Online Cover Story
“Let me tell you a little bit about your fish,” Emily Nicolson said on a recent Saturday. She was handing a brown-paper package containing half a dozen vacuum-sealed salmon fillets to two women wearing square-framed glasses, their arms already weighed down with tote bags full of vegetables. The three were standing in a leafy park in the heart of brownstone Brooklyn, near a playground overflowing with kids on scooters and parents pushing strollers. Around them, plastic folding tables sagged beneath the weight of fresh eggs, bread, and produce.
Amidst a scene that begged for a “Portlandia” joke, I half expected Nicolson to relay a version of the story that I already knew about the salmon’s origins. Though almost everything else being distributed at the Greenwood Heights food collective that day was locally sourced, this fish was actually caught on the far side of the continent, in Bristol Bay, a river-striated region in southwest Alaska that is home to the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon.
It is a place that has been in the news lately, thanks to the controversial copper, gold, and molybdenum mine proposed there by an international partnership. The deposit, worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, could not be located in a worse spot for large-scale industrial mining: it sits smack in the middle of Bristol Bay’s 40,000-square-miles of undisturbed tundra, a rolling green expanse broken by the lakes and rivers and streams that replenish the annual return of roughly 30 million spawning salmon. It’s a population that supplies close to half of the world’s wild sockeye catch, including the frozen packages now in Nicolson’s hands.
The salmon fillets being distributed in Brooklyn that day had been caught several months earlier by Nicolson’s husband, Christopher, and his extended family—aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins—who return to Bristol Bay each year to work the same stretch of water that Nicolson’s grandfather first fished from a sailboat in 1948. Christopher’s family is part of a much larger summer influx, a sort of shadow migration twinned to that of the salmon themselves. Some 10,000 fishermen and cannery workers swarm to the small towns around the bay to do battle with the elements, the mud, and the mosquitoes in an attempt to wrest a share of the rich sockeye bounty from its waters. It’s a testament to decades of sustainable fisheries management that the salmon runs stay healthy and productive, year after year.
Many recent summers, I’ve made the trip myself, working as a commercial fisherman for an outfit that operates in the same waters as Christopher’s family. I’ve lived alongside them in the makeshift camp we retreat to when we are not out on the water. So I was able to fill in details of the fish’s life story, even as Emily decided to skip over most of the more romantic aspects of the sockeye’s origins and instead tell the two women at the Brooklyn collective about how long their salmon filets will last in the freezer, how to prepare the fish, how to deal with leftovers. “And your fish is sushi grade,” Emily concluded, “so you can eat it raw.” The women looked at each other, smiled, and high-fived.
A salmon distribution operation like the Nicolsons’, specializing in sustainably caught, high-quality fish (even if it’s far from local), seems like a natural for foodie-obsessed New York. (And you’ll hardly be surprised to hear that the other city where the family business ships salmon is—you guessed it—Portland.) Yet the Iliamna Fish Company is about more than just cashing in on the taste trends of urban locavores. By creating a demand for sustainably caught sockeye via a cooperative patterned on community support agriculture programs (or CSAs) like the one in Greenwood, the Nicolsons and their relatives hope to find an economic model for continuing to keep small fishermen in business, while also generating awareness of the myriad threats to Bristol Bay and their family’s way of life, not least of which is the proposed Pebble Mine.
But in Greenwood that day, the 35 members of the food co-op who picked up Iliamna’s salmon seemed less interested in politics than in taste, quality, and the assurance that their fish was responsibly harvested. “Everyone in Brooklyn wants a story about their food,” said Gregg Bellows, who helped start the Greenwood Heights CSA with his wife in 2007. “It’s hard with fish and meat to find things that you know where they came from, and that they’ve been handled right. Then you have this: this guy’s in Brooklyn, he’s the one doing the fishing, bringing it back, telling people where it comes from. It’s way more attractive.”
His six-year-old son, hanging off Bellows’s neck and clearly eager to get away from this boring conversation, had a different explanation for the fish’s popularity: “It’s delicious.”
I don’t recall the exact circumstances of my first encounter with Christopher Nicolson, but it had to have been some time early in the 2009 summer salmon season. I had first visited Bristol Bay in the summer of 2008, to report a story about the proposed Pebble Mine, and was smitten by the place and intrigued enough to want to return. Fortunately, I had done the same type of commercial salmon fishing on the other side of the Alaska Peninsula, in Cook Inlet, when I was 19. So when an opportunity arose to dust off the old waders and raingear and go back to spending my summers hauling nets, I jumped at it.
The following summer, as I arrived and got my bearings, it wasn’t long before the other fishermen found out I lived in Brooklyn and pointed me toward Christopher. “Now we’ve got two of you!” they’d laugh. But though I’m a true outsider, Christopher comes by his Bristol Bay connection more naturally: his mother was born and raised there. And though he grew up in Montana and now spends most of the year living in Brooklyn with Emily and their two sons—his “real” job is also pretty cool: he’s the resident winemaker for Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery—Christopher has been visiting Bristol Bay most summers since he was six years old.
Among several ingrained memories I have of him from that first season, one sticks out: Christopher approaching our cabin, his long, loping strides echoing creakily on a rickety boardwalk, carrying a board out in front of him with some sort of bottle perched on top. As he came closer, I saw a salmon fillet and a knife on the board, and then eventually a bottle of soy sauce.
“Would you gentlemen be interested in joining me in a small sashimi snack?” he asked, before apologizing for not having the proper mustard to complement the raw salmon he proceeded to slice up. I didn’t know what to make of the impromptu housewarming—the kindness, the neighborliness, the deep interest in food, the artful presentation: it all seemed a bit out of place considering where we were.
Situated about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, just north of where the long arm of the Alaska Peninsula crashes into the North American mainland, Bristol Bay is an out-of-the-way, often harsh place, a roadless expanse dotted with the occasional tiny village and sliced through by nine major river systems and dozens of tributaries: the engine that feeds the salmon machine. Nicolson’s family fishes at the mouth of the Kvichak River, where it empties into the larger bay, near a place called Graveyard Point, home to an abandoned salmon cannery that blooms every summer into a makeshift encampment for a hundred or so fishermen.
About 60 miles up the Kvichak from our camp lies the river’s source, Lake Iliamna, for which the family’s company is named. Iliamna, Alaska’s largest freshwater body and one of the anchors of the Bristol Bay region, has a special significance for Nicolson’s extended family: on the lake’s eastern end sits the log cabin homestead built by the family patriarch, Nicolson's grandfather. It’s where his mother grew up.
I learned a lot from Christopher and other fishermen that season, both during our infrequent downtime in camp, and, more often, out on the water. He and his extended family became my crew’s guardian angels, always on hand with a piece of advice or that extra propeller we desperately needed. When fishing was slow, we would join our skiffs together, wrap a line from one gunwale to another, and sit and float and talk.
Notwithstanding the recent intrusion of some 21st-century conveniences—like very spotty cell phone service—the kind of small-scale fishing we do in Bristol Bay remains fairly constant. As Alaska salmon fishermen have for decades, we set out in small boats with crews of two or three people, put out long nets, and catch salmon as they try to head up the surrounding rivers to spawn. The catch is offloaded onto one of the larger “tender” boats sent out to the fishing grounds by the big canneries, and at the end of the season, fishermen are paid for what they’ve caught, at a price determined by the processors.
The fishermen complain about the price. They complain about the rules. (Everything from the length of our nets to the size of our boats to the hours we can fish is tightly regulated.) They complain about the periodic closure of the fishery to allow more salmon to escape upstream, repopulating the run. But they mostly accept that they have little power to change the facts of the system. It’s a short season, and there’s not much time to worry about anything but fishing.
But Nicolson and his cousin, Reid Ten Kley, who lives in Portland, wanted to change that system, and they described their plans to me during those float-and-talk intermissions. Their idea was to sell salmon directly to consumers, bypassing the middlemen, mostly via a subscription-based cooperative patterned on CSAs like the one in Greenwood. Customers would put down a deposit for a share of the catch in June, before the fishing season, and pay the balance and collect their frozen fillets in September. The cousins would also sell fresh fish, whenever they could, directly to restaurants and grocery stores. Ten Kley had begun experimenting with the community-supported fishery model the previous year in Portland, while Nicolson, who didn’t start his co-op until 2010, had been shipping fresh fish to a handful of restaurant customers every week during fishing season.
“The first year was a little rocky,” recalls Adam Kaye, vice president for culinary affairs at Blue Hill, a pioneering restaurant in New York’s locavore movement, who has been an Iliamna customer since 2006. “But the product was so good that when they came back the second year, we said yes, absolutely we want your fish. And now it’s super effortless.”
The business has grown steadily on both the Portland and Brooklyn ends, as, bit by bit, Nicolson and Ten Rey have built an operation that ships tens of thousands of pounds of the best salmon on earth to a mix of restaurants, grocery stores, and co-op subscribers. From 68 people in 2010, the Brooklyn side is now up to over 300 shares, while Ten Kley sold more than 1,000 shares in Portland this year.
Still, many things remain the same: each summer that I fished in Alaska, Nicolson continued to stop by our cabin frequently, often bearing gifts of some delicacy or other that he packed into camp—gourmet chocolate, smoked sea salt, delicious olives—and their company’s process has remained true to its origins: they select the best of the family’s salmon catch, which is handled carefully, filleted, and flash frozen almost immediately after being caught. At the end of the season, it goes to Seattle by barge, and then by freezer truck either to Portland or across the country to a cold-storage warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn. And then into the trunk of Christopher’s aging Volvo station wagon for delivery.
* * *
If food worship is a new religion for our times, the Brooklyn Kitchen is one of its high temples, a one-stop shop where you can get jars for canning your farmer's market veggies or a full setup for brewing beer in your basement, then take classes to learn how to do those things before picking up some house-smoked bacon and a Brooklyn-made cutting board on the way out.
Located in the shadow of the elevated Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Williamsburg, walking distance from the Nicolsons’ Greenpoint apartment, it is also the home base for their Brooklyn salmon operation. When I showed up there recently for another Saturday salmon pickup, I found the Nicolsons huddled back in one corner of the large, loft-like room that hosts the shop’s popular culinary classes. They were weighing out 12-pound allotments of fillets on a scale, before wrapping them in brown paper and sealing the packages with a sticker emblazoned with the Iliamna Fish Company logo. Now in the fourth year of this direct-to-the-people CSA model, the Nicolsons seemed to have most of the kinks worked out.
But you can never account for every detail, and soon a woman who was splitting a share with a friend showed up expecting six fillets of precisely two pounds each, to make it an even split. “It’s going to be a little hard,” Emily explained. “They’re wild animals, after all.” But she did her best to oblige, weighing and re-weighing a couple dozen fillets, in search of the elusive two-pounders, as the woman looked on.
“Splitting orders evenly can be tough,” Emily said when the woman had left, “but it means more people eating our fish, and maybe they’ll upgrade to a full share next year.” She showed me the binder containing the roster of members, and the most interesting column was the one describing how each person had found out about the co-op. "By far the biggest source of new people is recommendations from current shareholders," Emily said, adding that the Nicolsons retain nearly all of their customers from year to year.
It’s not hard to see why word-of-mouth works for them: the quality is great, the price is right (the 12-pound Brooklyn shares cost $199, or $16.50 per pound, compared to over $20 per pound for comparable wild-caught salmon at markets in New York City), and the fillets are big, lending themselves to dinner party conversions. (Every time I’ve served a fillet to a group of friends, the Nicolsons have gained at least one additional customer.) “We actually had a lot of people upgrade to multiples this year: two and even three shares, for families mostly, and then one woman who did seven shares!”
Behind us, Christopher had just finished sharpening a filet knife and was using it to slice thin, red, semi-translucent chunks off of a glistening fillet. “Would you like to try some cold-smoked sockeye?” he asked, proffering two pieces on the blade of his knife to a couple just arriving, dragging a hard-sided, rolling cooler behind them. They tasted it and nodded appreciatively. “Oh wow,” said the woman, “that is so, so good.” Christopher smiled. “We had it smoked at the Mount Kisco Smokehouse up in Westchester,” he explained to them in what I recognized as a typically Nicolsonian digression, an informative detail borne of enthusiasm and engagement. “It’s this lovely place run by these three Colombian brothers.”
He was equally enthusiastic about the support the Nicolsons have received from the Brooklyn Kitchen. “It’s the hub,” Christopher said. “And really they helped us get started. They sent out our first offering to their email list, and that basically seeded the business.” “They” in this case are the Nicolsons’ friends Taylor Erkinnen and Harry Rosenblum, the husband-and-wife team that founded the Brooklyn Kitchen in 2006 and have since built it into the nexus of foodie Williamsburg.
“There’s no money that’s changed hands,” Christopher said when I asked. “Just fish.”
About a half hour later, a pregnant Erkinnen stopped by with the couple’s daughter, Moxie, to check in with the Nicolsons. “I mean, when we got involved, it was their story, their product, how much we like Emily and Christopher, all of it, so we were like, why not?” she said.
While we chatted, shareholders arrived, got their fish, and left, in a scene that resembled what I had seen through that day and other pickups: about 50 or 60 customers, mostly young professionals and mostly smiling, shoving salmon into all manner of carriers—hard coolers, soft coolers, rolling coolers, and tote bags, old coolers, new coolers, backpacks, and under-stroller storage areas. There were women in tights carrying yoga mats and men in spandex stowing salmon in their bicycle panniers. There were dozens of parents, many pushing strollers or with a child strapped to their chests. Some were on their phones, others had earbuds in. A few had double-parked outside and were anxious, while others had a car service waiting for them.
The ones I talked to didn’t know much about where the fish came from—“Is it the Copper River?” one guy hazarded—or what threats the Bristol Bay region faced, but they were open to learning and eager to embrace Iliamna’s sockeye. “Traceability has become a much bigger market force, and quality too,” Nicolson told me. “People like that it’s from this place, caught by these people, in the same way they’ve been doing it forever.”
Toward the end of my conversation with Emily and Erkinnen at the Brooklyn Kitchen, I admitted that I had been hording my final fillet from last season’s share for months. But I knew, I told them, that I would have to eat it soon to clear space for the new shipment. Erkinnen agreed. “When it gets towards this time of year, like in August, that’s when we’re like, ‘Oh shit! We have to make room in the freezer.’ So we’ve been eating through the contents of our freezer with that thought: next season’s fish takes priority.”
And there it was, I thought: via a typically New York limitation—the cramped realities of small-space urban living—the Nicolsons had succeeded in connecting Brooklyn consumers to a natural spawning cycle that unfolds half a world away, if only through their freezers.
Like this article? Donate to NRDC to support OnEarth's groundbreaking nonprofit journalism.