“Joining Seafood Producers Cooperative was the smartest fishing business decision I’ve ever made.” –Charlie Wilber, Seafood Producers Cooperative member
Charlie originally hails from Omaha, Nebraska and came to fishing after being a smoke jumper out of Fairbanks, Alaska, a job he did during summers while being a student in Missoula, Montana. A week on the water with a friend who was a hand troller in Southeast Alaska got him hooked and led Charlie to believe that fishing was easier than jumping out of a plane into fires. “The fact that I survived it all, all the mishaps and adventures, is miraculous.”
“But I learned the hard way,” Charlie says. More than 40 years in Alaska have taught him that making a living fishing is not as easy as it looks. “There is a steep learning curve. Most everything in fishing takes place below the water and you have to be able to read patterns to make educated guesses about what’s happening below the surface.” Charlie took a leap of faith to make a living while fishing in Alaska. “It was fairly painful for a number of years.” In an article with the Sitka Conservation Society, Charlie recalls: “Someone told me once you aren’t really fishing until you have every penny in it, and you owe money. And then you are seriously fishing because failing really isn’t an option at that stage.”
Once Charlie figured out how to catch more fish, he had to learn how to make a living on the water. “I learned the hard way,” he tells us again. Charlie delivered to all kinds of operations thinking he was getting hot prices. In contrast, “with Seafood Producers Cooperative, I am getting what the fish are truly worth. Through the ups and downs of the market, you consistently get the fairest price as a co-op member and the co-op has always been there to support members, whether it be with gear purchases, ice, processing, vessel insurance, and even college scholarships for members’ families.”
“By the time I’m done with them, I practically have a name for each fish I catch…”
“Since it’s the fishermen’s organization, there is an enormous level of pride that we take in what we do. We are all part owners of Seafood Producers Cooperative and there is a huge emphasis on quality seafood.” SPC’s owner/members run small boats, usually family businesses, and make a living producing artisan quality products. They do not produce mass quantities of fish. Each fish is landed, dressed and iced individually. “By the time I’m done with them, I practically have a name for each fish I catch. What we do requires a deep connection to the ocean and the fish.”
A really good day on a salmon troller will produce roughly 50 king salmon. A day of good coho fishing, a troller boat might catch 100 coho salmon. “And during July with the long days, we start fishing at 3 AM and keep going until 9 0r 10 in the evening, which is more than most normal people can take,” Charlie boasts. So those are long days not catching much fish, but taking the time to clean them properly.
The same level of attention to detail that small boat hook and line fishermen like Charlie put into fishing, SPC’s office puts into taking care of customers. We aren’t making a quality product from scratch. What we are doing is starting off with the highest quality wild protein available on this planet and, using our traditional hook and line fishing methods, preserving that salmon in its ideal state until it makes it to the customer. A salmon troller is fishing on the open ocean where the salmon are in their prime condition. Fishing slow makes it possible to dress and clean each fish with a tremendous amount of care which, when handled correctly at the right temperature, gives the fish a longer shelf life and unparalleled quality. Because each fish caught by our co-op’s members is caught One Fish At A Time, each fish is handled individually with a tremendous amount of attention to detail.
This dedication to quality seafood is consistent across the board. “You can’t deliver bad fish to the co-op,” Charlie says. That same commitment to quality seafood rings true across the entire organization.
Charlie has been fishing since 1979. and has been a Co op owner for most of those years. “Being part of a Co-op has instilled a sense of pride in the way I process the fish we catch. A truly great eating fish is one that is carefully handled from the time it comes on deck to when it is delivered to the consumer.”
When not fishing, my boat is tied up in the harbor a block from our house in Sitka. My wife and I have raised two daughters who have learned the value of hard work coupled with persistence while crewing on the Alexa K. The fish I serve to friends and family receive the same respect and care like those I deliver to Seafood Producers Cooperative. My family is used to the best and you will get to share that same pride with us when you take the first bite!
When the boat is harbored I can be seen working on it to keep it in top shape. When the fish aren’t biting I can be seen walking my dog Fern on the many trails near Sitka in the Tongass National Forest. Besides being a beautiful rainforest the Tongass produces a multitude of salmon that begin and end their life cycle in the abundant streams. The Grizzly bears are also very happy about the many returning salmon.”
*Photo credit and several quotes from an article that originally appeared in the Sitka Conservation Society’s Voices of the Tongass written by Charlie’s daughter Berett. Both of Charlie’s daughters have spent summers fishing on the Alexa K fishing with Charlie.