Lacie Richardson, a poet and Colorado native, first fell in love with Alaska’s waterways as a junior in college. Richardson spent a year studying at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau as part of an exchange program. When she wasn’t in class, she was fly fishing. “I kind of became known in the community as this crazy, wild fly-fishing girl who was out on the river every day the second my class was out,” Richardson says. “People would see me hiking up some river with my rod, or trying to fly from the side of the beach.”
Richardson returned to Colorado for her final semester of college and graduated with a degree in English. The day after graduation, she got a call from the captain of a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. He was looking for crew for his boat, he said, and a mutual friend had told him all about the fly-fishing girl in Juneau – had Richardson ever considered working in the commercial fishing industry?
“I told him the thought had never occurred to me,” Richardson says. “But it sounded like a blast, and it got me back to Alaska.” Richardson bought a one-way ticket and headed north.
Over the next three years, Richardson worked in virtually every sector of the Alaskan commercial fishing industry – she gill-netted sockeye salmon, long-lined for halibut, seine fished and tendered. Then, she discovered salmon trolling, a fishing technique in which fish are caught one at a time, with one hook and one line. To Richardson, the art and strategy of trolling, as well as the way of life it represented, were irresistible. Salmon trollers like Richardson view themselves as stewards of the region’s waterways, environment, and culture.
Today, Richardson is betting that the rest of America, or at least the portion of America that shops at the local farmer’s market and insists on grass-fed beef and organic produce, will find salmon trolling equally irresistible. As the owner of Wild Woman Fish Co, Richardson sells troll-caught Alaskan salmon, as well as other hook-and-line caught fish, directly to customers in the continental US at local farmer’s markets and via mail order. She also sells to specialty grocery stores.
Richardson currently ships 3,000 lbs of fish per month, and she expects to ship 5,000 lbs per month in the fourth quarter of 2016. She says her mission is not only to increase the public’s awareness of different fishing methods, but to introduce more people to the hook-and-line fishermen of Alaska and the lives they lead.
Richardson is one of only a handful of individual Alaskan fishermen attempting to sell directly to consumers, although she works with a hook-and-line cooperative called the Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC) that has a larger operation.
“We’re kind of like the last of the real fishermen,” Richardson says. “I don’t want to say that net fishermen aren’t real fishermen, but we are going out off the coast with hooks and lines, and we’re judging depth, we’re changing our bait out. We’re really fishing.”
Trolling, also referred to as hook-and-line fishing, produces an unusually high-quality catch and is considered one of the most sustainable methods of fishing. Unlike dredging or trawling methods in which a net or basket is dragged along the seafloor, it doesn’t damage or disturb the habitat of the seafloor, and it’s one of the few commercial fishing methods that results in virtually no bycatch and carries no risk of entangling other species. “If you’re out there with a net, you’re catching everything in your path,” explains Ryan Bigelow of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch program. “But as soon as a troller gets a catch, they pull it in, and then throw it back if it’s not what they’re fishing for. If you’re catching something in a net, say a turtle for example, it will drown before you have a chance to throw it back.”
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In recent years, the market for ethically and sustainably produced food has grown substantially – in 2015, sustainably sourced seafood constituted 14% of worldwide seafood production, up from only 0.5% in 2005. But while savvy consumers may know to look for wild-caught salmon, as opposed to farm-raised, very few know the difference between, for example, salmon trolling and salmon trawling. “We’re seeing a marked increase in the number of people who want to buy sustainable products,” Bigelow says. “But we’re not seeing more people that know more about catch types.”
Barton Seaver, a chef, author and the director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, thinks that education efforts around fishing methods are an uphill battle. Seafood still represents a relatively small proportion of people’s diets, and the conversations around seafood and sustainability are extremely complicated.
“People understand sustainable farming because it’s part of the ecosystem we inhabit,” Seaver says. “But when it comes to sustainable fishing, people are not talking about it nearly as much.”
Both Bigelow and Seaver suggest that Richardson’s success will hinge on her ability to connect the average consumer in the continental US to Alaska’s hook-and-line fishermen, and the communities they inhabit and protect. “The story is high-quality product delivered by a passionate, small American business trying to help their community,” Seaver says. “These are values that we can understand.”
Kendall Whitney handles direct-to-consumer marketing for SPC. He believes it’s essential that consumers see the faces, and learn the stories, of the fishermen of the SPC, many of whom are deeply involved in the region’s fisheries management and local environmental causes. In every direct-to-consumer shipment, Whitney includes a booklet with recipes, cooking tips and the stories of one of SPC’s fishermen and deck hands.
“I want our customers to understand what it’s like to be a fisherman, the connection they have to the water and, if you’re a salmon troller, the forests of Alaska,” Whitney says.
Salmon trolling represents only a small percentage of Alaska’s wild-caught salmon market. The lion’s share of the catch (which is dominated by chum and pink salmon) is caught with purse seine nets or gillnets. Bigelow isn’t sure that operations like Richardson’s or the SPC will ever be able to capture a significantly larger market share. “We eat so much salmon, and there’s such a demand for it, it’ll be difficult to go back,” he says.
But Seaver believes that there is room for growth in the demand for hook-and-line caught fish, both among consumers who are deeply committed to sustainable food and among retailers who are focused on quality. “I think that the real growth in this is going to come from chefs and restaurants and retailers who are selling troll, or hook-and-line, as the sex appeal of quality rather than as the marker of sustainability,” he says.
Richardson, who has also started leading fishing retreats in Alaska as part of her mission to connect more people to the region’s fishing communities and traditions, is banking on the fact that American consumers are ready to start asking more questions about the fish they’re eating.
“It’s [the] troller’s time to have a voice in the industry,” she says.