Why There Might Be Something Better Than Local Fish

Guest Contribution by Nic Mink

Two years ago, while I was working at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, five Alaskan fishing families and a few non-fishermen (me included) embarked on a great community food system experiment: to start a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) that held as a central premise that process and values mattered as much as distance traveled and geographic scale.

The Taku Team

Team Taku, in Sitka, Alaska

Our CSF had the unusual goal of linking Sitka, Alaska—a fishing village of about 8,000 on the North Pacific—and Galesburg—a rural Illinois community of 25,000 established, incidentally, 175 years ago to exist as far as possible from a body of water! (The town founders viewed proximity to navigable water as a corrupting moral influence, uncomfortably linking the new utopia to outside markets.)

Two years into our great experiment, we’re cautiously optimistic about the future. By the end of the year, we should be close to recapturing about $100,000 of lost value for our fishing families struggling in the face of historically low fish prices and rising fuel costs.  We’ll have injected thousands of dollars into fisheries conservation through partnerships with the Sitka Conservation Society and Alaska’s Sustainable Fisheries Trust while simultaneously supporting community foods efforts in the Midwest with similar resources.  As important, our 500 Midwestern members now know (we hope!) why small-scale fishing is better for coastal communities, economies, and ecologies; why some gear types produce higher quality product with lower environmental impact; and why the health of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is critical to the sustainability of an anadromous species like wild salmon.

 Challenging the Local Paradigm

Despite our initial success, the most challenging question that we receive from folks in both communities, some more skeptical than others, is this:  Don’t we want to eat local?

We don’t lose sleep over the question, but it is something that we contemplate frequently, mostly because the local food movement resonates with the personal values of every person who works for our company, fisher and non-fisher alike.  But, truth is, the concept of local is inherently limiting. It cleaves off possibilities to make our food systems more whole, dynamic, and beautiful, especially when it comes to seafood—the world’s first truly global food whose storied past should be celebrated, not diminished.

Danen Lounging

Danen, lounging on the boat

Moving more local fish into local communities is certainly an important first step, but the real power to change the system lies in remaking the marketplace for fish—and other foods, quite frankly—that travel to distant lands for, like it or not, this is where most of it goes.

Once we accept this, we begin to see that we don’t necessarily need to conflate an exported product with an identity-less commodity. Indeed, as our little experiment points out, it doesn’t take too much effort to change the supply chain so that the stories, smells, and flavors of a community remain embedded in a fish, and, with them, enhanced value for those along the entire line from production to consumption.

Indeed, looking out, instead of in, reveals a world of striking possibilities, where local (and especially rural) communities can use their unique assets to position themselves in a global marketplace for reasons other than low-priced commodity production. When we focus our energy on re-making national and even global value chains, a vibrant world emerges in which coastal communities begin to create their own place-based seafood brands. This not only reflects marine terroir, but is also tied into broader rural economic development plans that include tourism, small scale industry, other specialty food products, and artisan goods.  Coastal communities could actually use their high-quality, locally-processed catch to develop nationally-known brand identities that travel alongside of—and actually add to and capture value from—the fish, the city, and the other products from the region.

Sara, in the hold

Sara and salmon shares, down in the hold

Alongside of this transformation, we, too, can envision new food communities that are rooted less in the self-interestedness of localism and more in the strength that comes with mutually shared experiences. By connecting the dots in novel ways, we can see more clearly the common pasts, hopes, and futures of places like Sitka, Alaska, and Galesburg, Illinois, both intimately bound together by recent manufacturing plant closures and a search for what it means to develop a thriving rural economy in the twenty-first century.

In the process, they’re connected together in a new system that, however odd it might seem, not only captures better value for fishermen in Alaska and consumers in Illinois but also one that creates new value for two unlikely places by strengthening the communities and the environments that support them both.

 Nicolaas Mink, PhD is a co-founder of Sitka Salmon Shares and the Urban Sustainable Foods Fellow at Butler University.

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