Last Updated on November 24, 2021
“The challenge is to take the kind of responsible management that happens in places like Bristol Bay and to try to integrate that into the fisheries that are challenges and to protect the oceans and protect the protein that the ocean supplies with the idea that you’re not concerned about what happens this year or next year, but you want to make sure that three generations down the road, 50, 70, 80 years from now, there are still healthy oceans that are producing protein to feed the world.”
— Matt Luck,
Overview of This Episode
Join us as we travel from coast to coast to introduce you to people who are working hard to ensure a future for the seafood industry. Learn about sustainable fishing practices, why science plays a big role in the lobster industry, and how family continues to be at the heart of this community.
Featuring interviews with:
- Matt Luck of Alaska Wild Caught Seafood
- Curt Brown of Ready Seafood
- Meghan Luck of Alaska Wild Caught Seafood
Check out our upcoming episodes for more stories about the uncommon folks who are using their passion for food to solve problems in their industries, and in our world.
Links To Other References:
- Alaska Wild Caught Seafood
- Ready Seafood
- Forever Wild: An Introduction to the Bristol Bay Fishery – A ButcherBox Film
- Save Bristol Bay
- Trout Unlimited – An Organization You Can Support to Help Protect Bristol Bay
- ButcherBox is Calling for Permanent Protecetion of Bristol Bay
- Bristol Bay, The Pristine Alaskan Waters Where We Source Our Wild-Caught Sockeye Salmon
- A Conversation with Matt Luck
- “US Army Corps of Engineers Denies Permit To Controversial Alaska Gold Mine” – NPR
- “EPA Announces Reinstatement of Clean Water Act Protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska Watershed”
- Meet the Ready Brothers – Maine Lobster as a Way of Life
- It Begins Here: Family and Sustaining Maine Lobster – A ButcherBox Film
- The University of Maine’s Darling Marine Lab
- The Wild Calls Again – Meghan Luck and Returning to Fish in Alaska
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Introduction to Rare, Episode 2: Seafood Today and in the Future – Sustainability, Science, and Family
Matt Luck: Fishing industry in Alaska, particularly salmon fisheries, which take place nearshore that are based in communities that have no road or no road access. There’s a multigenerational story of harvesters that’s a recurring theme on every dock through every harbor in coastal communities in Alaska. But the fact that Meghan decided to revisit that life and come back with family and help support communities and an industry that under whose wing she grew up is not surprising at all. I would also almost be more surprised if she stayed in New York and didn’t come back and become part of this.
Meghan Luck: It’s funny, I’ve never… When you say preordained, I’ve never thought about it that way, but it totally is. And you almost talk about it like it’s got a magnet and however far away you go, you eventually come back to this nucleus from which we all came. Yeah, that’s funny you’ve said it that way.
Matt Luck: Yeah.
Meghan Luck: Because it’s absolutely what it is. I’ve just never looked at it like that.
Dennis Keohane: Family is a key ingredient in the fishing and broader seafood industry, as you just heard from Matt and Meghan Luck, who together operate Alaska Wild Caught Seafood in Bristol Bay, Alaska. No matter which coast they inhabit, we’ve found a few rare folks trying to ensure a future for the industry who have an incredible appreciation for the natural resources they depend on, the food ecosystems they are part of, quintessential examples of sustainability in practice. This is the Rare Podcast and these are the stories of the people who’ve embraced the notion that food can change the world.
Tory Fenton: Welcome to Rare, the show that introduces you to people who believe food has the power to change the world. We’ve chatted with people all across the food world who bring passion and grit into their work every day. In today’s episode, we’ll look at the changes that have happened in the seafood industry over the past decades as sustainability and responsible fishing practices have become essential for the future of fisheries on both coasts.
ButcherBox’s, Dennis Keohane, first talks with Matt Luck, a long-time Alaskan fisherman and the founder and CEO of Alaska Wild Caught Seafood. They chat about fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska the way sustainable fishing practices have been built and to how the Alaskan fishery is run. And finally, how family continues to be vital to the fishing community. Next, we head to Portland, Maine and the lobster boat of Curt Brown, a Maine lobsterman and the in-house Marine biologist at Ready Seafood. Dennis and Curt dig into the reasons why science is being incorporated more closely into the lobster industry and the impact the word being done in Maine’s Casco Bay could have on the future.
Lastly, we returned to Matt Luck’s daughter, Meghan, to discuss how the next generation are shaping the future of the fishery and why she left a career in New York to return to the salmon run in Bristol Bay.
Interview #1: Matt Luck of Alaska Wild Caught Seafood
Dennis Keohane: Matt Luck is truly a salt-of-the-earth figure who cast a wide net in terms of his role in Alaskan fishing. He has been involved in the fishery in Alaska for more than four decades and has seen the sockeye salmon industry evolve from being a canning-focused operation to one that can deliver freshly frozen seafood across the globe. In our wide-ranging discussion, we talk about protecting the waters of Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine Project, why the Alaskan Sockeye salmon run is the exemplary sustainable food system in the world, the relationship between the region’s indigenous peoples, and the fishery, and how everything comes back to family.
Dennis Keohane: Hey Matt, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and your time in Alaska?
Matt Luck: My name is Matt Luck. I’ve been a commercial fisherman in Alaska for over 40 years. And with our family, we own a business distributing wild-caught seafood. To the largest extent, we focus on wild-caught salmon. That wild-caught salmon is sourced from Bristol Bay, which is on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, in the Eastern part of the Bering Sea. I first went to Bristol Bay in 1979 as a 24-year-old fisherman. Our family was living in Cordova, Alaska, and Bristol Bay is an incredibly unique salmon resource and an incredibly unique fishery.
When I first went to Bristol Bay in 1979 as a crewman, it was typical in those days—and actually still is today for fishermen—to have Bristol Bay, whether as a boat owner and a captain or as a crewman, to be part of their annual work regime. In terms of numbers and average harvest in over the last 30 years, the average total run, the number of sockeye salmon that return to the five major fishing districts in Bristol Bay is about 35 million fish, individual sockeye salmon. Over the past five years, the average has been over 58 million fish return. It’s a true success story. You could call it the signature example of how responsible fisheries management enhances resources and helps them grow and maintain long-term sustainability.
Dennis Keohane: Can you explain how that works a little bit?
Matt Luck: The policy, I guess you could call the policy a fish first policy because commercial fishermen are only allowed to harvest what’s considered to be a harvestable surplus. Meaning that every year as salmon returned to Bristol Bay on any given date, there is a goal of a number of fish that have to have passed through the commercial fishery, into the rivers that lead to their spawning grounds. And on any given day, if that number of fish that are supposed to have been in the river to move to the spawning grounds, fall below the predetermined number, the commercial fishery is closed. And it doesn’t reopen until the number of fish headed to the spawning grounds exceeds the number of fish required on that day and time. It’s simple. It requires the willingness of the entire industry, fishermen processors, to cooperate, but it has served for over a hundred years every stakeholder very well.
Dennis Keohane: Can you explain what you mean by stakeholders?
Matt Luck: So, when I talk about stakeholders, a stakeholder is anybody that’s impacted by the sustainability of the resource, by the strength of the resource. Obviously, the commercial fisher is impacted by the number of fish that are harvested, the value that’s created, the number of jobs that it’s created, but there’s an indigenous population that lives in Bristol Bay that has lived in Bristol Bay for hundreds of generations. And you could describe the landscape in Bristol Bay for the people that live there year-round as a true salmon economy.
Salmon’s interwoven into the socioeconomic fiber of the community. It’s the economic driver of the community. And there’s a true subsistence culture that’s alive and well in Bristol Bay.
Greater than 50% of the protein that the indigenous people that live in Bristol Bay source is from wild salmon, the rest from mostly wild game. I guess you could think of wild salmon and Bristol Bay as the core element of food security in the region. We think of food security in our culture of having access to sustainable agriculture, to sustainable farming. In Western Alaska and Bristol Bay, without wild salmon, the food security regime would be challenged at best.
Dennis Keohane: Can you explain a difference or some of the differences or changes you’ve seen in your 40 years fishing in Alaska?
Matt Luck: I would say that the biggest difference between Bristol Bay and the sockeye fishery in 1979 and the fishery today is a true renaissance in the quality of the product that’s produced out of Bristol Bay. In the late ’70s, I can say with some certainty, that less than 5% of the fish that was harvested was chilled prior to delivery and was chilled down to close to 32 degrees as it traveled from the point of delivery to the cannery. Consequently, and because there was no refrigeration available onboard vessels to chill large volumes of fish, it really limited what type of product could be produced out of Bristol Bay.
So in the late ’70s, the vast majority of the product that came from Bristol Bay ended up in the can. The processing system in Bristol Bay produced probably 95% of the product was can salmon. Today, last season in Bristol Bay, over 85% of all the fish harvested on every vessel was chilled to some extent. That is such a huge difference from what that fishery looked like in 1979.
Dennis Keohane: Bristol Bay has also been a focal point for activism as well recently. Can you talk a little bit about the Pebble Mine Project and the opposition to it?
Matt Luck: The Pebble Mine and the associated industrial development around it was first proposed close to 20 years ago. About 17 years ago by a Canadian mining company that has access to the mining rights in Bristol Bay.
There is not a person involved in the salmon industry in Alaska, never mind Bristol Bay, that isn’t aware of the Pebble Mine and the proposal associated with it. So, we’ve talked about it, but Bristol Bay is the largest wild, sustainable salmon resource in the world. No hatchery, very little industrial development in Bristol Bay. The watershed not only supports a huge salmon population, a huge sustainable salmon population, but wildlife populations, indigenous Native Alaskans that have lived in the region in different tribes in different areas for hundreds of generations.
I think it’s in the back of every fisherman’s mind at the beginning of the season, during the season, after the season, when they reconcile how incredible a place it is and how many people it supports economically, culturally, that this is a project that just, the potential for negative impact on Bristol Bay is huge. The mine being a hard rock sulfide mine would require an impoundment to hold back water used in the mining process. It would hold back something in the magnitude of 60 billion gallons of toxic water held back by an earthen and dam in an earthquake-prone region with an active volcano 40 miles away.
It’s just a recipe for disaster. And really every thoughtful politician in Alaska—and there’s definitely a conservative element in Alaska politics—even the very most conservative politicians, tend to be of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with mining, this is just the wrong project in the wrong place. There’s already a robust salmon economy in place in Bristol Bay. Developing the Pebble Mine would be nothing more than replacing one industry with another, replacing a sustainable industry with a non-sustainable mining project that would have a life of estimated to be between 75 and 100 years where the salmon fishery and Bristol Bay could go on for hundreds of generations.
Dennis Keohane: We’ll get back to Matt and talk with his daughter, Meghan, in a bit, but a little update on the Pebble Mine Project. In November 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied a federal permit for the proposed Pebble Mine. More recently on September 9th, 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was reinstating Clean Water Act Protections for the Bristol Bay watershed.
Interview #2: Curt Brown of Ready Seafood
Dennis Keohane: On a classically overcast Portland day, I hopped on Captain Curt Brown’s lobster boat to talk the science of lobstering. Curt who has a master’s in Marine biology and Marine policy from the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, grew up fishing and lobstering and is currently the in-house Marine biologist for Ready Seafood in Maine. Among other things, you’ll hear how Curt is working with many of Maine’s colleges and universities to learn more about the ecosystem in the lobster-trap-heavy waters of Casco Bay and to preserve the fishery for the next generation of lobstermen and lobsterwomen.
Dennis Keohane: So I want to set the scene, where are we right now?
Curt Brown: We are right now at Deake’s Wharf, which is one of the wharves off Commercial Street in Portland, Maine on the working waterfront of Portland, Maine. We are on my lobster boat. Name of my boat is the SV Lil’ More Tail Little spelled L-I-L apostrophe. Superstition-wise, it’s bad juju to change the name of a boat. I changed the name of a boat once about 15 or so years ago and within two weeks I had flipped it over, sunk it, and almost died. So, when I bought this boat, it was the perfect boat for me. The only issue was that name and ultimately didn’t dare change it and it’s grown on me over time.
Dennis Keohane: So just tell us a little bit first off about how you got into lobstering and then we’ll get into a little more about your background too.
Curt Brown: Yep, that’s a great question. So I got into lobstering at a young age, probably around eight or nine-year years old. My father had a little wooden skiff in the cove that we used to live right near, Peabble’s Cove in Cape Elizabeth Maine, probably 10 or so beat-up old traps. And we would just go out after he would get home from his real job and haul those traps by hand. And when you’re a kid at eight or nine years old and you see those traps come up over the rail of the boat full of lobsters and crabs, but all these other amazing critters as well, it really, just sparked my interest in lobstering, but also in the Marine biology side of things.
I was always fascinated with what was going on under the ocean surface. So growing up for me, it was always about being able to combine my passion for lobstering with my passion for Marine biology. And now at Ready Seafood, I’m able to do both. I have my own boat, I have my own traps. The lobsters I catch are sold to Ready Seafood, but it’s an independent operation. But I also work at Ready Seafood as a Marine biologist, where we really work hard to improve the sustainability of our industry by working on collaborative research projects to improve our understanding of Maine’s lobster resource.
Dennis Keohane: Talk about your Marine biology background a little more. So you went to school for it, and you got a degree for it. Talk about the degree, your background, the studies you did and apply that to the day-to-day with lobstering.
Curt Brown: Yep. So, I went away to school all the way out in big, bad New York, right near Albany at a little school called Union College out in Schenectady, New York, where I studied both history and biology. I knew my passion was for Marine biology, but I kind of wanted to expand my horizons. Four years there I was able to get those two degrees and literally the day after I graduated, I started an internship at the University of Maine’s Marine Lab in Maine, in Damariscotta, Maine, where I was able to study lobsters at their early life stages. That internship transitioned into a graduate program at the University of Maine, where
I got master’s degrees in Marine biology and Marine policy. After that, I worked at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute right here in Portland, Maine for about nine years, working on collaborative research projects, looking at the ecology of everything from monkfish to lobsters.
And then about seven years ago, I started a conversation with John and Brendan, who are the founders of Ready Seafood, about starting a research program at Ready Seafood focused solely on lobster.
Think about lobsters the size of your thumbnail. That’s really the foundation of our fishery right there. And the more we understand about those early life stages, the better we’ll be able to predict what landings will be in the future and the better we’ll be able to manage our fisheries sustainably.
So the collaboration we work on with the University of Maine on this particular project has really improved what we know about those early tiny life stages of the lobster life cycle and has helped us both as a business in terms of making decisions about the future, but also as a state in terms of managing our resource. All the research that we do at Ready Seafood is public. The data that we collect is shared with everybody, we don’t really keep anything under the vest. It’s important that everybody learns from what we’re doing, and we can all make this a better industry together.
Dennis Keohane: In terms of lobstering as a whole, how has the incorporation of viewing things through the lens of a Marine biologist changed the industry as a whole, and bettered it?
That’s a great question. The state does a great job at monitoring lobster at various life stages, including the juvenile stage, adult stage, and beyond. But there was one life stage of the lobster life cycle that was really missing in terms of a fundamental understanding, and that was the real early life stage.
So little cocktail party knowledge after a lobster hatches from an egg, it actually spends the first month of its life at the surface of the ocean going through four different larval stages. And after that fourth larval stage, they’ll actually do test dives down to the bottom of the ocean. And what they’re doing is looking for suitable habitat and suitable habitat when you’re a lobster the size of a thumbnail is anything you can hide under to get away from all those hungry mouths swimming around above you.
That’s the life stage that we really wanted to target with our research because there wasn’t much known and what was known comes from a very shallow, narrow band along the coast. And we wanted to expand that into deeper water to get a better sense of what lobster settlement looked like in different water depths.
It was just generally assumed that lobsters don’t settle in water deeper than 20 meters or 60 feet. And what we’ve shown with our research project is that lobsters are settling in water much deeper than that, which has big implications for the population dynamics as a whole and also geographically along the coast of Maine.
Interview #3: Meghan Luck of Alaska Wild Caught
Dennis Keohane: Lastly, let’s return west to Alaska and to the Lucks. For part two of our conversation, we find out more about Meghan Luck. Why she left for New York, why she returned home to Alaska, and what the waters of Bristol Bay mean to her having grown up there, fishing with her dad?
Meghan Luck: I spent most, the vast majority of my childhood, in and around wild Alaskan waters and forests. And I still remember the woods that I used to run through barefoot in Six-and-a-Half-Mile, which is the neighborhood we lived in named, because it was six and a half miles out of town. So growing up in wild places, there’s always a level of curiosity that comes along with that. Low tides in Alaska, when the tide goes out, all these wild animals are revealed and you can go and search for them. And, so, I think the life that you guys created there and the values that were instilled, allowed me to take all of that and then want to go live in a city or want to go live in a completely different environment because I was so curious about the world.
And I did that for a long time. Working in Bristol Bay was my high school job in the summertime, bleeding fish on the back deck, getting yelled at by Skipper over here.
Matt Luck: I didn’t yell that much.
Meghan Luck: You didn’t yell that much, but you have to sometimes.
Meghan Luck: You’re a good captain. But after that, I moved to New York City, which is like, people always ask me, how did you ever go from New York from Alaska or from Idaho or from many of the other wild places I grew up in? And I always kind of say, New York City is also the wilderness. It’s like a completely different kind of wild animal. And it is really wild in many ways. It’s just the humanity of the place. It’s the humans are the wilderness in many ways.
And I was there for almost a decade. And I think when probably about three years ago, I started having conversations with him about the business that he was building. And I think when the opportunity comes up to work with your family and return home physically, but also spiritually to a place that defines who you are in so many ways, you can’t really say no to that because it has been almost like a spiritual return to support the kind of communities I grew up in and also build something I really care about and feel very connected to with my family. And that’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t come along. So when it does, you have to say yes to that.
Dennis Keohane: Meghan, can you talk a little bit about the experience of coming back and what you’ve learned, and more importantly, what it means to be working more closely with your dad?
Meghan Luck: So this is most definitely a return to both a lifestyle and a knowledge base that has always felt like it’s part of me like it’s in my DNA. It’s just who I am as a person, but in many ways, I grew a knowledge base that was very different. And I think that the thing that’s so unique about this guy is that it’s a combination of being a harvester for 40 years, but also being, I guess, a really like rigorous almost scientist and approaching it from that angle as well. And then also being a businessman and that’s a pretty fierce combination that I would just like to soak up and learn as much as possible. So yeah, I feel like I need to have a GoPro attached to my forehead with a recording device constantly because every day I’m learning so much from him.
Meghan Luck: I have so much respect for the example that he’s setting for how to grow a business responsibly and take care of the place that everything we’re able to share with the world comes from. And it’s all just so connected. And in order to make those connections and create that feedback loop, you have to know as much as he does. So again, just trying to learn as much as possible so I can keep honoring that and continue to build something with him that honors that legacy.
Matt Luck: Alaska’s a really interesting place. Sure, there are families that have been there for years and years and years. And then there’s this huge population of people that found something about Alaska that intrigued them, that drew them there, and in the fishing industry, it’s definitely true. You walk down a dock, you get on one boat and talk, on another boat and talk. Well, there might be a multi-generational operation where the father’s running the boat. The two sons are working, one of their wives is on the boat, but then you’ll meet people like me. That started in Boston, but ended up in Alaska and made a commitment.
Dennis Keohane: We’ve talked a lot about family and fishing. Is there any last comment you want to say about Bristol Bay and working together or the importance of the fishery?
Matt Luck: How Bristol Bay is managed as an example of how you go forward and manage other troubled fisheries in the world, we’d be in a better place with our food production. And there’s no question that globally, there are fisheries that are managed irresponsibly, there’s over harvest, there’s piracy. There’s slavery, none of the elements that have contributed to long-term sustainability in Bristol Bay are in place in a lot of those regions.
And though that’s the challenge is to take the kind of responsible management that happens in places like Bristol Bay and try to integrate that into the fisheries that are challenges and protect the oceans and protect the protein that the ocean supplies with the idea that you’re not concerned about what happens this year or next year. You want to make sure that three generations down the road, 50, 70, 80 years from now, there are still healthy oceans that are producing protein to feed the world.
I wish I was about 20 years younger so I knew I could do this for another 20 years.
Meghan Luck: That’s why I’m here.
Matt Luck: I know.
Conclusion to Rare, Episode 2: Seafood Today and in the Future – Sustainability, Science, and Family
Dennis Keohane: We hope you’ve enjoyed these conversations and that these stories inspire you to rethink the food you eat and the people who are working tirelessly to bring better food to the tables of the country. This is Dennis Keohane for ButcherBox’s Rare Podcast. If you’d like to check out ButcherBox’s best deals and get a box delivered to your door, go to butcherbox.com/podcast.
Tory Fenton: This has been Rare, a ButcherBox Podcast. This week we’d like to thank Matt Luck, Meghan Luck, and Curt Brown for joining us. And to the entire podcast team here at ButcherBox for helping us put this episode together, including Dennis Keohane, Elena Arroyo, Jeri Perez, Diane Garcia, and me, Tory Fenton. If you enjoy these stories, please rate, subscribe and leave us a review. Special thanks to the band Caamp for the use of their song, Send the Fishermen, which can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, and more.
Dennis Keohane: Join us for our next episode where we talk with people who have made risky career moves driven by their passion to change the food space. We chat with a former journalist who moved to France to learn the art of butchery and is now a leading voice for women in the meat industry. And find out what drove a lawyer to shift careers, to make a bigger impact in food by starting a bison ranch in Montana.
Curt Brown: Think one of the scariest moments in my life was the first time I met my in-laws when they drove up from Connecticut was right here, literally. And we were going out to one of the islands there. I was on Peaks Island for dinner.
Dennis Keohane: Oh, nice.
Curt Brown: And my mother-in-law, the first question she asked me. So, what’s the name of your boat? And I told her it’s the FV Lil’ More Tail. My father-in-law was a pretty big dude. So, I looked at him and he kind of looked at me and I knew he was either going to punch me in the face or laugh and luckily he laughed and it was all good from there.