Sitka’s seafood donation network connects abundance with scarcity in Western Alaska

a woman and two children pose with a salmon
Jenny Bennis and her family donated sockeye from their setnet in Bristol Bay to help other families on the Yukon and Chignik rivers where salmon populations have crashed. (Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association)

A seafood donation program that began in Sitka during the pandemic is still growing. Now called the Seafood Distribution Network, the program is supplying sockeye to families on the Yukon and Chignik rivers, whose traditional salmon runs have crashed.

The market shift in seafood during the COVID-19 pandemic created a problem for the industry. Unlike many other sectors, the supply — the fish — was still there. How to connect those fish with people when traditional markets vanished?

For Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, it was about connecting the dots.

“So we worked with the local processors here to figure out what fish was stranded by markets being closed, by restaurants being closed, the supply chain disruptions,” Behnken said. “We raised money, bought fish from fishermen that was stranded product, and then started distributing it to people in town that told us they were in need. So it was really, ‘You let us know if you need seafood. We’ll provide it.’”

And that’s how the association’s Seafood Donation Program got started in 2020. Basically, a processor-to-doorstep delivery service for people who were having trouble getting by. It didn’t take long for word about the program to get out.

“And then we started hearing from people outside Sitka that there was a need and people really wanted seafood,” Behnken said. “So we did a distribution with Sealaska, for example, that reached every community in Southeast Alaska. And we did distributions in the Lower 48 to tribes along the Columbia River, to Anchorage military families, to communities in Western Alaska. Where we heard there was need, we found partners to work with to make that happen.”

Behnken credits Sitka-based processors Seafood Producers’ Coop, Sitka Sound Seafoods and Northline Seafoods, along with tribes and tribal organizations across the state for helping make the connections that kept the program going.

On paper, it sounds like an impossible undertaking — delivering 645,000 seafood meals across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, but Behnken said it conformed to basic Alaskan values.

“Alaska is a big state, but we’re also a small state and communities really care about other communities,” she said. “And we have a lot of relatives in different parts of the state, and that there is clear reason for us to share between those areas that have a lot and those areas of scarcity, but the infrastructure isn’t really there. So that’s what we’re working on developing is that infrastructure in Alaska so Alaskans can benefit from Alaska’s fish.”

A grant from the Alaska Community Foundation got the Seafood Donation Program rolling; a regional food systems grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped ramp it up. But just the energy of regular Alaskans is helping fuel things now. In a pilot project in Dillingham this June, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association organized a drive to collect subsistence sockeye for communities affected by the crash in chinook and chum stocks.

Natalie Sattler is the program manager for the association.

“We worked with a lot of community members and locals in Dillingham and the Bristol Bay area to help us collect seafood and it was all subsistence donations,” Sattler said. “And within one week, we were able to collect 5,000 pounds of sockeye and folks rallied support, they went down to their setnet sites – kids, families, everyone just you picking fish and donating it and getting it ready to ship out.”

This year, the sockeye will be going to communities on the Yukon and Chignik rivers. And besides providing food, Behnken said the fish are intended to keep food traditions alive.

“What we’ve heard from people in these communities that aren’t able to harvest fish themselves right now because of scarcity is that they really wanted round fish because being able to process that fish as a family – and as a community – is really culturally important,” Behnken said.

The pandemic and the salmon crash have been a one-two punch for many communities in Western Alaska. In a news release, Rep. Mary Peltola said programs like the Seafood Distribution Network were a critical part of the rebound.

“Low salmon abundance is an issue that needs to be addressed at every level, from the federal government down to individual communities, and efforts like this are an important piece of that larger goal,” Peltola said.

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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