Bering Bounty

Photo by M. McKeown

Local. Authentic. Knowledgeable. Thats Mark McKeown, owner of Bering Bounty LLC, the first seafood company in Wisconsin run by a commercial fisherman. Marks company is based in Verona, but all the seafood is sustainably caught off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Cradle of Storms Sea. Marks fishery was the first in the world to qualify as being fully sustainable under the auspices of the Marine Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit organization established to address the problem of unsustainable fishing and to safeguard seafood supplies for the future.

The first fisherman in his family in 500 years, Mark hails from Wales. Hes been in the United States for 30 years, fishing commercially for 14, and in business for more than 8 with Bering Bounty. Mark is now a U.S. citizen. Bering Bounty supplies family-owned restaurants, supermarkets, and private individuals in southwest Wisconsin with wild-caught salmon (king or chinook, sockeye, coho, and pink), cod, halibut, and sablefish (black cod).

Mark believes in the slow growth of his company, preferring strong relationships with clients we like. He will meet with a restaurants chef, talk with the staff about his products, or hold Meet the Fisherman events at markets.

Photograph courtesy of M. McKeown

Some may think commercial fishing is adventure filled with romancethe call of the sea, the magnificent wildlife, the star-filled sky at night unpolluted by light from the land. Mark says, It is a great privilege to fish the Bering, but the life of a fisherman is anything but romantic. Life on the sea involves a great deal of hard work, sometimes in extreme weather conditions all around being fairly uncomfortable. During salmon season, Mark can lose 12 to 25 pounds, even more when he fishes cod!

It is staggeringly beautiful where I fish in western Alaska, Mark says. Largely untouched by the hand of progress, it is very remote, only accessible by air or sea. I take a series of flights to get from my home in Wisconsin, which can easily take up to 24 hours.

Two other fishermen comprise Marks crew aboard his 32-foot salmon vessel. The crew can be out at sea for as much as six weeks at a time, and often fish around the clock depending on the tide, weather, clarity of the water, and how the fish are running. The prime fishing months for salmon are June through September, with exact days and times set by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G). Mark crews for cod farther along the Aleutian Chain. Being a member of a crew gives balance to my sea life.

Photograph courtesy of M. McKeown

Commercial salmon fishing is exceptionally competitive. Every fishing vessel is a floating, capital-intensive small business. Out on the water, boats can be as close as a swimming lane apartother times miles away from each other. The salmon runs are monitored closely by the ADF&G. Their rules and regulations are enforced by Alaska State Troopers in planes, helicopters, and skiffs. U.S. Coast Guard ships are also present to enforce safety regulations and to assist a vessel in distress. Its these regulations and their strict enforcement that keep Alaskas fish populations sustainable.

All five of the salmon species found in Alaskan waters are wild. The salmon range free for thousands of miles and complete their natural life cycle without interference from humans. They are not penned nor fed any artificial food, as farmed salmon can be. In fact, its illegal to farm salmon in Alaska.

Mark and his crew use drift gillnets to catch the salmon. Gillnets are vertical panels of mesh about 300 feet long by 6 feet deep held between cork and lead lines. The net is tightly wound onto the reel in the middle of the fishing vessel with a buoy attached to one end. The buoy is thrown over, the net is fed out as the vessel moves forward, and then the vessel drifts with the tide. Salmon are caught in the net by their gills. The bycatch (everything thats caught other than the salmon) amounts to about 1 percent of the total catch. The net can be pulled in at any pointsometimes by hand and usually when it contains some fish!

The next step is for the crew to carefully pick the fish out of the net, snap the fishs gills with their hands, and immediately immerse the salmon into slush ice to fully bleed out. Quality controls are employed throughout the process. Any bycatch is thrown back live into the sea. A tender (another boat used to support other vessels by transporting food and fuel to and from shore) supplies the slush ice and carries the salmon to a processor on land. The processor flash freezes the salmon, then individually vacuum seals each fish. Nothing is added to the salmon except for a thin glaze of water.

Photograph courtesy of M. McKeown

The processed frozen salmon is then shipped by sea to the West Coast. From there its trucked to Bering Bountys cold storage facility in southwest Wisconsin. Sea freight is more economical and more environmentally friendly than shipping by air and doesnt leave as big a carbon footprint, says Mark.

If prepared correctly, fresh frozen salmon that comes from Bering Bounty is as good as fresh. According to Mark, baking or steaming the salmon directly from frozen gives the diner a tremendously moist finished product. Not only is wild-caught salmon tasty, its one of the most healthful foodshigh in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

Wild-caught cod, another offering from Bering Bounty and its biggest seller, can be found on the menu in several Madison area restaurants, including Daisy Caf & Cupcakery, Dexters Pub, and Jordandal Cookhouse.

Ultimately what makes Bering Bounty different is we know our fish backwards and forwards, and we have scales behind our ears to prove it, Mark exclaims. Orders for wild Alaskan seafood can be placed through Bering Bountys website, , with more great pictures found there and on Facebook at Bering Bounty LLC.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.