Alaska Revisited, The Trilogy - Chapter One

Chapter 1

In July 2018, I boarded a flight to Seattle en route to Anchorage Alaska. The flight, we were told, was full so when the window seat next to me was still empty five minutes before take-off and the cabin manager had announced the doors were closing, I thought ‘that’s perfect, I can spread out and relax for the next eight hours.’ But then from nowhere this gentlemen appeared in the aisle. Of course he stopped at my row and pointed his finger at the prized window seat…All I can say is those were the longest and most squished eight hours (I’m no waif!).

The next leg was a relatively easy three hour flight to Anchorage. I’ve been to America many times over the years but never that far north. What was I expecting? I’m not sure quite sure.

Anchorage is a real throwback to the 80’s, dated architecture, big monster truck cars and lots of seafood murals. I was soon to learn that almost everything in Alaska revolves around the fishing industry, nature and wildlife. A given really…

On my stroll around the city, I had my first ever reindeer hotdog. When in Rome n ’all that. And do you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. Nice and spicy!

The trip was organised by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, ASMI for short. ASMI is an organisation part funded by the state government and by the fishing industry. It aims to promote, educate and raise the value of Alaska seafood products both in the US and internationally. As the new UK Chef Ambassador, I was there to learn!

It was great group to be a part of including myself and another four chefs from the Ukraine, Spain, Japan and Poland. We were also joined by a small group of journalists and bloggers from America.

Our mission was to immerse ourselves over the next four days into life in Alaska; finding out about the fishing industry, it’s sustainability creds, catch allowances and management systems as well as spend time with the people who love and respect the natural world around them.

Tutka Bay Lodge was going to be our home for those next four days, accessible only by boat or sea-plane. We went by the latter which is an experience in itself! We were to be hosted by the amazing Kirsten Dixon and her daughter Mandy – they own and run the lodge and its fabulous cookery school which is housed in an old World War Two barge.

Quite different to its former years, the lodge now offers a host of luxury cabins for guests to stay which are centred around a restaurant and lounge area. The cocktails were just too good and the food was very tasty – all prepared using local ingredients particularly foraged herbs and seaweeds. The lodge is blessed in its location, nestled among pine trees and with views spanning the coastline. Talk about remote.

We were surrounded by bays and oceans. The bays full of oysters and snow crabs and the delicious dungeness crabs, that I know are quite the speciality. The oceans have an abundance of fish including five species of salmon all hanging out with Alaska pollock, pacific cod, halibut, sablefish, rockfish and more. It’s the delicate harvesting of this huge abundance of fish and the protection of their oceans that is the most impressive thing about the Alaskan people. They know what they have as a natural resource and they also know how to look after and preserve it. Fishing is a large part of their economy, but shrewdly they want to make sure that it continues to be far into the future.

So rather than making hay while the sun shines (so to speak) and pillaging the seas as we’ve seen in other parts of the world, very strict quotas are applied. Migrating salmon are literally hand counted by spotters in reconnaissance planes. Unbelievable when you think about it.

It is then decided just how many fish can be caught and that number is then halved for the quota. Much of the catch comes from small one or two man vessels. These crews use various forms of fishing to harvest the fish from gill netting to purse seining and trolling. These all have a very low impact on the environment and are designed to catch a reasonable number of fish… and enough to make a modest living for the crews.

Of course there are larger boats catching much larger hauls, but these commercial fisheries too are very closely monitored. The most notable difference between Alaska and other parts of the world is that it is all completely wild. There is NO farmed fish in Alaska and never will be since a complete ban on finfish farming was written into the constitution in 1959. It’s pretty impressive to be able to control such a thing.

I’ll leave you on this note – Alaska has a staggering one million square miles and a coastline stretching 34,000 miles. Yet it has the population of Leeds.

Compare this to the UK which has 95,000 square miles of water to fish in and an 11,000 mile coastline.

Just how much fish do you think comes out of Alaska?

To be continued…