If you love fish, let’s sit down for a virtual meal with captain Nick Lee and explore the reality of seafood — perhaps a real meal will come of it. Moab is over 700 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Would you like fresh or frozen salmon? Twice frozen? Farmed or wild caught? Handcrafted, maybe?
Lee is a Moab resident and wild Alaskan fish distributor who has spent 35 years in the fishing industry but says a stroll through the seafood aisle at any general grocery store still leaves him baffled.
“‘Fresh’ for me, and most everybody else, means it’s quality. ‘Fresh’ for the industry just means it hasn’t been frozen,” said Lee. “It could be 10 to 15 days out of the water and it’s still considered ‘fresh.’”
And “handcrafted salmon?”
Lee finds no explanation except Urban Dictionary’s definition of “handcrafted” as “a creative marketing phrase to add value to something that may or may not be the same as a non-handcrafted item.”
Lee maintains that when you don’t know the source of your seafood, what you do know is dependent on an industry which often prefers to muddy the water itself. Lee’s educational effort to inform consumers is up against widespread mislabeling, fraud, false eco-claims, green-washing tactics and convoluted dietary advice.
“Somebody needs to educate people, because they don’t even know that they don’t know anything,” says Lee’s net hanger, Marsha Dale, in Lee’s short film, “Know Your Source.”
“The place to get them is to educate the mothers,” she says. “Because they might want to poison their husband[s], but they don’t want to poison their kids.”
Lee and his crew find most people are surprised to learn that 79 percent of nutritious wild caught Alaskan salmon is exported, while 90 percent of American seafood is imported. Of imported seafood, the FDA inspects only 3 percent. There is no standard for organic seafood in the United States, which accepts foreign standards.
Lee is not only an advocate for wild Alaskan fish in America, but has been an instrumental figure in reviving and elevating the industry over the years.
“Nick is a pretty impressive guy,” Moab resident Karl Spielman, a fishing colleague of Lee’s, said. “I remember when he was just a young crew member. He was so much on the ball, he was impressive to the older skippers. He eventually got his own operation, then farm fish became a modern technology, where they were creating fish in a feedlot. Wild fish became threatened as a result. Nick was one of the early pioneers of chilling fish. He was an early adopter of that technology.”
Spielman said Lee’s work inspired him, and he began to follow Lee.
“Now, almost 100 percent of the boats in our fishery can chill their fish because of him and several others. That requirement has spread industrywide. After about 20 years, almost everyone chills their fish, so the quality has gone up,” Spielman said.
Lee said his fleet is required to use mats and salmon slides to eliminate bruising; provide temperature probes in the fish holds; and float and bleed the fish onboard. All measures are aligned with the mission of providing the highest quality salmon possible.
In 2013, Lee officially launched his distribution company, Alaska Select. He then set about creating a network of 30 clubs across the United States, including one in Moab.
Spielman himself captains a boat in Bristol Bay, and while he and Lee bring in the same fish, their processing methods are different. Spielman now buys fish from Lee.
“I used to bring my own fish home but it’s a lot of trouble. With the modern product that Nick has helped created since 2002, it’s better for me to source from Nick. It’s high quality,” Spielman said.
Lee’s Alaska Select products include sockeye salmon, king salmon, halibut, black cod, Pacific cod, snow crab, spot prawns — all from wild sustainable fisheries. They can be found at Moonflower Market year around, or at the South Town Gym on Monday, May 7, between 5 and 6 p.m. for distribution to club members.
“He’s definitely got the top-of-the-line — the best Alaskan fish you can get,” said Shane Huggar, Moonflower Market’s grocery buyer. “We order from him a couple times a year and it’s always been really high-quality.”
To join Lee’s club for free, and to get more information on how to order and pick up products every six months, go to alaskaselectseafood.com and click on “join the club.”
“I think people are hesitant at first,” Lee said. “But we win them over because it’s so convenient, and it’s nice to have such a high-quality product available in your freezer.”