After relocating from Kenai, Alaska, to Canonsburg, Sara Pozonsky helps run her family's Wild Alaskan Salmon Company. Sara will be part of an Oct. 9 panel discussion on health and sustainability issues in seafood consumption organized by Slow Foods Pittsburgh [see "Short List," p. 62].
What's a pretty li'l thing like you doing in the stinky ol' fishing biz?
My dad was a schoolteacher on the Kenai Peninsula, so during summers -- the salmon run is mid-June through August -- he would do commercial fishing. When he was 18 in the Air Force, he came up to Alaska and fell in love with the fishing business. He got a boat and captained it. His brother did the same thing. We all fished every summer. Both my brothers ended up captaining their own boats. My sister worked in the canneries. When I moved here and couldn't find the fresh salmon I was used to, that's when this business started. I would go back to Alaska to visit and people kept asking me to bring them salmon.
What's the difference between wild salmon and "farmed" salmon?
Farmed salmon is grown in net cages in the ocean. Massive numbers of fish breed in one area. They're fed commercial feed and steroids to get fat quickly. They're given antibiotics to counter all the rapidly spreading diseases. When you test a farm-raised fish it's filled with toxins like PCBs and mercury. They feed the fish dye to turn their flesh red! Farmed fish is naturally grayish, whereas wild salmon is a beautiful bright red color. They're fit from swimming and eating small fish and their natural diet. People assume "eating salmon is healthy for me," but if it's farmed, unfortunately, it's not. Federal recommendations -- which are outdated -- from 1984, suggested eating salmon no more than once a week, but now studies are saying no more than once a month!
The "farms" are just giant nets out in the bay. The feed slips through and other fish eat it too. Diseases spread outside the cages. And, as every fisherman knows, there are holes in every net, so fish escape and interbreed with wild fish, which slowly mutates the species. British Colombia has had huge problems with this. The idea of farming salmon is good, if they could regulate it more. There are ways to do it, but they cost money. Alaska doesn't allow salmon farming, which protects us and the salmon.
Is there an issue of over-fishing wild salmon?
Alaska's Fish and Game Commission does a good job regulating how many fish can be caught each year to maintain a healthy fishing industry. Wild salmon is more expensive because there's a limited amount available. We have had problems with the Japanese catching fish in international waters before it comes into Alaskan water. That's very frustrating. Wild sockeye is used for sushi. The Japanese won't buy farmed fish.
Are there many women working in the fishing industry?
There are a lot, actually. Being a woman-owned company, we like to support them. One of our main suppliers of king salmon is a woman captain. Women make great managers. They can make sound instant decisions.
Would you rather be out on the boat some days?
It's a rough life. You're at sea for six weeks without coming to land, sharing a 36-foot boat with five other crewmembers. Your hands are swollen like clubs from fish poison and cuts from the nets. You're wet and cold. I do miss the camaraderie and the people, and I really miss the ocean.
The smell of salt water and sound of seagulls is intoxicating!
Do you do any recreational fishing?
There's definitely a talent to catching fish with a hook, but once you've been a commercial fisherman, that stuff with the hook and the line makes you impatient. You're like, "Where's the net? Let's catch them all!"