From Farmlands to Fish
“I basically just traded one small town for another,” says Ken Quigley, who grew up in a rural farming community in Michigan. Today, he’s talking to me from his home in Craig, Alaska (population ~1,000) which he describes as a “sportsman’s paradise” that’s “off the beaten track.” This is something of an understatement as Craig is located on the outside coast of Prince of Wales Island, which is only reachable by boat or plane.
However, living in a community that’s out of the way is not exactly unusual by Alaska standards. In fact, there are no roads into the region of Southeast Alaska, with the exception of the northernmost towns of Haines and Skagway. This provides a shared bond between Southeast Alaskans who live in the thirty (or so) different communities that make up the rest of the region — spread out across a landmass larger than the entire state of Maine and comprised mostly of undeveloped Tongass National Forest lands.
I take notes while on the phone with Ken as I sit in my living room in Sitka, Alaska, which is located about a hundred miles to the northwest of Craig and also on an island. Ken and I agree that living on an island creates a specific sense of community that we both enjoy. “I grew up on a farm so everyone was pretty spread out. We’re more close-knit here,” he says.
Ken was in college when he started traveling up to Alaska to fish in the summer. He and his brother were tangentially connected (through a roommate’s cousin) to a seine fisherman who hired them for a season. Ken was hooked and moved to Craig full-time in 1985. He says he has no desire to return to the lower-48, ever. “I don’t even like going up to Anchorage,” he laughs.
I tell him that I occasionally meet someone who seems to imply that I live on an island in Alaska because I don’t know what else is out there in the world. Ken chuckles knowingly, “We live here because we know what’s out there!”
The desire to live in these remote communities (where an avocado is harder to come by than a bald eagle and a hike counts as a work meeting) may seem provincial to some, but it can be challenging to uproot once it has sprouted. Ken tells me that he has two college-educated nephews from Craig who have both chosen to return home to fish. “One of them has a degree from Stanford,” he tells me.
Decades of Difference
I tell him that it’s good that young people are coming back to fish since the fleet isn’t getting any younger.
He agrees saying that he heard a statistic that the average age of a commercial fisherman in Alaska is over 50 years old. “It doesn’t seem like we have the interest of the young people anymore. When I started out it felt like there were a lot more of them,” he says.
He’s right. The average age of an Alaskan fisherman is ten years older than it was in the 1980s. What’s more, the number of fishermen under the age of 40 has more than halved in that same time span.
When Ken started fishing in the early 80s, Alaska’s commercial fishing industry was at a key transitional moment; The Alaska State Legislature had recently passed the Limited Entry Act, creating the limited entry program which resulted in significant barriers to young people entering the industry.
In the interceding decades, Ken has seen a great deal of change in Alaska’s fisheries. One of the most promising of those changes is the recent sustainable foods movement. With a growing number of consumers taking an interest in both the quality and ethics of their food consumption, food producers have been able to find markets (often via the Internet) that allow them to deliver a high quality product that arrives at the end consumer through a shortened supply chain.
In the seafood industry, particularly, this change both demands and allows for more transparency for the consumer to learn about where their food is coming from as well as for the fishermen who caught it. The result is that people who care about top-quality seafood are able to learn where the best responsibly managed seafood comes from and how to get it from the source.
Ken decided to transition his tendering business to processing in 2018. With help from the Seafood Producers Cooperative, Ken built a business where he is able to process seafood right there in Craig — allowing him to get a better product to consumers in the lower-48.
Ken’s shrimp, he tells me, are frozen within 24 hours. “The quicker you freeze it the better the quality,” explains Ken, so being near the grounds where species like spot shrimp are caught makes a big difference. His team processes and freezes their shrimp the same day it's delivered off the boat.
Not only is it important to get the shrimp into the freezer faster, but dropping the temperature of the shrimp itself is essential. While a slow freezing process creates unwanted ice crystals within the shrimp’s flesh that break up the texture of the seafood, a fast freeze locks in the shrimp’s delicate but firm buttery texture and their sweet, fresh, and slightly briny flavor.
That’s why Ken uses a “plate freezer” which is a type of contact freezer. So, rather than just having cold air blow over the shrimp, they individually come in contact with a plate that’s fifty degrees below zero, so they freeze even faster.
“In my opinion, you can’t get any better product.”
Vice President Marsh Skeele agrees. He tells me that after his visit to Ken’s processing plant, he felt inspired.”It just feels really good to get to go talk to people who are working really hard to take care of the seafood and when you taste their shrimp it’s just the absolute best.”
These are the types of experiences that Marsh says inspired him to begin a direct-to-consumer community supported fishery; that is, connecting people who appreciate top-quality seafood with producers in Alaska who go that extra mile (or hundred miles) to create something that’s as spectacular as the coastal region where they live.