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Q&A with Nic Mink of Sitka Salmon Shares
After arriving in Indianapolis last August, Nic Mink has already carved out quite the niche for himself as the “Salmon Guy.” He was hired by Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology as an urban sustainable foods fellow to help develop and administrate the Indy Food Fund. That organization is designed to support food-related initiatives that improve the sustainability, health, and community revitalization in Indianapolis neighborhoods. But in his spare time, he (inconveniently) commutes between Indianapolis and an Alaskan fishing village to work on a fishery share called Sitka Salmon Shares. He does it all so that Midwesterners can stop eating low-quality proteins. Here’s how Mink plans to better our fish options, one door-to-door delivery at a time.
Trisha Brand: You’re from Miami, Florida. How did you get involved with Alaskan salmon?
Nic Mink: I was working on my PhD in history in Madison, Wisconsin, and just really started getting into the food scene. I had a chance to move to Alaska and do food system work with salmon fishermen. We started developing education and outreach programs in Sitka, Alaska, that were more local, then eventually national.
TB: How does a Community Supported Fishery work?
NM: The model is pretty simple. It’s direct-to-consumer, just like community-supported agriculture, except you get your deliveries once a month instead of once a week. It’s really easy to use. We cut the fish into practical portions and deliver the boxes to your door.
TB: So it’s coming from over 3,000 miles away. How does it stay fresh?
NM: It’s flash-frozen, and then we bring it into the Midwest and distribute it. The fish is onshore within three days, which is half the time that it normally takes. Our production standards are about as high as you can get in the Midwest. Once caught, our fish are processed and packed on ice within an hour. That’s rare. Sometimes fish are caught out and left on a boat for six days and never put on ice. It’s pretty disgusting what happens out there. A lot of things we find problematic about industrial agriculture are similar in fisheries, but worse.
TB: Shipping the salmon requires a lot of fossil fuel, I can imagine. What’s Sitka doing about that?
NM: We offset all of our carbon emissions and travel by putting 1 percent of all of our revenue generated back into the salmon fisheries and conservation and habitat.
TB: You’re the first CSF I’ve encountered in the Midwest. Have I just been living under a rock?
NM: There are about 120 community-supported fisheries in the United States. About 90 percent of these CSFs are on the coast. They use our model. We’re just collapsing the distance.
[Note: the editor might be living under a rock. Somehow, she missed Sitka's December inclusion on Forbes.com.]
TB: What's the rule of thumb with purchasing salmon? The brighter, the better?
NM: The color of salmon meat actually comes from what they eat. The lower on the food chain they are, the darker the meat. So if they’re eating low on the food chain (like crustaceans), they’ll be brighter red. People generally prefer the bright red because they’ve been taught to prefer, but you can actually find delicious lighter-colored salmon—even white salmon, like an ivory king or a white king. If they eat more squid or jellyfish, they’ll be much lighter.
TB: How is Sitka salmon better?
NM: How we handle the fish, for starters. 99 percent of the ocean fish farmed are net caught. Most are suffocated and dead by the time they get on the boat. If they’re not dead, they’re put in an ocean water hold and are there for the duration of that fishermen’s trip, which can be anywhere between four and eight days. They just sit there in their blood and their guts. 80 percent of our fish are caught by hook-and-line. So that fish is brought up to the boat live. The fishermen then immediately wait for the fish to calm down, then remove all of the blood and guts and pack the belly with ice. The goal is to stop the deterioration as quickly as possible. And the major thing that’s the spoiler is the blood. We have everything removed from the fish within two hours of catching the fish. It makes a huge difference in the quality. Any time fish tastes fishy, it’s because the fish is handled poorly. And that’s just the nature of the industry, sadly.
TB: What types of salmon do you offer?
NM: Our members have a major epiphany when they go through a season with our salmon. They’re like, “Wow! All these salmon taste so different." They all have their own unique flavor and taste and require different cooking preparations. Coho is by far the leanest of the fish that we sell. It’s best paired with aiolis and cream sauces. While your pink salmon is better with mustard and acidic sauces, which cut that fat and richness. Sockeye is best with spicy sauces, like soy and ginger. It’s fatty, but it has the boldest flavor of all. When you have that type of production, you really get to see the difference—like an heirloom tomato.
TB: Do you think Indy's ready for a salmon share?
NM: I think we're going to do well here is because there’s no trusted specialty market for fish. Some products that are available here, like farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile, do not abide by high production standards. Ecologically, and from a labor and health perspective, the product is really bad.
TB: Many of the salmon dishes I order at restaurants here are uninticing. I usually just push the pink-hued fish around. As bad as it may sound, I sometimes wait until I travel to New York, San Francisco, or Chicago to get my fix. Why is that?
NM: Probably the biggest difference you’re tasting is the lack of freshness. A salmon has an eight-day shelf life. If you can get the salmon into a market like Chicago on day six—which is a stretch—the quality of that fish is probably very high. That fish is probably coming into Chicago and then getting trucked down to Indianapolis. The distance, the fact that the driver may need to park it for a day, really factors in. You might be looking at 10- to 14-day–old fish. Also, chefs from larger markets like New York and Chicago understand the importance of spending a couple more bucks for better product. But you don’t find that everywhere.
TB: I'm feeling enlightened. When does this CSF start?
NM: We just started selling shares in Indy [along with West-Central Illinois, the Quad Cities, Madison, the Twin Cities, and Chicago] at the beginning of the month. And we’ll start delivering them in July, which is when the salmon season opens in Alaska. We have a limited supply. We sell out every year. We’ll have 150 shares to fill.
TB: What are the prices?
NM: Shares range from $269 to a neighborhood share for $1,449.