Matt Aboussie went to Alaska on a seasonal construction job immediately after graduating from the University of Northern Colorado in 2007 — an athlete with a business degree, he didn’t feel that his job prospects were particularly bright — and eventually was introduced to commercial fishing in Bristol Bay. “I fell in love with the whole thing,” he remembers, “from the location to the type of work to how remote it was to the weather. I love the outdoors, and Alaska’s like the outdoors on steroids.”
Today Aboussie lives in Carbondale and runs a fishing operation in Bristol Bay in June and July, when the salmon enter the bay to spawn. “It’s a fast and furious season,” he says. And you can enjoy his catch at the Boulder County Farmers' Market, which started its Saturday season last month and will be open Wednesdays starting today.
The seasonal fishing is based in Ekuk, a tiny, remote village in western Alaska inhabited primarily by the fishermen who go there for the summer. There are no roads; access is gained only by boat or plane. The area is “fairly flat,” says Aboussie, “a hugely expansive range of tundra. We fish along about eleven to twelve miles of beach that ranges from higher-angle gravelly to very low-angle mud flat. There are big tides there, heavily influenced by the weather. It rains a lot. The wind blows a lot. You’re right on the ocean, with all the sights and smells of the water, and the tides are powerful: You can see the current moving really rapidly in and out. We see beluga whales, caribou, seals and a lot of bears, including mama bears with their cubs coming down to eat dead fish on the beach. Everything’s feeding on the salmon at that time of year. There are millions and millions of salmon coming to the same place at the same time. If you were to wade into the water, the fish would be running into you. This is a well-managed fishery where they’re healthy, where we can harvest and still see healthy returns year after year.
“We live in cabins and put out gill-net-style nets. The life cycle for sockeye is about three years. They reach peak maturity and return to the same rivers they were born in, females to lay eggs, males to fertilize. They swim up fingers of these big rivers where they spawn and die, and their carcasses feed new salmon, bears. It’s a beautiful, pretty complete circle of life.”
Since 2010, Aboussie has sold his catch at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market under the name Wild Alaska Salmon, but he’s received so many requests from customers who live in other states or want to share their favorite food with “an uncle in Michigan or their mother in Kansas” that he created a website — wildalaskadirect.com — where you can order the fish (shipping is free). The salmon, which is held in refrigerated seawater on the vessel before being taken to the processor to be flash-frozen and vacuum-packed, arrives sparkling fresh. The fillets are a rich red-pink, and all the pin bones have been removed; they thaw quickly and cook even more quickly (the only sin with these thin fillets is overcooking). All of which makes for easy, quick, healthful and delicious dinners. Aboussie, a dedicated cook who says he eats salmon — smoked, baked or grilled — several times a week, provides a handful of recipes on the website and promises more to follow.
Aboussie is passionate about the environment, and the waters of Bristol Bay are clear, cold and unpolluted. “Our region has a couple of advantages being as remote as it is and managed by the State of Alaska,” he says. “The state protects it from pollution and puts time into studying and managing the resource.” There are threats to that resource from mining and extractive industries, as well as foreign fishing fleets that don’t have to adhere to Alaskan regulations. Aboussie has been outspoken in his defense of the fishery, and about the threat posed by a huge proposed copper and gold mine, Pebble Mine. There’s a link on his website to Save Bristol Bay, an organization dedicated to saving the area.
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That’s not the only controversial aspect to his business. Genetically modified salmon was approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration last fall — the first genetically modified animal to be cleared for American plates and shelves. “That’s a sensitive subject,” Aboussie notes. “There’s a potential threat to wild species, to the gene pool of wild stock. It kind of gets into the whole fish-farming discussion. There’s not enough wild fish to feed everybody on the planet, and as we have more and more salmon eaters in the world, these things are hotly debated. I don’t take a hard stance. I’m a fisherman, and I fish for wild salmon and advocate for wild salmon, but I’m careful to not criticize farmed salmon, because it’s part of our food system.
“Still, a big part of our business is the conservation aspect. We try to raise awareness for responsible fishing practices and the support of wild fish anywhere in the world,” he says, and laughs. “That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.”
The Boulder County Farmers' Market starts its Wednesday markets today; find out more here.