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From Dock to Dish: Inside Kodiak’s Jig Fishing Boom

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Do you know where your fish comes from?

If you’re lucky enough to be a resident of the Last Frontier, you might be able to name a nearby body of water or even the first name of a trusted local fisherman. Your neighborhood fishmonger might be able to tell you the type of boat your dinner was caught on, and in most cases, the exact fishing method that was used to bring it from dock to dish.

Beneath its postcard-worthy waters lies Alaska’s most valuable treasure: a rich bounty of fresh salmon, cod, and rockfish, all of which provide lucrative business opportunities thanks to their versatile culinary uses. But in Kodiak, a beautiful city known for its fresh catches, fishing has seen a move away from high volume catching to more conservation-minded practices like jig fishing.

One of the oldest and simplest nautical techniques in history, jig fishing places an emphasis on catching one fish at a time with a single vertical line and weighted hooks. Its slow, zig-zagging bait, a technique called “walking the dog” by fishermen, attracts the fish to the line, where they’re reeled in by hand, not by machine.

This is very different from commercial fishing techniques that depend on bottom trawling, long lines, and pots that catch fish in mass quantities. Because jig fishing is so low impact and low volume, it doesn’t run the same risk as industrial fishing methods, which can result in overfished areas and “bycatch”, which happens when large nets drag in unwanted or mistakenly caught fish.

Thanks to its low barrier to entry, many family fishing businesses in the Kodiak area and surrounding Alaskan cities have taken to jig fishing practices, which only requires a boat or skiff and a $75 dollar license to fish. Besides random inspections to ensure that there’s no industrial gear on board – just the rods required to jig fish – there are few other regulations on where, when, or how you catch.

As jig fishing becomes more popular, new guidelines will continue to be set. For now, however, jig fishing is a practice that the weekend fishing enthusiast and family owned fishing businesses can do

The Free-Range of Fishing

If we’re comparing land to sea, then consider this: jig fish are to seafood what free range chickens are to poultry. Ethical, sustainable, and better tasting, consumers are beginning to fill their plates with fish caught through clean fishing practices, which honor the fish’s journey out of the water with the utmost in care and attention.

Even large retailers like Target and Whole Foods have committed to selling only sustainable and traceable seafood, working closely with suppliers to improve standards, audits, and certifications that result in better access to better seafood, no matter where consumers live.

Big-box retailers are also promising new quality standards for fish and seafood, which means no added growth hormones, preservatives, or genetic modifications. While not as high quality as jig caught fish straight from Alaska’s pristine waters, these responsible farming policies have set a new standard for how Americans shop, buy, and prepare their seafood with intention.

Man Versus Machine

Of course sustainability and traceability are important factors for the most selective shoppers and chefs, but taste is often the difference between a fish caught by hand and a fish caught by machinery.

On commercial fishing ships, fish are flash frozen, shipped overseas – often to China or India – where they are further gutted, filleted, and processed. After the dirty work is done, the fish are frozen yet again for their voyage across the Pacific. The large ice crystals that result in being mass packed, not hand packed, result in inconsistent and off-putting ‘fishy’ odors that health experts warn consumers to stay away from.

In the worst cases, the ice melts and these mass-produced fish make their way back to American land in lukewarm soupy, smelly waters until they reach grocery store seafood sections where they are, you guessed it, put on ice once more.

Jig fishing is proving to be not only a more sustainable product, but a more delicious one, too.

Immediately after the fish are caught, fishermen slice the fish to let them bleed out in cold waters, keeping them chilled naturally and delaying the rigor mortis process. There are no back-and-forth shipping methods, no inhumane clubbing, no ice chunks to compromise the texture and taste of the catch. Instead, the same fisherman that caught the fish will gut, fillet, and flash freeze the fish on location.

This in turn creates very tiny ice crystals, and limits the opportunity for shrinkage, or the unappealing ‘curling’ that happens when commercially caught fish hit the frying pan. Instead, these jig fish are treated like kings straight from the dock, where they’re given the royal treatment until they reach your plate.

The “white table market” of chefs and top restaurants all across America are taking note of this specialty technique, forming friendships with local fishermen and family owned businesses that thrive when paid top dollar for top quality fish. Due to demand from savvy diners that prefer fresh, farm-to-table cuisine that supports local businesses, Alaska’s restauranteurs are focused on educating guests on their dock-to-dish menu, where freshness, quality, and story all contribute to exceptional dining experiences worth writing home about.

To learn more about jig fishing and our other options for making fishing more sustainable, visit the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

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