Christopher Nicholson’s day job is interesting enough. His daily commute takes him from his Greenpoint home to the Red Hook harborfront, where he’s a winemaker at the Red Hook Winery, shepherding Long Island and Finger Lakes grapes through the long and complex journey from vine to barrel to bottle. But his other work may be even more fascinating: For two months every summer, he joins his family at a remote fish camp on the shores of Bristol Bay, Alaska to fish wild sockeye salmon.
Christopher’s mother is a native Alaskan, and the family has been working the fishery together for generations. When farmed salmon first began flooding the market in the late ‘90s, wild salmon prices dropped to their lowest levels in history. As a result, Christopher and his cousin began thinking of ways to create a new kind of market – to bring their catch directly to people who crave wild salmon caught in one of the world’s best managed fisheries.
In 2003 they launched the Iliamna Fish Co. to sell the best of the family’s catch directly to retailers, consumers and chefs. Brooklynites can now get a share of Christopher’s catch through Iliamna’s salmon CSA – locals lucky enough to score a share get twelve pounds of super-fresh flash-frozen fish (no, it’s not an oxymoron) at The Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg at season’s end.
The Red Hook Winery is tucked away in an old warehouse building on a block between Added Value’s Red Hook Farm and the Sixpoint brewery. We met up with Christopher at the barrel-filled space to talk about adventures in fishing, freezing, and wine.
So Christopher, tell us how someone who lives in Greenpoint gets to fish for sockeye salmon in Alaska for a few months each year.
My mother is a native Alaskan and her family has been fishing in and around the base of the Kenai Peninsula for, as far as we know, a couple of hundred years – but probably for a lot longer than that.
So we grew up fishing with my parents. That’s just what my family did. We started as kids and been fishing every year ever since.
The place where we fish is called Bristol Bay. It’s the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the US. The most sustainable one in the world, too, which is an exciting thing.
I just love being out there on the water and catching fish. It’s a pretty short season. We only fish for about six weeks, really. It used to be longer – when we were younger we’d fish for longer periods – but as the family has grown older and we’ve had other commitments arise, like kids and things like that, we’ve had to cut down the amount of time we spend up there.
When do you fish? What time of year?
We fish in June and July.
There are five species of Pacific Salmon. There is a whole series of runs that happens between May and early October as the salmon return from the open ocean to spawn up the rivers that empty into the sea along the Alaskan coast.
Different species and even different schools of the same species return to their spawning waters at different times throughout the season. They’re migrating between 800 and 1,200 miles, and they’re spending between one to four years at sea, and they somehow know how to navigate all the way back to their homes. Even more amazingly, they seem to know at what time of the season to return to take advantage of the best possible conditions for navigating up their particular rivers to their spawning grounds. It’s all very mysterious, how different schools of the same species know specifically when the time is best to return.
We fish for sockeye salmon, and there are strong runs of sockeye in June and July.
Do you have a permit to catch sockeye specifically? How does that work?
Bristol Bay is the world’s largest sustainable wild salmon fishery. Everything about the fishing is very tightly regulated. In 1973, in the interest of creating sustainability, they capped the number of total salmon permits issued at 3,000. Since no new permits can be issued, existing permits trade hands only if someone leaves the Bay. If that happens, they’ll often sell their permit to a family member or a friend – many just pass them on to the next generation.
It’s a pretty big deal to have a permit that allows you to fish the Bay.
There are two kinds of permits allowed in Bristol Bay: one is for drift gillnetting and one is for set gillnetting. Our family does set gillnetting. By law, our nets have to be anchored at both ends, so we’re fishing in shallow water, always trying to hug the shore along the paths the sockeye follow as they begin their runs inland.
So where exactly do you fish? Where do you live during the season?
We lease a site for our fish camp from the state of Alaska. It’s out on a spit of land that’s curiously perpendicular to the rest of the shore. We live there and we fish there. By leasing it, we get the right to fish in that particular spot – it’s not like we have to compete for a spot to set nets each year or each day. That’s our spot.
We’ve had the fish camp in the same place since the 40’s. It’s a wonderfully quaint bush situation. No electricity, no running water, no telephones. It’s only accessible by boat or small plane. There are no roads. We’re about 20 miles by boat or plane from the nearest town, and that town is also off the road system. There’s an airport another twenty miles from town.
So you come in by courier flight and take a truck or four-wheeler to the next town, and then take a boat to hop out to the bush – to the camp.
Do you have generators?
Only recently. In Alaska they call generators ‘light plants.’ We only recently got one to charge batteries and flashlights and stuff like that. My cousins and I – this generation – we have more opportunity to modernize the experience, to make it more comfortable, but to be honest we all love it without those things. We have so many memories of being with our families there for so many years without those things, and we like it that way.
Do you have cabins out there? Where do you eat and sleep?
The place we fish is called Graveyard Point. It sounds horrible, but it’s a really beautiful fish camp. It’s very barren – sort of a tundra-type landscape right on the sea.
We used to have a whole camp that my family built themselves and maintained for 45 years. There are huge tides in Bristol Bay, and at some point some of the channels changed a mile or so offshore, which really changed the way the sea came to shore there. The tides slowly eroded the site of our old camp until it completely washed away about nine years ago.
It was kind of sad and weird to say goodbye to those old building that had been built by an earlier generation of our family, so this time we moved to a different spot where we should be safe indefinitely.
The new camp is in the remains of a steam-powered cannery that was built in the 20s or 30s. The buildings are all cedar and redwood with tin roofs. It was abandoned in the early 60s so it’s been left to the vagaries of winters and storms and tides and winds for the better part of 50 years now. We get to live and walk amidst all those old buildings and rotting boardwalks. It’s a beautiful and kind of mournful place all at once.
We actually live in the old cannery buildings – that’s where we sleep and eat. The buildings have been maintained to some degree by fishermen through the years. People came and went. Buildings changed hands…”That used to be John’s building but he’s not fishing now…” or “That used to be Michael’s building but he’s built a new place a half mile over that way…”
Some of the buildings are old houses. My brother and I live in the old cannery kitchen building, in the old cook’s quarters. It’s all very creaky and drafty and old. The tin roofs just roar when it rains. You can push aside a hanging piece of tin and see the old mess hall, or the old bonding room. Most of it is really weathered and open to the elements, but the buildings are still there and we live in the midst of it all.
It’s amazing that they’re still standing given the once-a-year maintenance they receive when we come out to fish.
How do you prepare for the season? How do you get food and supplies up there?
It always seems like we get there later than we hope – it’s a long trip from the lower 48. We get up there, pull the boats off the docks, check all the motors, and hope we’ve done a good job winterizing. We shake the seaweed out of the nets we hung up at the end of last season and mend all the nets. We make repairs to the buildings that we use for the camp…
We barge up food and supplies – a lot of canned goods and dry goods. There’s a barge system that works from Seattle to Alaska. It takes about three or four weeks to get up there. We usually send up a couple of small six by six foot wooden boxes in March and get it up to the warehouse there. My family has fished for one particular processor, or cannery as they’re still called up there, for sixty or seventy years. So they tender the stuff for us up there in their warehouse and we come get it when we get into town.
When we get to camp, we pull out all the junk we’ve sent up – our victuals and supplies, and get set up.
How big is the family? How many people are generally in camp during the season?
In all there are usually around 20 people. We usually run about six different boats with three people in each boat. My mom is our cook. She has been for years. My cousin is an amazing guy who really keeps our show on the road. He’s our camp manager. He organizes all the delivery of our gear and all the day-to-day stuff necessary to keep the camp operating.
We all live in these tiny, creaky old rooms. We set up our own mess hall in the house we call the main house where my sweet mom does this amazing job of cooking for all these animals that are her nephews and nieces and sons and daughters…she cooks for all of us in this hot little room – we squeeze 20 of us elbow to elbow at this little table…it’s quite a scene.
Tell me about the fishing itself. How does it all work?
We run six small open boats – skiffs. They’re just 22 feet long and six or seven feet wide. They’re equipped with little 50 horsepower outboard motors. We actually just upgraded to 50s. We used 35s for the fifteen years prior – before that it was 25s. But in just the past few years we’ve gone big! Ha ha. All the way up to 50s!
Bristol Bay has some of the highest tides in the world. Over the course of four hours at high tide, the water level will change as much as 26 feet. We set our nets very close to shore, so if you have any wind or wave action it’s really rock n’ roll. You get really big breakers right on shore, which keeps things exciting.
You really have to manage it in the little boats with little motors. Gap managing – darting in and out to empty the nets between waves and sets of waves.
How big are the nets? How do you set them?
We buy the mesh, but we hang our own nets by hand. We take the mesh and rig it with weighted lead lines and floating cork lines so they’ll hang vertically in shallow water. We’re permitted to use 50 fathom, or 200 foot long nets. They’re two fathom, or twelve feet deep. We set them perpendicular to the shore, in the path of the salmon hugging the shore as they prepare to head inland and upriver.
What’s a typical day like? Do you have boats out 24/7 during the season?
It’s interesting – there are only about three and a half weeks of total fishing during the course of the season. Over the course of the full season, the Department of Fish and game opens the waters for fishing for short periods depending on the number of fish passing through the fishery. They compare current numbers to the numbers collected over the past hundred years, and when the numbers are appropriate, they’ll open the Bay for fishing for eight or twelve hours at a time and then close it down again. It’s very, very carefully managed to ensure that the salmon populations aren’t being threatened.
So how do you know when they’re opening the Bay?
We listen to the ham radio four times a day. The Department of Fish and Game broadcasts a fishery update four times a day. You’ll hear something like, “This is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A fishing period will open tonight from 2am, one hour before high tide, until 2pm tomorrow. So get ready boys…”
And when you hear that you scramble into action and go. So you’re not fishing 24/7 for the whole season. You’re on standby 24/7 for the whole season. And you fish whenever there’s a window.
OK so how does the fishing itself work? What do you do with the fish once it’s been caught? You mentioned that your family has worked with a particular cannery for 60 years. How does the fish get to the cannery?
Well, we catch the fish in our nets, and then we haul the nets onto the boats. Sometimes we’re not even on anchor – we just haul up the nets and slip the boat along under them, working our way back and forth picking out the fish and putting them into these fairly large totes we have on each boat. The fish generally remain on the boat for a maximum of a couple of hours. Usually it’s less than one hour. We always want to be empty to keep the quality of the fish up ad to clear room for more catch.
So when we’re full or when we need to get the fish we have on ice, we take the catch to a floating vessel that the cannery hires to tender our fish for us. The tender boat has a crane on it. We’ll pull our little boat up to it and tie off, and the bigger boat will crane off the totes of fish, put them in the hold and we go back out for more fish.
The tender is constantly ferrying fish back and forth from the waters off the camp to the cannery. It has a refrigerated seawater holding tank, so it’s chilling the fish in seawater. It depends on the size of the fish and the size of the catch, but it usually has to make a delivery every tide. It can carry 100,000 pounds, so if the fish are heavy it’s every tide – if they’re not it’s every other tide.
The tenders we work with are usually about fifty foot vessels. There are bigger ones in the bay, but the ones that service us are generally 40-50 feet.
In some years we’ve actually hired our own tender because that gives us more flexibility in terms of who we can sell our fish to. We don’t have to sell them just to our home cannery if we’re using our own tender – we can find buyers who will pay a higher price. And it also gives us access to secondary markets in case the fishing is too heavy in our district and our cannery is too busy to take our fish. That happens at times.
And what happens to the fish once it’s at the cannery?
So the tender brings the fish the twenty miles to the cannery and it’s offloaded there with a bigger crane, or sometimes they use these big vacuum devices to suck the fish right out of the hold.
The cannery sorts and grades the fish. The best fish will go to a fresh fish or a vacuum sealed or frozen fillet line for processing. Most of the fish – a little more than 50% – goes to the canning line. Canned wild Alaskan salmon generally goes to Europe. There’s been some growing interest in canned wild salmon in the U.S., but the vast majority of it goes to Europe.
The fresh fish – the best fish – isn’t canned. It’s cut and cleaned and packaged and it generally goes to large retailers and wholesalers and works its way through the chain to fish markets, consumers and chefs.
Set net fishing tends to be of higher quality. My family delivers a substantial percentage of that cannery’s fresh fish.
So you and your cousin started Iliamna Fish Company a few years ago to bring your best fish directly to retailers, consumers and chefs. What led you to create Iliamna?
Well, in the late 90’s, prices for wild Alaskan salmon were at an all-time low. There was very little interest at that time for wild, sustainable, sockeye salmon. Domestic demand was at its lowest point ever.
And the reason was that at that time, farmed salmon was just beginning to absolutely saturate the market. It pushed prices way down. At the time, consumers weren’t generally thinking about the difference between wild and farmed salmon. It was just salmon. Wild salmon was more expensive than farmed fish and it really hurt the market for our fish. It got to the point where it was actually costing us money to fish each year. So my cousin and I had a lot of conversations trying to figure out ways we could get a better price for our fish.
Now, we knew lots of people who did want wild Alaskan salmon – who did care where it was caught and how it was caught, and that it was wild and not farmed. So we started thinking about ways to sell our fish directly to retailers, consumers and chefs who wanted it. We started in 2003. We started really small – selling to one chef and one friend or something like that.
We learned a lot and the following year we petitioned the state of Alaska to get one of our little boats licensed as a floating processor. The state requires you to be a licensed processor in order to sell your fish – you have to prove that you can safely handle, cut, clean and keep the fish cold. The inspector actually said, “This is the smallest floating processor in the state of Alaska. Officially.”
So we go our license and got started. We slowly figured things out over the years and became more and more efficient. We actually quickly realized we couldn’t do both the fishing and the processing ourselves, so we found someone else to do that. My cousin and I catch fish in our boat. We find the most beautiful ones, bleed them, chill them, bring them ashore and have a small processor cut, pack and ship them for us.
We sell only a small percentage of our family’s catch through Iliamna. We just go for the most beautiful fish and sell it directly to people who really value that.
What does Iliamna mean?
Lake Iliamna is the largest freshwater lake in Alaska, and it’s the final spawning ground for many of the salmon we catch.
So who do you sell to? How can I get some of your most beautiful fish?
We sell to a few retailers. Dean & Deluca was our first kind of splashy retail account. They loved our fish and have featured it in their catalog for five years. That really helped us to get on the radar a bit. We also work with a couple of other larger natural food companies – Heritage Foods here in New York, and Hearst Ranch on the West Coast. Consumers can get our fish through them.
We sell directly to several chefs as well.
And we have CSAs set up for people who live in Brooklyn and in Portland, Oregon. We just opened our Brooklyn shares for this season last week. Members get twelve pounds of fillets for $200 at the end of the season. You pay half upfront and the rest when you pick up your fish at The Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg.
We had 150 shares in Brooklyn last year. We have to cap it because we’re limited in the amount we can set aside for Iliamna. We’ll probably max it out at a few hundred this year. My wife Emily just told me yesterday that over three hundred people have emailed in the past year asking to be notified when shares become available. It’s exciting, but kind of frightening too!
Well, that’s a good problem to have, right? So I assume the CSA fish is frozen?
It is. There’s been a stigma about frozen fish in the past, but there’s a real growing interest in really well frozen fish right now. There are new processes out there now that allow you to freeze fish very very quickly. If you freeze fresh fish very fast, and if you defrost it carefully – slowly in a cold environment like a home fridge, it’s pretty amazing. This super-fresh fish is effectively locked in suspended animation hours after it’s been caught.
So we haven’t even discussed what you do for a living during the ten months out of the year when you’re not fishing for sockeye in the wilds of Alaska…You’re the wine maker here at Red Hook Winery?
I am. I’ve been a wine maker formally since 2001. Our neighbors growing up at the fish camp – at the next nearby camp of shacks – were all Sicilians. There’s this hundred-year-old community of Sicilians in Martinez, California, and they moved to different fisheries up and down the coast, following the seasons for different types of fish.
They loved olives and they loved wine. I actually became really interested in olives – they always had these amazing varieties of olives at their camp. Throughout high school I actually read about and learned about olives, and that kind of naturally led to an interest in grapes.
I tinkered around at making wine, but it wasn’t until 2001 that I got my first formal apprenticeship as a cellar rat in California. My mentor and sponsor there was a noted winemaker named Abe Schoener, and he has a small winemaking project called The Scholium Project.
I went on to other apprenticeships and always maintined a close relationship with Abe. In 2006, he told me about this dream he had to open this winery here in Red Hook. He partnered with Mark Snyder, a really interesting guy with a wine distribution business, and they made it happen.
Mark brought his friend and well-known wine maker Robert Foley onboard as well.
Abe and Bob are the two senior wine makers here, and they have very different styles. Abe is known as more of a rogue winemaker with a very natural bent, and Bob is very well respected for his classic, refined approach. The idea behind the Red Hook Winery is that we take a single lot of New York State grapes, harvested at one vineyard on the same day, at the same time, and we split the lot between Abe and Bob. They take a single lot of grapes and make very different wines with them. So we hope to learn something about what makes this varietal of grape, from this specific place, harvested at this specific time, unique by having each make his own wine with it.
And the differences are fascinating, but the similarities are maybe even more fascinating – it might be that the similarities are the thing that tell us about the real identity of this grape from this place, and this time.
This is Mark’s idea. His project. Abe and Bob create the wines. I manage Abe and Bob’s wines on a day-to-day basis, running around the floor, climbing up on barrels, checking, smelling, tasting the wines…working to keep their wines developing in alignment with their vision.
Didn’t you just have your first release recently?
We did. We released the 2008 vintage at the end of February. It takes a while to make a wine – two years in the barrel – so they’re just starting to come out now.
Do you get to make your own wine on the side?
I do. You know, at the end of this year, my third year here at the winery, I feel like I can finally call myself a journeyman winemaker. I can safely shepherd a grape from vine to bottle and have some decent sense of the viniculture that needs to be performed on this specific grape, and some decent sense of the enology that I have to have to make a good wine. It’s been a long slow education, but I’m finally getting it. Wine is incredibly complex and fascinating. I love it having the opportunity to make it.