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Celebrating the special place where we work

Place is an essential element of our Alaska Gold Seafood story. And at 3 points in our Co-op’s 75-year history the special place where we operate has forever altered who we are as a fishermen-owned co-op. To celebrate our 75-year anniversary, we’d like to share those stories of place here:

  1. In 1952, several Co-op fishermen began pioneering fishing spots on the Fairweather Grounds. Fishing at the Grounds opened the Co-op up to some very productive fishing grounds in some of the wildest country on the planet.
  2. The 1964 Good Friday earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed just about everything that the Co-op had in the region, leaving the Co-op in an existential crisis.
  3. The building of our fishermen-owned Sitka plant satisfied our Co-op’s over-riding concern for maintaining a top-qualityproduct from ocean to market.

….

The Fairweather Grounds

In 1952, Toivo Andersen in his boat the Greta, Oscar Vienola in the Anna Marie, and Arthur Vienola in the Belle J pioneered salmon trolling in the Fairweather Grounds. Fairweather Grounds is a misnomer, as the grounds are known for being rich with life but surrounded by deep, unforgiving waters and open ocean. Ferocious winds and choppy waves hit where the continental shelf rises toward the surface of the ocean, creating hazardous conditions for the small fishing vessels that operate there.

To navigate, the original Fairweather fishermen used compasses, fathometers, and radio direction finders that enabled them to take bearings on each other. When their fathometers indicated they were in fifty fathoms, they would find themselves on the edge of the shelf, the most productive waters, and they would let go a halibut anchor with buoy line and flagpole attached so that they could orient themselves and find it again. After discovering how rich the grounds were for fish, these pioneering fishermen would bring a new innovation that had been a “secret weapon” during the final days of World War II, the Loran (Long Range Navigation). Loran required skill and tinkering, but gave these fishermen a better chance of finding their best spots. As it became easier to find the shelf, other boats began following these Fairweather fishermen out to the Fairweather Grounds. All these fishermen risked and continue to risk rough seas in one of the wildest corners on the planet.

On the coast near the Fairweather Grounds, Lituya Bay has been a refuge for salmon and halibut fishermen during storms and it has a fascinating history documented well in one of our late fishermen Francis Caldwell’s Land of the Ocean Mists. Entrance to Lituya Bay can be made provided the tide is flooding and outside swell conditions are not causing the bar to break. Judging the current is key. At high tide the entrance is about 1,000 feet wide, but at low water it is reduced by shallow banks of sand and gravel to 600 feet. If a heavy swell is breaking, the entrance is then reduced to about 150 feet between breakers. The tremendous volume of water that flows into and out of the bay every 6 hours is forced through this narrow entrance, producing, at times, 12-knot currents.

Following a 1958 earthquake that registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, a massive tsunami wave shot water up 1720 feet up a ridge pulling all of massive trees and glacial boulders off the surrounding valley out of the bay, the scars of which are still visible. Three fishing vessels were anchored for the night when this massive wave, the largest wave in recorded history, came crashing upon them. Two boats and their fishermen were lost to sea. Another fishermen, Howard Ulrich on the F/V Edrie, rode out the wave, watching the eerie sight of tree tops snapping below his boat, and his frantic mayday was heard by the fleet in areas surrounding.

1958 Lituya Bay article

For days after the events of the July 9, 1958 earthquake the fishing fleet in the area was demoralized. Many could not shake the melancholy feeling that they could easily have been anchored in the bay at the time of the giant wave. And after considerable meditation, a few fishermen resolved never again to anchor in Lituya Bay. The fact remains, today as in 1958, that if one is going to fish the Fairweather Grounds sooner or later one will be forced into Lituya Bay by a blow. The fisherman is then subject to the mathematical odds that there will be another giant wave.

The Loran with the Fairweather Range in the Background.
The Loran captained by John Murray with the Fairweather Range in the background. The Loran was lost in an accident at sea in 2005. Murray survived and is now the captain of the Seabear.

The Good Friday Disaster

In 1962, the Co-op installed a freezer capable of handling halibut and salmon in Seward, Alaska. Production, prices and ownership numbers were at record highs for the Co-op, but nobody could have foreseen the upcoming disaster. On Good Friday, 1964, an earthquake that measured 8.6 on the Richter scale struck Alaska. The shaking lasted four long, terrible minutes and the epicenter was very near the Co-op plant in Seward. Massive submarine slides started 30 seconds after the quake hit and generated enormous seismic waves. All plant employees had fortunately gone home for supper, but the plant, which stood on a dock overhanging the water, was completely destroyed. Not a board left! Divers, hired to search the wreckage, only found a hole where the plant stood!! The entire Seward waterfront disappeared and the new shoreline was 300 feet inland from its pre-quake tide line.

As an “act of God” disaster, nothing could be recovered from insurance. The plant, however, did have flood insurance on a boiler. The Co-op thought it obvious that that the boiler washed away in a “flood,” but the insurance company had other thoughts. It was ruled that the Co-op wasn’t entitled to a single cent. In addition to a total loss, the Co-op now had to pay considerable attorney fees in their lost suit. One important caveat to being a fishermen-owned business: With ownership comes inherent risk that the fishermen bear, although this risk is borne across a cooperative of owners in our case. In a history of our Co-op published in 1980 by fishermen Francis and Donna Caldwell, The Ebb and The Flood, this chapter ends with a bitter but realistic note that says it all about fishing:

“To lose something, a 50-pound trolling lead today, an anchor tomorrow, once in a while a boat, or even a life, is common in the [fishing] industry. The sea gives, the sea takes away.”

During this time and in subsequent years, there was much discussion of dissolving the Co-op. But the courage of the board of directors at that time to keep the Co-op alive and solvent stands as a keystone in the history of the Co-op.

………….

The Sitka Plant

With the Good Friday Disaster in the backs of their minds, the Co-op’s Board of Directors proceeded with caution to build the fishermen-owned plant in Sitka, with construction beginning in November 1979. At the heart of the Co-op’s decision to forge ahead with the Sitka plant was its overriding concern for maintaining a top-quality product from ocean to market.

Sitka was chosen because of its proximity to salmon trolling grounds like the waters of Cape Edgecumbe and the edge of the continental shelf, waters rich with halibut and sablefish. Big overhead came out of fishermen-owners’ settlements and there was great discussion about how to allocate the costs of building the plant fairly to all owners. Nonetheless, there were 95 Co-op owner resignations in 1981 and 120 in 1983, as the Co-op was losing money to fund the plant. It took extraordinary sacrifice to realize this dream of having a fishermen-owned plant, and those fishermen with the courage to stick with the Co-op helped keep alive a ruggedly independent organization owned by and for fishermen with tremendous pride in the products they produce. This pride is at the core of who we are.

I recently spoke with Lee Krause, Board President at the time that the plant was built, and he noted that it was a busy time with architects and builders coming to Sitka to make the plant a reality. “I was in over my head. All I could tell them was I wanted cold ice. Our main concern in that time was to have our own plant that could take good care of us, where we could get cold ice, so we could produce quality fish.” Lee’s humble statement sums up just about the entire history of our Co-op: service for West Coast fishermen and a relentless commitment to quality.

Seafood Producers Cooperative plant in Sitka, Alaska
The fishermen-owned Seafood Producers Cooperative plant in Sitka, Alaska on a rare sunny say.

On this date in 1944, the legal contract for the formation of our fishermen-owned Co-op was signed. Celebrate with us. Use the following coupon code at checkout for $75 off orders over $300:

AKGoldDiamondAnniversary

Expires May 31st, 2019.

Thank you for being part of our history,

The Producer-owners of Seafood Producers Cooperative, whose products are available for home delivery at AlaskaGoldBrand.com.

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Do you know your fisherman?

Do you know your fisherman?

We’ve got all kinds of fishermen in our fleet. Some are poets, some are mathematicians. We’ve got painters, musicians, rocket scientists. Here’s Mike Rentel who comes from a mechanical engineering background with a minor in math and emphasis on machine design and metallurgy. With an MBA emphasis in finance and entrepreneurship and minors in philosophy and behavioral economics, Mike fishes with a crew that consists of a veterinarian and a cattle rancher, both of whom Mike considers smarter than himself.

Alaska Salmon Fisherman

Mike started fishing summers with his grandpa in high school, trolling out of Ilwaco near the Columbia River. After his grandpa passed away, he finished college, but started up again with a 32-foot pocket-seiner/gillnetter and in a couple of years moved up to leased crabbers and a crew of five doing “deadliest catch” king crabs and tanners in the North Gulf of Alaska in the winter while fishing dungies between Icy Bay and Yakutat in the spring.

Mike met his wife, a geology professor, while she was mapping the sea floor off the coast of Chilean Patagonia and Antarctica. As an engineer keeping all the water, heat and electrical systems running in the remote cold wilderness, she was impressed that Mike could fix just about anything. Being able to fix things on the fly is exactly what it takes to run a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, too.

This spirit of adventure, inherent in all of our fishermen, along with a knack for fixing things helped Mike and his wife win the Spirit of Admiralty sailboat race, the longest inland water sailboat race on the West Coast.

Eventually, Mike “downsized” to the Harmony Isle, a 42-foot Wahl/Seamaster freezer boat. “I specifically chose a freezer-boat because I was committed to producing the best quality seafood possible.”

Alaska Salmon

Mike spends winters in Madison, Wisconsin. As part of our fishermen-owned co-op, Mike is just one of the fishermen owners of our company.

We think what’s special about our Alaska Gold Seafood is that it comes from a fishermen-owned company. What we sell is the fish we catch. It’s not uncommon that the fish sold in many places isn’t what they say it is—the fish passes through many hands before getting to you the customer. Though our fishermen would love to personally deliver fish to you, we think purchasing from our website is almost as good. Fish fraud has been around since before the days when Jesus’s disciples fished the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen being underpaid for their hard work has also been a common practice since biblical times. Which is why fishermen-owned co-ops like ours were formed. As owners of the business, fishermen-owners control their own destinies. We’re quite proud of the work we do. We do it with integrity and transparency. And with a deep pride in our quality.

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Celebrating Fishing Fathers for our Alaska Gold Seafood Father’s Day Sale

Within our fishermen-owned co-op, fishing and family go hand in hand. Many of our fishermen grew up fishing with mom and dad, learning the trade, and have passed on the fishing bug to their children. Many of our fishermen come from multiple generations of fishing with the co-op—the Eliasons, the Miller Family, Charlie Wilber and his daughters, Charlie Piercy and his son Abel, and the list goes on.

Raising children on fishing boats is no small endeavor. Recently, Norm Pillen shared a photo memory of fishing with his daughters, and I caught up with him to get the details behind the picture.

“This was my last summer salmon trolling on the Katie J in 2000” Norm told me. Norm has since moved on to operating a tender boat, the Sea Lion, during salmon season. “I was hoping to focus more on family time, but it ended up being a really big salmon season, which made it more challenging. My wife and I took time when we could to walk on the beach, whale watch, and appreciate nature with our daughters, but I heard my coding partners talking about really high scores of fish, and then we’d go chase the fish.” (Before cell phones, fishermen friends or “coding partners” used to communicate on radio using a preset code to disguise fishing reports from others listening in on the radio.)

“Unfortunately, both of my daughters LeAnne and Marissa inherited their mom’s inclination toward seasickness, and they went through a lot, and I would feel guilty when they got sick, but it was hard to tame my competitive edge to catch more fish. It tore at my heart. But that summer we had a really nice balance of fishing hard and playing hard with the family. There was a time we pulled in to Gut Bay, just hoping to have  a quiet evening to relax, but we ran into schools of salmon, and we did everything we could to work as fast as possible to make it look like we weren’t catching fish, and it worked for a while, but then we couldn’t hide it any longer, and half the fleet joined us in the bay.”

fathers day sale
Norm with daughters LeAnne and Marissa on the Katie J.

“Both of the girls have since worked with me on the Sea Lion,” Norm mentions, referring to his current salmon tendering operation, and how his daughters have kept up the fishing tradition. Marissa’s a mom and LeAnne’s studying to be a nurse now, but “fishing is still important, especially to LeAnne, who out-fished me trout fishing on a day off a week or so ago—she almost always gets the first fish. LeAnne took after her dad,” Norm notes proudly. “There was a time when we were anchored in Mite Cove. One of our fleet mates said there were no halibut in the cove that year, and what does LeAnne do but pull out a 106-pound halibut within a few minutes of fishing. That is so like her.”

“That summer I remember so many days of fishing hard, long days, and taking breaks to make sandwiches for the kids. We had a 12-volt TV that you can see in that picture and the only tape we had was Bugs Bunny, which they watched over and over when mom and dad were fishing. This was before cell phones and tablets. But they learned a lot of important lessons on the boat. Firstly, how to follow directions. They learned to always wear their life jackets and to always hold on to the rails of the boat with one hand. They learned to appreciate nature and the value of hard work. We had a lot of adventures and good family times on the boat that summer, but driving the Alcan Highway back home to Washington state, the engine blew up and we spent a week in the middle of nowhere waiting to get back on the road. It was a great family summer. It was a summer of adventures. They were young, but I think our daughters took good memories and lessons from those experiences.”

We hope this summer that you our customers celebrate dads, moms, and good family times with our Alaska Gold Seafood. Here’s a dish Norm recommends for the summer—halibut shish kebabs. Soaked in teriyaki sauce, with peppers, pineapple chunks, onions, put on the grill for a few minutes, let cool and they will melt in your mouth. Check out our Father’s Day Sale here.

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What’s so special about Alaska Gold Salmon? Wild Alaskan salmon is truly a gift

Whole Wild Coho Salmon and Fillet

If you’re going to do something, you have to set your internal compass toward excellence and go for it, because nothing else matters.

I recently ate a home pack of our Alaska Gold Salmon and, as I often do afterwards, thought to myself, “Wow! This is really good stuff!”

It made me think about just how special our Alaska Gold salmon really are. It took only a bit of research to discover that…

Of the total world salmon supply sold for food, only around 12% of it is wild Alaskan. (A huge portion of the remainder is Atlantic aka farmed salmon.)

Of all the wild Alaska salmon, only about 1.5% of that is caught by the traditional hook and line methods like we use.

Of the line-caught Alaskan king salmon and coho salmon out there, 30% is from our fishermen-owned cooperative, which has been known for its fastidious attention to quality and integrity for over 70 years.

So, the salmon we catch is the best 1/20th of 1% in the world! 1/20th of 1%= 1 pound out of a ton. Which means that our Alaska Gold salmon is the best of the best of the best!

Alaska Gold salmon is caught by members of Seafood Producers Cooperative, a fishermen-owned co-op based in Sitka, Alaska. We have immense pride in serving our customers the finest king salmon and coho salmon available.

Rich and buttery, our wild king salmon portions are our most popular offering. Available in boxes of 6-portion, 5-pound and 10-pound boxes. Fill your freezer or get a group of friends to have our discounted 20-pound box of  king salmon portions delivered to your home. We also have ivory (white) king salmon , in addition to our absolutely delicious canned Southeast Alaska Line-Caught Ivory King Salmon.

More than any fish we catch coho salmon is arguably the heart and soul of our region and our fishermen-owned co-op. Each summer coho salmon return to the thousands of tiny creeks that stream through the ancient trees of the Tongass Rain Forest, which makes up a good part of southeast Alaska. You can watch them jump up waterfalls, giving it their all, with the aim of returning to a little pool to spawn. Our fishermen catch each wild coho salmon One Hook One Fish At A Time on the ocean at their peak, then dress and ice each salmon to keep them in perfect condition until they reach our customers. Available in boxes of 6 portions, 5 pounds and 10 pounds, we also have fill-your-freezer larger, discounted boxes of bulk coho salmon portions, too.

“You don’t grow old eating Alaska Gold.” The nutrients in salmon are many and it’s no wonder we can fish through the long 16-hour days of the salmon season. Wild Alaskan Salmon is truly a gift. Each year they keep coming back to take care of us and keep us nourished through the winter.

As a fishermen-owned co-op, we’ve been part of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest for a long time and we look forward to delivering you the highest quality seafood.

Click on this photo to see the story of our line-caught wild Alaskan salmon.

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Paul’s Chowder Recipe with Easy Salmon and Halibut

Easy Salmon Chowder
The boat sways too much to get a picture like this, so here’s what the chowder looks like in a studio setting.

Dear Alaska Gold Customer,

Many of you we’ve never spoken a word to. With others, you call in, tell us about your families, your dinners, your recipes, your pets, your favorite musicians, the weather where you live, and many other things. We know some of you pretty well. To some of you, we’re like the local fish monger, who you go chat with while buying fish although, in most cases, we’re far away.

Megan and I will even occasionally have customers on the phone ask us if we’re fishermen, too. The short answer is no. We’re too busy fielding calls, answering emails, making sure fish gets to the right place. We work for the fishermen.

However, I spent some time this summer on a trolling boat with one of our fishermen/owners, Carter Hughes, who fishes on the 36-foot F/V Astrolabe. I did my best as a deckhand, learning the tricks of the trade, seeing the fishing life up close and personal. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Over the next few months, I’ll share some stories from my journal that details my days out trolling for salmon.

Today, since there’s snow on the ground, I wanted to share a story from my journal about a delicious chowder I had out to sea that warmed my heart. Paul’s Chowder.

July 24th

We pass Cape Amelia and Sea Lion Rocks, watching sea lions hauling out on the prehistoric-looking coast.

Baranof Island is 90 miles long and Kruzof maybe 25 miles. Kruzof looks so tiny on a map, but it takes hours to make our way to Salisbury Sound, which separates Kruzof from Chichagof Island.

Chichagof and Baranof are two of the ABC islands (Admiralty being the third) the most densely populated areas for coastal brown bears on the planet. Kruzof, though smaller and uninhabited–a few logging roads and forest service cabins here and there—also has plenty of brown bear. It’s a wild coast where the rare Alaskan surfer or hunter might tread a path through the dense wilderness in pursuit of adventure.

“It looks small on a map because Alaska is so huge,” Carter nudges me into an epiphany that repeats itself every time I’m up in the 49th state. Big Country.

By 1:30, we can see the Khaz Peninsula in sight of a cove in which Carter is planning to anchor.

At the helm of a salmon fishing boat
Carter at the helm

A little before 6, Carter aims the auto-pilot to tack toward the tiny islands surrounding the Khaz Peninsula and Khaz Head, an imposing peak that looks down at us. We continue trolling while Carter cooks dinner, a halibut/salmon chowder, the recipe for which came from Paul Olson, who fishes on the F/V Pacific Flyer, and is an environmental lawyer when he’s not out trolling. In our co-op, fishermen bring a whole range of backgrounds—there are lots of schoolteachers, a few former investment bankers, even a retired astronaut. Carpenters, chemists, poets, lifers (those who represent multiple generations in the fishing business). We have a few fishermen/owners who hail from New York City who gave up that fast-paced life of riches for the rich life of Sitka Sound. A few decades ago, a Swiss banker turned author and his world-touring concert pianist spouse made their way to Sitka to live this unique lifestyle, too–their children continue the fishing tradition.

Looking out at Slocum Arm and Khaz Peak on Chichagof Island.

Fishing is still one of those last refuges where you can be about as close as possible, at least in 2017, to a free and wild existence that truly demands just about everything. Those who seek it out are truly hardy souls, but they’re rewarded with the sights of some beautiful country and working in a profession that means something at the end of the day. We feed people. Which is sacred.

We pull the gear before 8. Fairly slow fishing with no feed in the water that we can see. We were struggling to get out of a dead zone that seemed to be following us. We felt better once we stopped, knowing that tomorrow would be another day.

I’ve been blessed with good weather on this trip, but a slight drizzle mixed with the wind chills my bones.

Paul’s chowder is the perfect tonic to warm me up and I wolf it down. Carter shows me his journal where he had scrawled the recipe.

 

Ingredients:

Halibut (one 8-oz portion)

Bacon (two or three strips)

Easy Salmon—one 1-pound package (Our Easy Salmon can be used in combination or in lieu of the bacon)

1/2 onion, diced

4-6 red potatoes, diced

2 Carrots, diced

4 cups Chicken broth

1 cup cream (milk or half & half will be too thin)

1 Celery stock, diced

Fresh Tarragon

Thyme

Dill

Black Pepper

Instructions:

Cook bacon pieces separately. Heat 1 to 2 cups chicken broth. At same time saute veggies in olive oil. Add bacon to chicken broth and mix in some thyme, tarragon and dill. When veggies are 2/3 done, add to chicken broth and spike again with chopped seasonings. When veggies are fully cooked spike again with chopped seasonings and add Easy Salmon and halibut. When fish is cooked add cream and simmer for 15 minutes (don’t boil cream!).

Carter is quite a cook and I look forward to sharing more galley recipes and fishing stories from the F/V Astrolabe over the next few months.

Stay warm and stay in touch,

KendallSeafood Chowder Recipe

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The Fishermen’s Share: How the $1 per pound a fisherman gets becomes $10 for the customer and why that matters

Quality seafood
Charlie Wilber shows us a true dedication to quality seafood catching fish with traditional hook and line methods. Photo credit: Berett Wilber

There are plenty of “celebrity chefs,” but there aren’t many “celebrity producers.” The absence of “celebrity producers” comes from the fact that being a producer of raw ingredients isn’t an attention-seeking profession, even though producers are more than deserving of recognition.

Producers feed us. For many of us, food is sacred. It’s what we put in our bodies and gives us life. In the case of Seafood Producers Cooperative, our producers risk their lives to bring a pure, wild, minimally processed protein. When we ship fish to you, the ingredients list reads simply “wild salmon” or “halibut.” The people behind this food work hard, each bringing their unique style and background to their craft, and put their lives on the line to feed people, yet their share of the profit is modest. Which is why Wendell Berry so rightfully asks, “How can we assume that the world can be fed by an agriculture that continues to assign the greatest risks, the lowest income, and no regard at all to the primary producers?”

When you buy fish, your dollar is traditionally shared between four entities: 1) a fisherman, 2) a processor, 3) a wholesaler, and 4) a retailer all touch a fish before it ends up in your hands. For each dollar that you spend on fish, each of these entities takes a cut. And there’s a reason each takes a cut, because they do indeed all work hard to complete the transaction.

In general, fishermen produce a whole fish. In the case of salmon, the fisherman might deliver it head-on and gutted, headed and gutted, or in the round (all of the fish), depending on catch and freezing method. Nevertheless, sacrifices are made depending on the circumstances and how much time and space a crew has to properly process a fish on a pitching boat and whether that boat is equipped with a freezer. For this reason, there are processors who typically receive the fish, cut it accordingly into portions or filets, can, smoke, and/or freeze it, box it, and many times ship it to a wholesaler, who most likely specializes in transportation logistics, and has a customer list of fish markets, supermarkets, restaurants and even online marketplaces that fits their mode of transportation.

Amy Grondin with coho salmon
Amy Grondin with a line-caught coho salmon. Amy spends her off season going to sustainable food conferences working with organizations like Chef’s Collaborative.

What the wholesaler has that nobody else has, and is really the key to food sales in a country with over 300 million people, is the ability to distribute that fish efficiently.

This retailer that the wholesaler sells to has access to you the end consumer on your turf. You might be walking through the store picking up eggs and veggies and happen upon the fish case and decide to make fish for dinner or you might be avidly shopping online comparing salmon prices, or at the farmer’s market.

During these four steps, a portion of that dollar is taken by each of these four entities.

A question people rightfully ask is how much of that dollar goes to the fisherman himself? Certainly, many fishermen think it unfair that they deliver a fish to a processor for let’s say $1.00 per pound, and then the fisherman sees that same fish in the store or Pike’s Place Market being sold for $10.00 per pound. This 10 to 1 ratio is a hypothetical situation, but is not too far from what we see in reality.

While fishermen’s harvesting methods have become more efficient over time, the fishermen’s share of your dollar has declined over time, a fact known by fishermen all too well. In bad years, many fishermen revolt, try to form their own companies, many of which fail, because frequently those 3 other steps to find the people buying the fish and how to get the fish to them are more challenging than we realize. This same plight applies to farmers, syrup harvesters, ranchers, and any other direct producer of food products.

It is conceivable that steps two to four can be skipped when you go direct to the dock and buy an unprocessed fish, or a fish that the fisherman might cut up special for you right there. The fisherman might expect to see all of that $10.00 in such a scenario. However, most people don’t sit on a dock and wait for fishermen to show up. And somebody with enough time on their hands to stalk the docks might expect a significant discount over what they’d pay in the store.

Or a fisherman might go to the farmer’s market, spending time they could be fishing, to gab with people, and sell fish. This puts a face on the product, but the fishermen’s boat hold might fill up with more fish than can be sold, so the farmer’s market might not be the most efficient model—what does the fisherman do with what he doesn’t sell? How does she keep the fish at a proper temperature throughout the process? That fisherman then still needs to get involved in processing, cold storage, and transportation, at least at a small scale, and then come all of the risks entailed, too.

There are some companies that control all four steps to the consumer or creatively condense these steps. Almost always, the biggest hurdle is transportation. People at home always forget about this part, and certainly underestimate the costs and hard work involved in safely transporting a perishable product. The truckers, couriers, dock loaders and cold storage operators are also unsung heroes in the food industry.

The word “local” is now ingrained into the educated food shopper’s mind, but even if the product comes from ten miles away, there is a transportation cost and temperature control to think about. In actuality, many times these small local orders suffer greatly with regard to economies of scale in terms of distribution. It becomes more cost effective to ship 1000 pounds of apples from Washington state to New York City than 100 pounds of apples from rural counties in Washington state to Seattle. Measured by the pound, the former transaction can counter-intuitively have less impact on the environment. In addition, local’s nice but it’s also nice to have orange juice, for example, in the middle of winter in Ohio. The same goes for many other products. As far as we know, they don’t grow coffee in Ohio. Or salmon. Why not source wild salmon from 4000 miles away from a state that has sustainable seafood written into the constitution when it can be brought with some efficiency?

Another aspect forgotten in the transaction is processing. If a fish is portioned with bones, viscera, fins, and other non-desirable parts removed, 40 cents of that fishermen’s dollar per pound gets removed, and that’s before the processor is paid. These extra parts might feed a sea lion, a mink farm (lots of these by fish processors), or pet food for pennies on the pound. Not to mention the labor involved with portioning—most is still done by hand and requires expertise. Joe on his first day on the job is not going to be nearly as good as Mary, who has been cutting fish her whole life. Then there’s packaging, labeling, all the jumping through hoops required by regulatory agencies—important hoops so that consumers know what they’re getting, even in an age when much seafood in stores, even more in restaurants, comes mislabeled.

When you start penciling out transportation and processing costs, you can quickly see how that dollar per pound to the fisherman can quickly become ten dollars.  Another aspect quickly forgotten, but that the retailer must keep constant vigilance over, is spoilage. If the retailer is working with “fresh never frozen” fish, there might be 30% of it that doesn’t get sold or has to be sold for a big discount. This spoilage factors greatly into that end retailer’s price.

The other way around this spoilage problem is freezing the fish. We wish more end consumers would realize that in many cases the frozen fish is superior to the “fresh never frozen” fish. Given freezing technologies and good vigilance, that frozen fish can be kept for quite some time. Also, it literally kills fishermen to walk by a seafood case in the supermarket and watch (and smell) fish dying. Smart consumers are seeing that the fish in the frozen case can be many times “fresher” than what’s in the “fresh” case. There’s no hard and fast rule—a fish’s quality is going to depend on a number of factors. Firstly, you have to start with a good fish. Catch methods, boat sanitation, processing methods, freezing methods, temperature control, all play an important role in the quality of the fish. There are frozen fish that have been out of the water for three years that are much better than most of what you get in a “fresh” case at the supermarket.

So back to the dollar per pound that the fishermen earns. That’s gross revenue. What about the $40 a salmon troller spends on a 50-pound cannonball lead weight for each of his lines? The leader? Trolling wire? Bait? Fuel? Paint for the boat each season? Engine maintenance? Permits? Quota? Association fees? That one dollar quickly becomes a few dimes at best. Winter jobs are necessary for the budding fisherman to make due. Fortunately, our trollers have winter kings to chase, but it’s a brutal slog through 30-knot winds, cold rain and snow.

At sea, the only absolute is uncertainty. On land, the office people deal in absolutes. Everything is more black and white. Office people sell fish for more than what they bought it at. A figure can be penciled at what price per pound will pay the employees doing the books, and keeping track of orders and maybe just maybe make the company money. In our case, as a co-op, the profit goes to the fishermen who own and democratically run the co-op. Which also puts risk into the picture for these owners. So, our business on one end is absolute and on the other it’s uncertain. What’s really certain is that we work in an industry that is absolutely uncertain—the food industry in general or any other industry that depends on nature is precarious, wild and exciting, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a producer-owned co-op our mission is making sure that quality-oriented fishermen get the best return for their hard work. By supporting the small boat fishing community we also create a market to ensure that fish caught the right way, sustainably harvested fish, finds its way to people’s homes.

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Stephen Lawrie: On Fishing and Art

halibut painting
Processing Alaskan halibut, “part of a series about how we use the other creatures of this planet to survive.”

“I’ve combined fishing and art for over 40 years. Some years, the painting is better than the fishing and other years the fishing is better than the painting, but in the end, fishing has been a way for me to support my art,” says Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC) member Stephen Lawrie.

Stephen Lawrie Alaska Fisherman
Stephen Lawrie

Stephen ended up fishing “by chance.” He was drawn to Alaska for the adventure and worked as a laborer but saw people that were making money fishing. 40 years ago, he bought a hand troller and started trolling by hand. Like most of our SPC members, who start very small with the hand trolling boats, Stephen slowly made the progression to a bigger power trolling boat. (Rather than “reel in” the salmon—along with the 40-pound cannonball weights—with hydraulic-powered lines, hand trollers use their arm strength. Needless to say, hand trollers get big biceps, but fatigue after a summer of hauling in big king salmon and feisty coho salmon, and the progression to power trolling becomes a necessity for most.)

Fishing has been a way for Stephen to support his art because he mainly fishes during the summer season. A lot of our SPC members also fish for king salmon during the winter and spring seasons, but being mainly a summer salmon fisherman has given Stephen time to paint and perform art installations. Fishing has never been a focus for Stephen’s art. But a lot of his work encompasses portraits, and Sitka fishermen are featured in that work, along with the other faces of Sitka, a fishing town and home of SPC.

As is the case with many other SPC members, the ideas of fishing and being co-op members become multi-generational. His eldest son also fishes for salmon and is an SPC owner/member, just like his youngest son and son-in-law. “The kids started off fooling around on the boat. Then they become deck hands. They become teenagers and just don’t like working on the boat. Then they go off and buy boats and live the fishing life. Now, they’re real go-getters and catch a lot more fish than me.”

When Stephen started, he began from scratch. Recalling his early days, with a few other SPC members who were also just beginning to learn the trade, he says, “We knew nothing. We didn’t even know how to set our own gear. I lost 3 skiffs in a single summer because I didn’t know how to attach the thing to my boat. If we caught 18 salmon in a day, we were over the moon.” He recalls another old time SPC member with more experience, Toivo Andersen, whose son Alan is now an SPC board member, towing a buddy’s boat all over Southeast Alaska one summer because it constantly broke down and required rescuing.

Truly, trolling for salmon is a way that a number of artist/bohemians get started fishing for a living in Southeast Alaska, and there is a steep learning curve filled with adventure and just getting by on a shoestring.

Like several other SPC members, Stephen came to Alaska from New Zealand. There seems to be an Alaska-New Zealand connection and, in particular, a Tlingit-Maori association. Maoris are the natives of New Zealand and Tlingits are a group of indigenous people from what is now Southeast Alaska (and the numerous islands of the archipelago that both makes up and neighbors Southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia).

Stephen’s most recent installation highlights the cooperation between the Alaska natives and the Maori. This piece, “Resurrection Koru,” has as its theme the forest fires of the Mat-Su Valley in Alaska. The Koru, a Maori symbol, is a fiddlehead (the unfurled fronds of a fern that appear early in spring in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the more temperate parts of New Zealand). For the Maori, the Koru means unity, strength, regrowth (like an unfurling frond), and inner spiritual strength. Pipes, in multiple colors, representing the various stages of a forest fire, curl into a Koru, which symbolizes the solidarity between the natives of both Alaska and New Zealand.

The Pacific peoples arrived on the Northwest Coast by double-hulled canoe, navigating by the stars, flight of migratory birds and seasonal winds and ocean currents. It is told that 3 Maori followed the powerful trade winds northward and found themselves for 3 years with the Nuu-cha-nulth on the Pacific Northwest coast waiting for the winds to reverse. They were sent off with 3 Nuu-cha-nulth wives forming a bond that still exists to this day.  8000 miles apart, at polar extremes of the planet, they maintain a close friendship to participate in each others’ ceremonies. The sea is the connection between the Maori and Alaskan natives—their genealogies are linked to the mountains, rivers and land formations. Both are geographically isolated with more abundant food supply, that allowed them a more permanent settlements. Both of their histories are carved in wood in similar ways. Stephen links these two rich cultures, illustrating that what unites us is stronger than the distance between us.

As a Kiwi, Stephen makes a striking observation about Alaska seafood in comparison to commercial fishing in other international places. “When I go to other countries, it always strikes me how Alaska does a really good job managing fisheries. Alaska Fish and Game deserves some serious kudos. The scientists and fisheries managers that they hire are very conscientious. They carry out their research very seriously and strictly apply science-based rules that fishermen follow without question. As fishermen, we like to complain sometimes, but they really get it right in terms of managing the fisheries for the future.” What’s also special about the Seafood Producers Cooperative fleet and trollers in general, Stephen says, is that “we play by the same rules…we respect what we have because we also want it managed for the future.”

Southeast Alaska
Courtesy Sitka Greater Arts Council.

 

 

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How Food Producer Co-ops Save the World

Alaska Seafood
Ryan Wilson on the Roshell.

Seafood Producers Cooperative is, as our name suggests, a producers co-op. Which means that we’re owned and operated by fishermen. As owners, the fishermen are our shareholders. They call the shots. They vote on board members. (We have a board of directors made up of 12 fishermen/members democratically elected by their fellow co-op members.) They’re not at the whims of absentee shareholders. It’s the fishermen’s organization! As owners, fishermen also take a tremendous amount of pride in the fish they catch and how it gets to our customers. When you ask a fisherman what they like about being a fisherman, most will tell you that they like being their own boss. As owners of the co-op, they are the boss of a larger organization. That’s pretty powerful…

We all want artisan quality food grown on a small scale, handled with personal attention from the pasture, field or ocean to our plate.

Great producers spend their time in the field, not by the phone, reaching out to new distributors. Great producers, who understand their craft, all the fine details that go into making a perfect peach, for example, can sometimes make great business-people. It happens but it’s so rare that a farmer can maintain focus on all the disciplines involved in being both a businessperson and a food producer. It’s difficult to achieve a connection with the land or ocean when you’re in an office and vice versa.

When there is success with the business side of things, outside interests get involved. An investor reaps the benefits from a cash-strapped producer who needed a loan to make the big push toward notoriety.

When a fisherman tries to sell fish on his own, he faces three problems: Who does he get to process and package his fish? How does he get enough volume to scale so that his potential customers can rely on him always having enough to sell? How can he get enough money to solve the first two problems?

This is where a fishermen’s co-op steps in. A co-op allows a fisherman to do what he does best—catch fish. A co-op can invest in processing and packaging facilities. A co-op can achieve enough scale so that larger customers don’t run dry. A co-op provides a safety net by allowing members to pool together and get things like vessel insurance or big savings on gear purchases.

Co-ops have a unique way of doing business that offer fishermen the best of both worlds, giving them the opportunity to work independently, the way fishermen work best, but while also providing a space for them to pull resources together to achieve a bigger goal.

Producers co-ops make it possible for artisan quality food producers to reach a larger audience. Small scale producers band together, share the burdens of investment in a plant, transportation, marketing, or whatever it is they need to help their product reach an audience large enough so that they can continue their craft. If the co-op has a good year, the profits go to the producers, not to an outside investor or shareholder. In the case of Seafood Producers Cooperative, some 590 small boat hook and line fishermen own the business. They invested in a plant in Sitka that processes and packs their fish, preparing them and keeping them fresh for journeys half way around half the world or just down the street to Ludvig’s Bistro, one of the finest restaurants on the West Coast.

As owners, the fishermen receive the benefit of ownership. Their product reaches a wider market than if they were working on their own. The fishermen have democratic control of the cooperative, voting on key decisions and investments made by the co-op. The fishermen use processing facilities that they own.On the sugar with a fresh king salmon

Certainly, a number of these fishermen sell directly to a store or restaurant in the town where they winter. They might take the effort to pack some boxes with dry ice and express mail the fish to friends and family or contacts around the country that they’ve gained over years of fishing. Some are very good at selling, delivering to the co-op the fish that they catch that they won’t be able to sell on their own, but still making use of the co-op’s amenities—showers, ice, processing, reduced prices on gear (co-op thinking again here). Another benefit, loan accounts help manage the manic financial ups and downs of the fisherman’s wild year: from 18 hours a day in the summer to the quieter days in winter of maintaining the boat and all the unexpected expenses involved with keeping the boat squeaky clean and operational. A common refrain from fishermen: “Some years we don’t break even until September.”

 

At the end of the day, the reason we have members who enthusiastically join the co-op is that their fish reaches a larger market than it would if they were working on their own. They get the fairest price for their hard work.

3K4A4428Certainly, many producer co-ops have folded. As it is for any other businesses, failure happens when they lose sight of their mission or do not evolve to fit the times. Another common mistake is to rely too heavily on one stakeholder to make the decisions. In the case of Seafood Producers Cooperative, our Board of Trustees is made up of twelve fishermen. They are advised by our President, a food industry veteran who has worked with well-known food brands, and our Controller, who understands all the vicissitudes of co-op financing because he has lived co-op accounting for many years. Together, they balance interests, both from a fishing and a business perspective, to create a vision and set a strategy to carry out that vision.

Considering that we have 590 fishermen owners, we are pretty lean. Our office staffs only 10 of us. Depending on the season, two or three write up fish tickets, another handles loan accounts and payables, one works to provide vessel insurance and HR, two do most of the selling, and there’s a marketing manager in charge of  getting the message out.

By staying lean, we are remarkably focused on our mission. Everybody in the office is loyal to the fishermen, the co-op, and the fish—“It’s the best there is,” you’ll hear from any of us in the office.

 

king salmon
Delivering to the co-op a fresh load of spring king salmon.

Much has been made of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) for fostering that direct connection between farmers and fishermen who fish in sustainable ways with consumers who appreciate quality. And rightfully so. But another way to support the producers that make high quality food is to look for producers co-ops and buy directly from them. Other examples of nationwide producers cooperatives who set the bar for quality while supporting the producer are Organic Valley (aka Cropp Cooperative), Land O’ Lakes and Tillamook Cheese.  There are also a number of small scale dairy and meat producers who benefit by being owners of regional or national cooperatives that help get their products to a wider audience more efficiently.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We do everything we can to provide consistent quality to our customers because it’s our company. When you order from our web retail store (www.AlaskaGoldBrand.com), the fish you receive is caught by hardworking Americans earning a living wage. Owned by fishermen, we are 590 small family-run American businesses in one. As a cooperative made up of quality-oriented fishermen that’s been around for over 70 years, our customers know we’re in it for the long haul. Quality is what we hang our hats on and that has kept us here through thick and thin.

When you ask them what they most like about being a fishermen, most say they enjoy the freedom to be your own boss. A co-op lets the fisherman be the boss on their boats and collectively run an organization bigger than they are on their own. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

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Alaska Seafood Made In the USA by American Fishermen

Alaska fishermen
The Eliason Family.

Our Alaska seafood is caught in the waters off Southeast Alaska by the hard-working fishermen that make up Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC).

Line-caught salmon
Amy Grondin of the F/V Duna with a line-caught coho salmon

Fresh king salmon
On the Sugar with a fresh king salmon

Since 1944, SPC has served families of American fishermen who deliver sustainably harvested Alaska seafood to our customers.

Our American heritage gives us our values: hard work, pride in craftsmanship, reliability, integrity, fairness, concern for community and democratic member control. (As a fishermen-owned co-op, all fishermen vote on fishermen board members who make critical decisions.)

fishermen cropped

Just over 600 fishermen own our cooperative. 397 call Alaska home. 216 have mailing addresses in Sitka. Another 100 winter in Washington state. Other members live in states as diverse as Texas, Vermont and Florida, but fish in Alaska, a state with sustainable seafood written right into the constitution. What unites us is our relentless commitment to quality, dedication to our customers, and an unparalleled pride in workmanship. This is our unique American heritage and what makes our Alaska seafood so special.

Crew members. It's important to stay upbeat to work hard all day.
Crew members. It’s important to stay upbeat to work hard all day.

Alaska Eagle

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Living the Dream–A Fishing Family’s Lifestyle

Alaska Fishermen
Jay and Becky Haun, a fishing couple

Like any story worth telling, it started with a dream.

A $2500 investment and then they were off to go fishing. They were 21 years old, in love, and studying at Western Washington University to become teachers. They’d only known each other for 10 months when they got married.

Kind advice led Jay and Becky Haun to become members of Seafood Producers Cooperative in 1974. Integrity, pride, and the 7 cooperative principles were what guided them, though they didn’t know much about fishermen’s cooperatives when they joined. “There was a certain honesty and humility among co-op members that we appreciated. Others told us that we’d get the fairest price for our fish as cooperative members, so we joined,” Becky tells us. Members until 2011, Jay served as a board member in one way or another with Seafood Producers Cooperative for 24 years (1987-2011). That is true commitment!

What was essential to sticking with the cooperative during those 37 years was a sense of belonging. Co-op members look out for each other, which is important when working on the rough waters around Southeast Alaska.

They might not have had a lot of money during some of the tough years, but they considered themselves rich. They had each other. They were working hard and were satisfied. They raised 2 kids—Ryan and Carie—on the boat.

How does one raise children on a 42-foot boat, you might ask. “You tie them to a line with a carabineer,” Becky tells us. “The kids wore a sailing harness. One end of the rope was attached to the harness that went over the kid’s shoulders and under their crotch. On the back there was a carabineer that hooked to the harness and the other end of that line was tied off on the boom of the boat. They could fall in but only their feet would get wet and we could easily yank them back in. We were on the HELEN HINTON [their boat]  when the kids were babies and I can still feel that hollow freaky feeling when I could not see them on the boat. The boat was only 42 feet and looked like a cruiser with lots of windows, so losing sight of one of them was almost impossible. But it happened and of course I panicked. And yet, they never went out of the cabin onto the back deck or float without a life jacket. That became second nature to them. We also gave them swimming lessons at a very early age. We were flexible and made adjustments. We learned a lot together. We learned how to be a family.”

Alaska Fishermen
Big fish, white beard. Jay Haun with a king salmon.

From about fourth grade on, Becky’s dream was to be a teacher. But she hitched her dreams onto Jay’s and followed his dream to be a fisherman. “And history became mine. And people couldn’t believe how strong it made me or how the fishing life became a part of my identity.”

And indeed she has lived that dream. Some people dream of sailing through the Inside Passage just once. Becky has done that close to 80 times. Each year, back and forth, for the nearly 40 years she spent fishing in Alaska with her husband Jay. At first on the HELEN HINTON, but later on the sturdier Cinnabar, now owned by 3-generation co-op member Jaycen Andersen.

As it is for other writers, writing about her life is what helped Becky to make sense of it all.

“Last night at the P-Bar” is a story about missing the girlfriends she had who had a life for themselves on shore. The P-Bar is the fishermen’s bar in Sitka, and an evening there with her girlfriends reminded Becky that her life was on the boat. Fishing. With her husband.

Becky’s story, “A Life is a Promise” is haunting. About a near-death experience near Point Gardner, a treacherous spot on the Inside Passage where the Chatham Strait meets Frederik Sound and small fishing boats are at the mercy of the whim of the wind, tide and currents. Timing is of the essence and a ferocious howling wind could brew up in the snap of some fingers. She was 32 years old, had been married for 11 years and her first thoughts were with her children and then her husband. It was at that moment that she made a deal with God. She would give her life to God in exchange for the lives of her husband and children. When the Hauns made it out of that jam, with the help of another fisherman, Becky kept that promise. She gave her life to God.

Alaska Fishermen
Becky Haun

In 2000, Becky was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which meant that she and Jay would fish less and less. There was too great a risk of her falling off the boat. As awful as it sounds, though, Parkinson’s “was a blessing in disguise. It gave me a sense of purpose. The miracle is it gave my life back. Now I’m able to focus on what matters. On the relationships I have. I’m able to look back at a life that has been a dream.”

Seafood Producers Cooperative helps fishermen live their dreams. We process the fish of small boat family fishermen and then market that fish for sale on the AlaskaGoldBrand.com website where you can find premium-quality seafood, caught by hard-working American families.

To hear Jay’s wonderful voice introduce Seafood Producers Cooperative, watch the video below.

Living the Dream, A Fishing Family’s Lifestyle, is the story of Jay and Becky Haun and their life fishing together as Seafood Producers Cooperative members. Becky is working on putting her stories together to publish a book on living the fishing lifestyle as a woman and what it’s like to raise kids on a boat.