces more wild seafood than the rest of the U.S. combined – and earns high marks for its conservation practices and the cleanliness of its marine waters.
Alaska’s commercial fishing industry dates to the 1800s, when the then-territory was still a largely untamed frontier. Its first salmon canneries – the North Pacific Trading and Packing Company and the Cutting Packing Company – opened in 1878. More than 40 canneries would dot the Alaska landscape by the end of the 19th century. That number continued to grow, reaching 118 canneries in 1917.
Alaska became a global leader in salmon production and distribution, packing more than half of the world’s salmon supply in the first half of the 20th century. It later enacted rules that would shorten the fishing season and limit the amount of salmon that could be caught as a way to protect the supply.
Seafood continues to play a vital economic and cultural role in Alaska, as evidenced by these numbers from a January 2020 ASMI report:
- The Alaska seafood industry directly employs nearly 60,000 workers in the state each year.
- The industry employs more than 16,300 resident fishermen in Alaska, and about 6,600 fishing vessels are owned by residents.
- Alaska exports more than 2.2 billion pounds of seafood a year, which generates more than $3.2 billion in annual revenue.
There’s no shortage of ambassadors singing the praises of Alaskan seafood, including chefs, conservationists, fishermen and businesspeople. They cheer not only the quality of the product but also the environmentally conscious stewardship of those who produce it.
Two of the ambassadors are sisters Claire Neaton and Emma Privat, co-founders of Salmon Sisters, a seafood and apparel company based in Homer, Alaska. Neaton and Privat spend much of their summers fishing for salmon, cod and halibut. They donate part of their catch to the Food Bank of Alaska and are active in efforts to protect marine ecosystems, encourage sustainable fishing practices and promote Alaska’s coastal culture.
Another ambassador is Alaska native Arron Kallenberg, founder of Wild Alaskan Company, a direct-to-consumer seafood business. His company specializes in wild, sustainable Alaskan seafood packed and delivered straight to members. To meet growing demand, Wild Alaskan Company uses fulfillment centers in California, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Florida. The company is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York – where Alaskan native Kallenberg worked as a software engineer after moving east – and also operates an office in Portland, Oregon.
Kallenberg himself is an advocate of various conservation causes and a staunch supporter of Alaska’s seafood industry. As he writes on the company’s website: “Alaska has the best-managed fisheries in the world. The state’s constitution mandates that fish resources be managed on the principle of sustained yield for the maximum benefit of Alaskan citizens.”