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Here's How to Get The Freshest, Most Sustainable Seafood In Chicagoland

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 6, 2017 3:17PM

Photo by Kelley Jordan Photography.

Despite the abundance of fresh (or fresh-looking) seafood at places like Whole Foods and Jewel, buying fish can still be a bit of a minefield. Is your fish actually fresh, or previously frozen, thawed and frozen again? Was it properly handled on the boat? Is it sustainable, or is it contributing to overfishing and pollution? It's a lot to worry about while you're trying to buy groceries, which is why Sitka Salmon Shares is my favorite new seafood option.

"The people who get the worst fish in the midwest are [retail] consumers." explains Marsh Skeele. "You can get OK fish at the grocery store cheaper than ours, but it’s a dice roll." Skeele is one of the owners of Sitka Salmon Shares, a business that connects fisherman directly with consumers and is obsessively committed to quality and sustainability.

Photo by Kelley Jordan Photography.

Skeele knows the business: he grew up as a fisherman, and his father is a commercial fisherman. "That was my main marketable skill after going to school," Skeele says, laughing. He lived in Sitka, Alaska (hence the name of the company) and has always been on a determined search for the best food, of all types. "I was always obsessed with food, so I was trying to gather the best food people together, the best ingredients, the best cooks in town, and have the best potlucks."

Fast forward a few years, and he, along with his partners, have turned his fishing know-how and love of quality ingredients into a business. Through Sitka, consumers can buy a "share" —just like a CSA or a farm share—and are guaranteed awesome fish for a series of months. Originally, the company just sold delicious wild-caught Alaskan salmon, but now they've branched out to other varieties.

Photo by Kelley Jordan Photography.

Why does most retail fish suck? Skeele explains that it's because once it gets off the boat, fish is always not treated all that well: "There’s no market incentive to take better care of fish—it’s all pooled and sold as a global commodity."

That means one fisherman might use a small boat, take incredible care of their fish and have great quality control, while another might cut corners... but it all ends up in the same fish case.

"What you get at the grocery store is degraded fish that isn’t treated that well," Skeele explains. "It’s previously frozen, or even if it’s fresh, it’s 12-14 days old. It’s not a good representation of the quality of the fish. The fisherman got paid a tiny portion of the price, and the seafood consumers were paying a big price for kind of crappy fish."

Stika has cut out the middleman, and forged direct relationships with the fishermen who do it right, and pay them well. "Instead of six days at sea, it's spending three. They are going to pressure bleed the salmon. It's frozen in a true blast freezer to really protect the texture. All those things matter, especially with seafood," says Skeele.

Those fisherman also have an ownership stake in the company, providing a further incentive to keep quality as high as possible. "We find fisherman who are already fishing well, and frustrated that they take good care of their fish and they don't get any extra for it," explains Skeele. It also helps to preserve the environment, as these small boat fisherman are conscious of the fact that a sustainable fishery keeps them going. "This is a pristine place that is well managed for future generations," says Skeele.

Photo by Kelley Jordan Photography.

There are already more than 4000 participants in Sitka's salmon shares, most in Chicago (their main distribution facility is in Schaumburg) and many more in Madison, Wisconsin, where they also have a distribution center. You can also sometimes find their fish available for retail sale; I've bought it myself and the difference in quality is easily noticeable.

The prices might seem a bit high, but you have to remember what you're paying for. For example, their signature salmon package, which includes line-caught wild Alaskan king salmon, wild Alaskan sockeye salmon and line-caught wild Alaskan coho salmon, costs about $300 for three deliveries, a total of 15 pounds. That adds up to about $20 a pound. Sure, you can get salmon at Whole Foods for $15, but it's from the Atlantic, it's farm-raised, it's not great for the environment and it's not nearly as good. If you can afford it, it's worth the extra dough to know exactly what you're getting, every time.

"We’re doing every step to make sure that the fish is perfect," says Skeele. It's working.