My mother always told me that if I ever felt like I wanted to own a restaurant, I should go lay down until I felt better. This was coming from an experienced, successful restaurateur. That's what Levi Egerton's parents told him too, even after a lifetime of experience teaching him to reel in big fish off Alaska's southern coast. They, too, told him to choose any other path than the one that would lead him back onto the Vallee Lee.
"Every day of my life," he laughed. Stuart Weathers' parents were the same. But they and fellow fisherman Marsh Skeele had nearly identical childhood anecdotes: as soon as they were all physically capable of reeling in King Salmon or Halibut without being dragged into the drink, they were brought aboard their fathers' fishing boats, either by force or by offering a paltry dollar-per-cleaned-fish bribe, as Egerton's father did.
"It's pretty much as soon as you can, but it's usually around twelve," said Weathers.
But though they each had a story about how dead-set on not following the family business they were, each found themselves drawn back to the second-nature comfort of the fishing lifestyle — something they are all cautious about the average person over-romanticising. There's nothing romantic about it. When it's fishing season, everything comes second to bringing more fish on the boat, including eating and sleeping.
Skeele's day starts the second he gets a fish on the line, which could be an hour after he puts hooks in the water or minutes. Then the fish have to be reeled in, stunned, bled, cleaned, and put on ice. One at a time. Somewhat paradoxically, a fish on the line is just one more hook that can't catch any more fish, and that fish has to come off that line as quickly as possible, creating an endless, manic cycle of fish processing. You eat when you have time — which, again, could be seconds or minutes — and often, you eat shelf-stable processed foods that can be shoved in your mouth in a gulp or a bite.
"PB&Js, granola bars, Cup-O-Noodles, sandwiches," is the general reply to the question of an Alaskan fisherman's onboard diet. Despite the romantic notions held by us landlocked weekend wakeboarders, the life of an Alaskan fisherman doesn't involve a lot of J. Crew-style salmon-and-seersucker gatherings after a long day out in the refreshing spray.
"I have these granola bars I can open with my gloves on and still pretty much not get any fish guts on it as I'm putting it in my mouth. But sometimes I still do. And I eat it anyway," says Egerton. Ah, like a passage out of Hemingway.
The buy-in costs of starting a fishing operation are about where you would put the startup costs for a food truck. If you get a good deal, you're looking at ten to fifty grand just to get started, plus the implied [astronomical] costs of retrofitting your vessel for your particular needs, depending on what you're catching. Not to mention the intense wear and tear that all working boats acquire. For what each of the captains put into the basic maintenance of their boats, most of us could have gotten a really nice car. And it's not just the cost of buying and maintaining a boat. The profits are not so clean-cut, after paying for all the local, state, and federal regulation of the fisheries.
"Some people think you can just buy a boat, go out, and bring home free fish. It's not like that," said Skeele. He's talking about the deeply-ingrained commitment that Sitka fishermen (and many other Alaskan fisherman, probably, but I've only talked to these three) have to conserving and protecting their fisheries so that small, family-run operations can continue to thrive.
The structures of protection are well-funded, either by state and federal oversight bodies and by self-imposed restrictions the fishermen decided for themselves. Every fish sold (plus some funding from other sources like the oil business) funds the continued multi-layered oversight that includes regulations like fish-counting. These governing bodies constantly monitor wildlife populations and can issue shutdown orders immediately to help conserve populations of fish like wild salmon, the health of which is judged by the number of salmon that make it upstream to spawn. After all, the health and survival of Alaska's wildlife ensures the health and survival of a wide-flung web of global economics (and the continued feeding and clothing of Alaska's fishermen and their families).
Enter Nic Mink, who operates Sitka Salmon Shares, a model that is more or less a farm share for fishermen. It started as purely a meet-your-maker kind of thing, but grew due to good old fashioned word of mouth thanks to amazing products. He wanted to put buyers in direct contact with the people who were literally reeling in the fish on their plates. And, like anyone who buys from the farmer's market knows, small-scale produced goods are often heads and tails above what you can find in the grocery store, thanks to the individual care given to the product, the freshness, and, yes, the love.
Just like a CSA, you can buy in at whatever level you can afford. With "entry-level" buy-ins in the 200-range, Mink knows that it's not going to be in everyone's budget. So, like a savvy drug dealer, Mink had Skeele, Weathers and Egerton bring the freshest fish most of us Hoosiers had ever had to the last Chefs' Night Off dinner of the year, once again raising the bar for the pop-up dining model.