Growing up on the back deck of his family’s commercial fishing boat in Southwest Alaska, Arron Kallenberg ate a lot of wild salmon and halibut and tended his family’s subsistence set net.
His passion for wild-caught seafood dates back three generations, to when his grandfather, Robert C. Kallenberg, moved from New Jersey to Alaska in 1926 and began fishing on a wooden sailboard. Since then, he said, his family has always fished Bristol Bay, home of the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon.
Later in life, his grandfather returned to the East Coast to earn a master’s degree in 1952 from Cornell University, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, NY. His thesis, according to Arron Kallenberg, was on “a study of the red salmon of Bristol Bay with particular reference to teacher its conservation.”
For Arron, berry picking, mushroom hunting, clam digging and a huge family vegetable garden added an abundance of healthy meal options, to the point where it wasn’t until he moved to the “Lower 48” to go to college that he said he became aware of just how hard it was to find “real” food to eat, including sustainably-harvested wild seafood.
An example: when he moved to New York City in 2010, the then-28-year-old Kallenberg took his father and sister out to a fancy Manhattan seafood restaurant whose menu advertised fresh wild Alaskan salmon.
“We were shocked at what they served us,” he recalled. That meal with his dad and sister at the upscale Big Apple restaurant was an eye-opener for the young man, who experienced rampant seafood fraud in many of the nation’s largest cities.
In fact, Kallenberg said, a study by the ocean advocacy group Oceana, which conducted DNA testing on salmon samples from stores and restaurants across the United States showed that 43% of the samples were farmed Atlantic salmon marketed as wild salmon or a totally different species.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that Americans eat at least two servings of fish a week and that seafood should account for roughly one-fifth of all protein consumed, most Americans don’t eat nearly enough fish.
Kallenberg says he’s out to change that by providing affordable wild Alaskan seafood, delivered to families nationwide. The more he learned about the global food system and technology, the more the young software engineer said he saw how he could use the Internet to sustainable-sourced wild-caught seafood.
His concern over a Canadian-based mining corporation’s pursuit of a largest open-pit mine abutting the Bristol Bay watershed prompted him to establish the Wild Alaskan Company in 2017. Today, his company serves as a personal fishmonger to some 250,000 subscribers to their seafood shares service.
Subscribers choose on the company website, wildalaskan.com, from options ranging from coho and sockeye salmon to Pacific cod, halibut, rockfish, Alaska Pollock, spot prawns, weathervane scallops, sablefish, and more, and how often they want delivery. Orders are shipped in recyclable, compostable boxes.
Overall the company employs about 72 people, including several Alaskans.
In May of 2021 the Wild Alaskan Company also filed as a public benefit corporation, an exclusive legal designation for fewer than five thousand businesses nationwide who are committed to the highest social and environmental standards.
In the spring of 2022, the company donated over 95,000 pounds of individually portioned wild caught sockeye and coho salmon valued at over $1.4 million to the Food Bank of Alaska.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Kallenberg said.
Originally, the company was contemplating a much smaller donation, but after hearing one of the company’s board members talk about his personal goal of donating $1 million during his lifetime to a worthy cause, Kallenberg opted for the larger donation, which floored Mike Reusser, chief operating officer for the Food Bank of Alaska.
“Usually we get donations of canned salmon,” said Reusser, who described the donation as “a tremendous value, a real big deal for us.”
Now bracing for the summer of 2022, Kallenberg, who lives in Homer, Alaska, with his wife, Monica, and their young son, sources the fish from over a dozen Alaska sources.
“We prefer to secure once-frozen filets and process those fillets without defrosting into portions,” he explained.
The economic challenges of the current marketplace notwithstanding, the mission of Wild Alaskan Company remains the same.
“We are trying to get Americans to eat their own fish,” Kallenberg said.