Free Press Staff Writer6:42 a.m. EDT June 23, 2016
Alaska's Bristol Bay is 3,614 miles from Burlington as the crow flies, and a world away in terms of its remote landscape of swirling gray water and snow-capped peaks. But it's a place a growing number of Vermonters are getting to know, thanks to fisherman Matt Luck's business selling wild-caught salmon directly to gourmands in Burlington and the Mad River Valley.
Luck sold 5,000 pounds of salmon fillets and portions in Vermont last year, and expects to do even better this year. He anticipates doubling sales in Burlington alone to some 4,000 pounds. Pride of Bristol Bay, as Luck's business is called, is well-suited to Vermont, with its farm-to-table-esque slogan, "From our nets to your table," and its sustainable ethos.
Luck is not the only fisherman selling Alaskan salmon directly to Vermont restaurants and customers. Anthony Naples, also known as Captain Tony, sells fish his crew catches in Alaska under his Starbird Fish label at farmers markets, stores, restaurants and as a CSA share.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game expects 46.5 million fish to return to Bristol Bay from the Pacific Ocean this year. The bay is fed by nine river systems, where returning salmon swim upstream to spawn before dying.
"It's the eighth wonder of the world, the largest sustainable sockeye salmon resource in the world," Luck said. "No hatcheries, all natural spawning. It's pretty amazing."
And some fear it's threatened by a proposed mine that would straddle the headwaters of two of the major rivers feeding the bay. The open-pit mine would sprawl over an area bigger than metropolitan Washington, D.C., according to Nelli Williams, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited. The project is known as the Pebble Mine.
Pride of Bristol Bay founder Matt Luck on his fishing boat. (Photo: COURTESY)
The fight over Pebble Mine has been going on for a decade, and is currently at a standstill, as the mine's backers fight proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations intended to protect the salmon.
"The location of the mine couldn't be any worse," Williams said. "If something goes wrong with the waste that would be stored there forever, it would affect the two biggest rivers that feed Bristol Bay."
Matthew Luck, 60, donates 10 percent of his pre-tax profit from Pride of Bristol Bay to the Alaska branch of Trout Unlimited, which he says has been "right in the middle of the effort to create national awareness" of the fishery. Williams said during the public comment period for the proposed EPA regulations, more than 1 million people supported putting protections in place, including tens of thousands of Alaskans.
"Putting protections in place for Bristol Bay is widely supported in a state where the EPA is not often the good guy," she said.
Flash frozen fresh
Amy Nickerson, one of Luck's customers in Burlington, teaches nutrition at the University of Vermont. She likes Luck's fish because it is flash frozen right after it is caught, making it as close to fresh off the boat as you'll find in Vermont. She also feels good about supporting the 1,500 fisherman who make a living from Bristol Bay.
Sockeye salmon is kissed by crewmember. Naknek River, Bristol Bay, Alaska. (Photo: COURTESY)
"I'm committed to supporting the Alaska salmon industry," Nickerson said. "I think they do a really good job with preserving the traditions of a sustainable seafood industry."
As a nutritionist, Nickerson also likes the fact that the vitamin D content of wild-caught salmon is higher than farm-raised salmon.
"That's notable because vitamin D is difficult to obtain from food sources," Nickerson said.
Nickerson found that the omega-3 fatty acid content — healthy fat — of farm-raised vs. wild-caught salmon is "more comparable than I originally thought."
"That said, the total fat content of farm-raised salmon is higher than wild-caught salmon," she said. "I think Matt is providing us landlocked Vermonters with a great product."
Erik Reisner of Warren is one of Luck's Mad River Valley customers. Reisner is a partner in Mad River Valley Real Estate. He picked up his 20-pound case of Bristol Bay filets last October at Sugarbush, where it was delivered in a big truck.
"It's like no other fish I've ever eaten," Reisner said. "When you take it out of the vacuum pack and rinse it there's not even a fishy smell. The texture is awesome. You don't need to put anything on it."
Reisner, 42, knows about the controversy swirling around Bristol Bay and The Pebble Mine, but that's not why he buys Luck's salmon.
"I'm not an activist or anything like that," Reisner said. "I'm buying it because it's great fish. I will never buy farm-raised fish again. I'm spoiled rotten now."
Reisner said he and his family were eating the salmon once a week and ran out in March.
"So we ordered two cases this year," he said. "I wish (Matt Luck) could ship it twice a year."
Still bouncing around the ocean
Luck's frozen fish make the journey to Seattle on a refrigerated barge, where they are then trucked to the East Coast and put into cold storage before being delivered to Vermont and customers in Cape Cod and Maine.
"When I decided to choose locations for buying clubs I chose places I had relationships with, people and places that mean something to me," Luck said.
Luck lived in Waitsfield for six years, from 2005 to 2010, where he worked on ski patrol at Sugarbush while still fishing in season. His wife taught at Waitsfield Children's Center. The couple now lives in Ketchum, Idaho, in Sun Valley, which he described as "almost as nice as Waitsfield."
Matt Luck's "Lady America" hauling in a catch in Alaska's Bristol Bay. (Photo: COURTESY)
Luck and his wife lived in Cordova, Alaska, for 20 years before moving to the lower 48. He said plenty of people who fish in Alaska live in the continental United States.
"It's a long commute to work, basically," Luck said. "This is for profit, this is my living, but at least a 50 percent passion project. I love everything about the wild salmon landscape. That's why I'm still bouncing around the ocean at 60 years old."
This story was first published on June 16, 2016. Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DanDambrosioVT.