Unalaska is America’s fish capital. More seafood is hauled into Dutch Harbor than anywhere in the country, but for residents it’s not easy to find fresh fish unless they catch it themselves.
At the local grocery stores even seafood caught in the Aleutians is exported before landing in freezer cases. But it’s getting a little easier to get locally caught seafood on the dinner table.
It doesn’t happen often in Unalaska, but fishermen can sell their catch directly to customers. If you’re imagining a fish market, wipe away that image.
Buying fresh seafood means going directly to a boat like Roger Rowland’s. On a weekday in January people like Rubi Warden are crowding onto the dock to pick out tanner crab.
“Can you help me to carry it to my truck?” Warden asked.” “I’m buying $400 worth for three families.”
Warden and her daughter Pia are buying 48 crab. She’ll serve some of it to her parents when they visit from Hawaii.
Local crab hasn’t been sold on the dock in two years.
This is Rowland’s second time selling crab this season. The first time they took pre-orders, but today anyone can buy. It’s $12 a crab or 12 for $100.
“This year they’re very nice, very big,” Rowland said. “It’s really encouraging to see the really nice product.”
Selling fish off a boat doesn’t involve too much paperwork. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game requires a catcher seller permit to be completed along with a $25 processing fee.
Another way it’s getting easier to find local fish in Unalaska is at restaurants – at least at all the dining establishments owned by UniSea, one of the big processing plants in town.
Vic Fisher looks forward to Taco Tuesday the way most people look forward to the weekend.
“I’m sitting on Monday and I’m thinking about Taco Tuesday,” Fisher said.
He’s excited to try tonights’ menu: Alaska cod “just off the boat” marinated in chili lime sauce with cabbage slaw, and chipotle creme fraiche.
“I love fresh caught anything,” Fisher said. “This is fresh cod and this is absolutely a new thing. I’m down for it.”
The person responsible for all this fresh fish at the restaurant is Brett Richardson, the general manager of the Grand Aleutian Hotel. He’s been around for six years and says previous managers served fish from Asia.
“I was wondering why we weren’t serving fish that we caught. If only, not having to pay shipping costs,” Richardson said. “Something that’s local and something that I think tastes pretty good should be on the menu.”
His first move was to shift the hotel’s weekly seafood buffet from a cornucopia of products from around the world to just Alaska fish — cod, pollock, salmon, and scallops.
In some ways it makes his job more difficult. He’s responsible for picking up the fish.
“We don’t have a delivery structure,” Richardson said. “I literally just drive my little car over, put it in the trunk, and bring it on over.”
He can get fish so fresh it’s been off the boat for less than an hour. Workers process the fish on a slime line and instead of taking it to the freezers as they would for international customers, they walk it out to Richardson.
Even with Richardson’s three restaurants at the hotel and a few more nearby starting to serve local seafood, it’s still not easy to find fresh fish on the island.
Why is it so challenging? Richardson says it could be similar to why you can’t get good coffee in Java, Indonesia.
“The only thing they had there available for anybody was Nescafé,” Richardson said. “They export all of their coffee because other markets will pay much more premium products for that.”
Because of the seasonal nature of Alaska’s fisheries, there won’t be fish this fresh available year round. Richardson says the prime season is at the beginning of the year, but he thinks they’ll likely still have local cod through the end of April.
For fishermen out there, Richardson would love to bring more seafood -- especially things like scallops, octopus, and spot prawns -- to the table for diners.
"If we can get access to any of these things, give me a call," Richardson said. "I will buy them. We will serve them."
For Richardson, this mission isn't just about making money. It's about giving more people the opportunity to experience local seafood.