Fisherman Mary Ganchoff Smith advocates for sustainable seafood

Mary (Ganchoff) Smith ’94 never imagined that the path less traveled would take her to exactly where she wants to be. As the co-owner and operator of Springline Seafood and publisher of Edible Alaska, Smith has worked hard to educate others on the importance and profitability of sustainable practices in seafood production.

“In some way I came to Northland because of seafood—making sure that treaty rights were upheld and that people could fish. Twenty-five years later I am still working to keep people fishing,” Smith said.

Smith believes the story behind how she discovered Northland College set the tone for her life’s work.

Smith was on campus, speaking in classrooms, making salmon chowder, and giving a community presentations on sustainable fishing and communication. She sold Springline Seafood salmon that she caught and processed in Alaska and donated a portion of sales to student groups. She also donated sales from the chowder dinner.

Smith graduated from high school and worked for Greenpeace 1989-90. During that same period, she volunteered for a treaty rights group advocating for the Anishinabe people to maintain their right to hunt and fish on designated land. During an event in Lac du Flambeau, she encountered Northland College Professor Joe Rose of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“When he started to describe Northland I was intrigued,” Smith recalled. “I couldn’t believe there was actually a college that one could pursue a course of study that included Native American issues and peace studies.”

Smith was sold and enrolled at Northland College the following year, diving head first into political activism and creative writing.

“Northland certainly provided an atmosphere of really progressive thought and action,” Smith said.

During her senior year, Smith spent a month in the Ashland County jail trespassing during a protest against the Navy’s Extremely Low Frequency transmitter site in Clam Lake, Wisconsin. She noted that her professors were accommodating, letting her complete work from her jail cell.

Once Smith graduated, she knew she wanted to use her writing major and passion for political activism to make a difference. However, finding a strong voice out of the gate proved to be harder than she anticipated.

“When I graduated from Northland, I wasn’t sure of how to make a life of activism,” Smith said. “Maybe I was just too young or maybe not quite ready to commit.”

After trying her hand at community farming, Smith began working at Maggie’s Restaurant in Bayfield and the Black Cat Coffeehouse in Ashland where she discovered an issue she could stand behind—consciously sourced food.

“I was part of the opening team at the Black Cat. Before it was popular, [owner] Honore Spickerman really pushed this farm to table restaurant… We would get produce from her brother’s farm,” Smith said.

In 1998, Smith became a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and after working in several restaurants decided to turn in her spatula for advocacy at the source. Smith entered the seafood industry in 2000 as the marketing director for the Plitt Company in Chicago.

“When I started there I fell in love with the seafood industry. It was politically charged, socially charged, and so exotic—people are still really interacting with the wild across the planet,” Smith said. “I started at a time when people in the industry didn’t understand why sustainability mattered.”

She spent the next fifteen years of her life developing and implementing sustainable seafood production practices nationwide. At Northland, Smith held a summer internship at Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission working on mercury and fish consumption issues. She believes the experience helped prepare her to advocate for sustainable practices in fishing when the seafood industry first began talking about seafood and contaminants.

In a male-dominated industry, Smith said she has “never hesitated to get up in front of a group of men and suits and speak (her) mind.”

Today, Smith continues to advocate for sustainable seafood practices, however instead of sitting behind a desk Smith has joined the frontlines on her own troller with the rest of the “fisherman at the bottom of the food production hierarchy.”

“I had a pretty fortuitous route to where I am today, but in retrospect I guess it all fit pretty well,” Smith concluded.

Amber Mullen ’12 is a graduate of Northland College and a freelance journalist. She is the author of this article. 

Related Stories