Heading To The Source

To see how a product truly comes together from boat to dinner plate, one must see the process firsthand by being present when the fish comes in.

Last month, I made the journey north to one of the most famous fisheries in the world: the Copper River in Cordova, Alaska. Its population is under 2,000 people and is only accessible by plane or boat. Cordova is the mecca of sustainable wild salmon.

img_2596The shorelines of the community were not filled with million-dollar homes or 5-star resorts, but instead multimillion-dollar fish processing facilities, one of which processes and packs Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice fresh salmon. I was lucky to witness a fresh run of wild Alaska coho salmon being processed, much of which later made the journey to our distribution center in Ankeny, Iowa, and then out to Hy-Vee customers in our eight states.

Watching the process from start to finish – and realizing the amount of time and effort that goes into handling product – is truly a sight to see. I’m a seafood buyer, and seeing the pride that these workers take in what they do gives me a great feeling about doing business with them.

Part of my days were spent at the docks with fisherman, listening to some of their wild stories as they maintained their nets and boats. Even after just a short amount of time on the docks, you can sense the camaraderie that the fishermen share. All are competitors when it comes to catching fish, but are friends who would help out each other in a time of need. One fisherman was familiar with Hy-Vee; he is a Minnesota native who lives in Cordova six months out of the year just to fish salmon.

img_2601The life of an Alaska salmon fisherman is not something anyone can just walk in and do. There are only about 540 commercial fishing permits available. Many of these permits have been passed on to younger generations from their grandparents and parents. It is not unusual to see a fisherman’s young son or daughter take over the reins of the family’s quota and boat. Permits do occasionally go up for sale, and can cost $200,000 or more. That is a huge investment for a business where the returns are unknown, as so many variables stand in the way – including weather to reduced quotas. Salmon fishing isn’t an easy job. Most of the vessels are operated by a single person. The operator’s job experience and good fortune undoubtedly affect the amount of money he brings home.

My evenings were spent around a dinner table at the homes of several local fishermen, which is an experience I will not soon forget. I was able to get a peek inside their lives and their reasons for doing what they do. Listening to their stories gave me a whole new perspective on what life is like outside of the Midwest. Wild salmon fisherman have a strong work ethic and spend endless hours managing, harvesting and maintaining their “harvest” – in this case wild salmon. It’s really somewhat similar to that of a cattle or agriculture farmer here in the Midwest. The only difference is that they are out pursuing “the last of the hunted proteins,” and if the fish aren’t there or the weather is too bad to fish then they come home empty-handed. The unknown never stops them from going back out, as they know that one good trip could result in a bountiful payoff.

It’s hard to fully grasp all that goes into a wild fishery. My goal for this trip was to obtain a better understanding about what makes this fishery one of the finest. The amount of knowledge and understanding that one gains in a trip like this is truly priceless.

Author: John Rohrs

I’m John Rohrs, seafood purchasing manager at Perishable Distributors of Iowa, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hy-Vee established in 1982 to provide a central distribution system for perishable products to Iowa stores. In my job, I work with stores to help create more sales and educate employees on seafood. Through Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice initiative I’ve enjoyed meeting and communicating with vendors and creating the friendships that make our partnerships work.