The Sustainability of Alaska Seafood
The 2015 dietary guidelines stress the importance of fish consumption, but there are still misconceptions swirling around about the seafood industry. What exactly is farm-to-table seafood, and is it sustainable? I had the opportunity to learn firsthand about the Alaska seafood industry by taking a sponsored tour of the breathtaking state and even getting on a fishing boat to catch my own fish.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, but it’s even bigger in Alaska! The state commands 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline. To give you some perspective, the Atlantic Coast (from Maine to Florida) is about 2,000 miles, whereas the Alaska Coast is about 5,500 miles. But there’s just about one person per square mile actually living in Alaska. (If you applied this population density to Manhattan, you would have about 37 people living on the entire island.)
And because of its exceptional fishing waters, the state produces more than half the nation’s wild seafood harvest by volume.
Alaska is known for its salmon, whitefish varieties (like halibut, cod and rockfish) and shellfish. There are five species of Alaskan salmon: king, sockeye, coho, keta and pink. Peak salmon harvesting is from June to September. Peak harvesting for whitefish (like halibut and cod) varies but is mostly between March and October, while shellfish are harvested more in the fall and winter months.
Fish are harvested by fishermen in a variety of ways, including:
Trolling: Small fishing vessels operated by one or two fishermen and using a number of line and baited hooks. Used for coho and king salmon.
Gillnetting: Laying a net wall in the water in the path of the fish. Used for all species of salmon.
Purse seining: Setting a net around a school of fish. Used for all species of salmon for 250 to 1,500 fish at one time.
Each fishing boat has a license and can fish only on certain days and at certain times for certain species of fish. This helps control the fish population so the fish aren’t overfished and can migrate back and lay eggs again for the following year.
Once the fish are caught, they’re immediately placed on ice to keep them fresh. Fishermen take them directly to a processing plant, where the fish are purchased and checked for temperature and divided by species and weight.
Most Americans fall short of eating the 8 ounces of seafood per week recommended in the dietary guidelines. However, fish is chock-full of good-for-you nutrients, most notably Omega-3 fats, protein, selenium, iron, zinc, and B vitamins like niacin, B-6, and B-12. Plus, the bones in salmon are a good source of calcium and vitamin D.
If mercury is of concern, you should know that Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation regularly tests the water quality, mercury, radiation and other contaminants. Alaska seafood has continuously been found to have the lowest levels of contaminants of any fish and shellfish.
Cook It From Frozen
To transport Alaska fish and seafood to the continental U.S., it is usually frozen. The supermarkets receive it frozen and defrost it for you to purchase. So while you might think the Alaskan fish sitting on ice in your fishmonger’s cabinet is the freshest, it’s actually fish that’s already been frozen, then thawed.
Here’s a timesaving tip: You don’t have to defrost fish before cooking it — you can cook it straight from the freezer, still frozen. (How often have you forgotten to defrost meats and chicken for dinner?) If you choose to cook from frozen (see below for a recipe), be sure to rinse the frozen fish pieces under cold water to get rid of the ice glaze and to pat them dry with a paper towel.
Roasted Alaska Cod with Kale Pesto and Tomato Jam
Courtesy of Alaska Seafood and Chef Erik Slater
Kale Pesto Sauce
3 cups loosely packed kale leaves
1/2 cup toasted macadamia nuts (any nuts will do)
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup grapeseed or olive oil
3 vine-ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 shallot, chopped
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
4 Alaska cod fillets (5 to 6 ounces each), fresh, thawed or frozen
Kale Pesto: Trim and cut kale from stem and center rib; place in blender. To toast the nuts, place in saute pan over medium heat. Cook until nuts are brown and toasty, shaking the pan every so often.
Place toasted nuts, garlic, cheese, salt, lemon zest and 1 tablespoon lemon juice in blender. Puree; slowly drizzle oil into mixture until it is as smooth as you like it. Season to taste.
Tomato Jam: Simmer all ingredients on medium-low until it becomes jam-like, about 20 to 30 minutes. Puree, if desired; keep warm.
Fish: Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Rinse frozen Alaska cod under cold water to remove any ice glaze; pat dry with paper towel. Rub 1 tablespoon of pesto onto each fillet, reserving about 2 tablespoons pesto.
Place seafood on spray-coated pan or foil-lined baking sheet and roast for 12 to 15 minutes for frozen cod or 10 minutes for fresh or thawed fish. Cook just until fish is opaque throughout.
To serve, top with reserved pesto and a dollop of tomato jam.
Photographs courtesy of Alaska Seafood
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.