Navigating the waters of serving sustainable salmon in big volume can be challenging. The facts can be confusing—is farmed better than wild-caught? Is frozen salmon bad? What about bycatch? And then there’s the ever-changing ecology of our oceans, which are unquestionably fragile and in need of better stewardship.
Foodservice operations at places like Stanford University, Microsoft and the Sitka School District, in Alaska, have found that working with fishermen can lead to a great catch: sustainable salmon to serve customers and educational opportunities that run deep.
Stanford Explores Alaska
Like many dining operations, Stanford Dining at Stanford University in California uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch as a starting point for finding out which catches are currently most sustainable (“best choice”), which are a good alternative and which to avoid.
Within the last few years, the dining team has gone a step further with salmon, building a relationship with a family fishery in Alaska, Taku River Reds Fishery. The team connected with the owner/fisherman Kirk Hardcastle at a conference a few years ago through the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI).
“What’s really nice about Taku River Reds Fishery is that the fisherman really cares about keeping this fishery going,” says Dara Silverstein, R&DE Stanford Dining sustainable food program manager. “It’s a big part of Alaska’s economy. They fish in a way with nets that don’t get any bycatch, which is another important aspect when choosing a seafood company. People fly out to see this fishery. It’s a model of sustainability.”
Stanford Dining started out purchasing 2 to 5,000 pounds of salmon from the fishery in the first year and now buys 27,250 pounds per year. It’s the only salmon served at the dining halls. Taku River Reds fishes in the summer and then freezes and sends the fish to California in four shipments.
Buying frozen is a way to offer “compressed seasonality,” Silverstein adds. “If people really want fresh salmon, wild Alaska salmon is only available in summer. So to support a sustainable fishery like we do, you have to buy frozen salmon. Frozen does not equal bad.”
Silverstein notes that not all farmed salmon is a bad choice, but wild is almost always a better bet.
“Some farmed fish is OK, and there are places that do it in a sustainable way, but I think it’s really an inefficient system,” Silverstein says. “Sometimes they are feeding them fish meal and there can be issues with the genetics, diseases and a lot of waste.”
The setup between Stanford and the fishery is a forward purchasing program, which supports purchasing partners who may struggle because of cash flow issues. It helps farmers and fishermen plan the production season in advance and allows for special requests from chefs.
“Forward purchasing is better business for a small fishery like them,” she says. “At first it was difficult, budgeting for two fiscal years out and paying for product we haven’t gotten. But this way, they know how much we need and they get the money early when they need it. And we get a set price—there’s no fluctuation.”
“And it’s more than a purchasing relationship,” Silverstein is quick to note. “We just recently presented with them at the Pacific Region NACUFS (National Association of College and University Foodservice) [conference]. They are expanding and would like to form relationships with more schools.”
Hardcastle visits fairly often, putting on cooking classes, training staff and meeting with supply chain management grad students, and “loves to walk around dining halls and talk to students,” she says. “We do the same thing with farmers and ranchers. So the students know—it really changes for them when they know who’s catching their salmon."
Chef, Meet Fisherman
Every year, Dining at Microsoft chefs take a ferry ride into the waters of Puget Sound near their dining operation in Seattle to see the innovative, solar-powered and highly sustainable Lummi Island Wild Reefnet Salmon. The chefs mingle with fishermen and see how the catch is made.
“Four years ago, we hooked up with Lummi Island Wild at an SHFM (Society for Foodservice and Hospitality Management) conference,” says Mark Freeman, senior manager of Global Employee Services at Microsoft. “We knew this would tie in with our ingredient revolution. It’s not only seafood, it’s about all the ingredients we use and having transparency around what’s in the food.”
So Freeman and Keith Carpenter, fisherman/managing partner of Lummi Island Wild, organized a trip for Microsoft chefs to go out and fish.
“It got our chefs deeply involved with the fish and the story behind it,” Freeman says.
Chef Craig Tarrant, regional culinary director at Microsoft Dining with Eurest, was immediately impressed with the operation.
First of all, Lummi Island Wild’s harvesting method is unique: There’s a small fleet of solar-powered reefnet boats. The fishermen stand on a floating tower, using high-tech cameras to search for a school of salmon, and then use a net to catch fish that swim between two boats. When they feel there is a sufficient amount of fish in the net, they give a signal. Everything is sorted by hand, so if unwanted species are caught, they are released back into the ocean, all but eliminating the problem of bycatch.
“This is getting closer to the food source and understanding how it works,” Tarrant says. “From a sustainability standpoint, we enjoy their story.”
Dining at Microsoft now purchases about 50,000 pounds of salmon each year from Lummi Island, “because we know it was caught properly and handled magnificently,” Freeman says. Microsoft buys the salmon on a sliding scale during the season (July to August) and continues to buy as much salmon as needed throughout the year, paying for freezer storage at the fishery during that time.
And the chefs’ firsthand knowledge is passed on directly to the dining customers.
The salmon dishes served at Microsoft’s Flame Station, Puget Sound Café, and various salad bars and cook-to-order stations leads to more customers learning about and eating sustainable fish, another result of taking the time to hook up with a fisherman.