Founders of a community supported fishery
After Micah Hahn and Ben Tietge moved to Alaska in summer 2017, Tietge bought a boat and started commercial fishing in the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound. 2019 was their second season operating the Copper Valley Fish Collective, which allows consumers to cut out the middle man and purchase their fish directly from Hahn and Tietge. Buyers can select at the beginning of the season how many pounds of salmon they want, essentially reserving a portion of the catch, which is then shipped at the end of the season. ~as told to and edited by Alexander Deedy
Alaska: Can we start with a little background on yourselves?
MH: I’ll start. We moved up to Alaska in the summer of 2017. Ben had been salmon fishing before then, but he decided he wanted to make it his profession. I have a background in environmental health. My academic year job is as a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I do research on environmental health in the state. I have time off in summers and I wanted to help out with fishing and integrate that more into our family. I had the idea of starting the Copper Valley Fish Collective. That was basically a way for me to be able to set up the logistics to purchase fish from Ben and then do this direct marketing so we could get our fish outside of the state to people who don’t normally get to eat Copper River salmon.
BT: Years ago, I was traveling around panning gold and running around out West and I ended up in interior Alaska. Through friends of friends I got a fishing gig back in 2008 and really liked it. I’ve always really liked fishing sport, of course. Commercial fishing definitely struck my funny bone. I did that for several summers and did some other things down in Wyoming and Minnesota. I decided to come up and try it for real. I moved here and ended up buying a boat and working into the fishery.
Alaska: What is a community supported fishery?
MH: I think probably more people are familiar with the term community supported agriculture, or a CSA. A community supported fishery is a very similar model, just like farmers, fishermen have a lot of upfront costs for the season. You have to buy permits and nets and get your boat ready to fish. Also, CSFs in Alaska have the additional challenge of the logistics in getting the fish from Alaska down to the Lower 48 where our customers are. Having those orders ahead of time allows us to get funding up front, get our stuff ready, and do the planning we need to ensure we have everything in place for shipping fish to people.
Alaska: Why did you decide to found the fish collective?
MH: The majority of Ben’s fish gets purchased by canneries who then process the fish and sell it to big super markets and are really doing it on a mass scale. With a community supported fishery like Copper Valley Fish Collective, we cut out all of those middle men. It’s literally the fishermen and then we sell it to the consumer. So they know exactly what fish they’re getting. What’s really fun about it is interacting with the people who are excited about buying fish.
BT: She kind of said it already, but I’m out on the boat all summer. I don’t have a ton of human interaction except with other fishermen and the tenders that the canneries send out. But Micah really does get a kick out of the human to human connection. If I can speak for her, I think that was a motivating force to try to reach out to the individuals who are connected.
Alaska: What’s been the response so far among fishermen in Cordova and how many boats are part of the collective?
BT: So far, it’s just our vessel. Micah is a permitted buyer, so she can buy from any fisherman. It’s expandable if needed, but right now it’s far from needed. There are not many people who do this, and there aren’t many people who know about other people doing it.
MH: it’s crazy to think about how much fish is leaving the state and the percentage that goes directly to consumers is very, very small. There’s only one other direct marketer that I know in Cordova who does a similar share model. It’s a growing and nascent way to sell fish.
Alaska: Have you seen growth on your end over the last few summers in terms of people buying fish?
MH: We are so new. This is our second year doing this. Definitely last year was mostly family and friends getting the word out. This is the first year that we’ve done the farmer hubs and I think that will expand things a lot. They’re reaching people they know and now that we have people who bought last year, they’re now telling their friends about it and we’re seeing more interest.
Alaska: What do you guys do for fun in the winter?
BT: I was going to say something about the value of any kind of direct marketing is a form of season extension for fishermen, both before and after the season because fishing has highs and lows. There’s not a whole lot for a fisherman to do all winter unless you get caught up with things like crabbing or other dangerous pastimes like substitute teaching, which is what I do for most of the winter. But, for fun? I like to drink coffee and read.
MH: We have two Australian shepherds that we go skijoring with. We hook them up in their harnesses, and there’s a series of public use cabins that you can rent in Alaska. We’ll pack up the dogs and our skis and a sled with firewood and stuff and ski out to the cabins and spend the weekend hanging out and ice fishing. They’re our Aussie posse. They get on Instagram every once and a while.
Alaska: Anything else you want to add?
MH: Whenever people ask what it’s like to fish, we always say come to Alaska and we’ll show you. It’s fun to have visitors. People think about Alaska as being so far away and as a once in a lifetime trip, but it’s not that far. It’s just a three-hour flight from Seattle.