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The Formation of our Fishermen-owned Co-op

On May 12th, 1944 the legal contract for the formation of our fishermen-owned co-op was signed. This May we’re going to celebrate our diamond anniversary by giving you our customers $75 off orders of $300 or more.

During this month, we’ll share with you the history of our co-op in several stories, starting today with the story of how West Coast fishermen would band together to form our Seafood Producers Cooperative. Thanks to the courage of these original pioneers in 1944, we are here today and you can purchase our fish for home delivery at www.alaskagoldbrand.com. Thank you for being part of our history!

The fishermen-owners of Seafood Producers Cooperative are some of the last producers of a pure, unadulterated wild protein caught using traditional fishing methods on this planet. And our co-op has been instrumental in preserving this unique way of life.

Primary producers of real food, particularly fishermen, have had a long history of being taken advantage of. Fishermen’s guilds started popping up well over 2000 years ago in the effort to protect fishermen from the whims of nature and markets. It is certainly possible that Jesus’s disciples formed part of a fishermen’s guild of a similar sort on the Sea of Galilee. All of these guilds and co-ops were formed with the intent to protect fishermen, but few have had the staying power of our co-op, which has been around for 75 years serving as a bulwark of the West coast fishing community because of a laser focus on quality products and service and serving the fishermen.

More than a way for fishermen to take control of the profits from their catch, our Co-op became a community in which fishermen banded together in order to make their own destinies.

It’s difficult to gauge the wake that our Co-op spurred on the West Coast fishing industry. Before our Co-op existed, fishermen had limited markets for their products. There were plenty of strikes among fishermen in southeast Alaska. Since our Co-op’s inception, there have not been any fishermen strikes in southeast Alaska. What our Co-op brought was a plant that the fishermen would eventually own themselves and the opportunity for fishermen to get more consistently fair prices. In other words, our Co-op became a way for fishermen to earn a living wage for their hard work of producing beautiful fish.

Our Co-op is an organization owned by fishermen, for fishermen. And it allows fishermen to wield their own future. If you speak with any fishermen-owners about why they joined our Co-op or why they’re fishermen, you will undoubtedly hear that they like being their own boss and being the captains of their own destinies. A co-op that the fishermen own with a fishermen board of directors made up of their peers that makes the tough decisions on setting our Co-op’s direction has made it possible for these fishermen to live their ruggedly independent lifestyle their own way.

Since its inception, producers have kept our Co-op alive with a rugged “share the pain, share the gain” mindset. With a sales office in Bellingham, Washington and most fishing operations taking place in southeast Alaska, our Co-op has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, but there is something quintessentially American about our Co-op, which allows fishermen to be the captains of their own destinies. And that’s what makes our Co-op keep on keeping on.

Halibut Producers Cooperative Logo

When the co-op formed in 1944, it was the Halibut Liver Oil Producers Cooperative in the days before vitamin A was synthesized and was one of the largest producers of vitamin A in the nation. It later became the Halibut Producers Co-operative. In 1982, the Halibut Producers Cooperative Board of Directors voted to change the co-op’s name to Seafood Producers Cooperative to more accurately reflect the fish that the fishermen were catching and selling, as line-caught king salmon and coho salmon became the bulk of production

The growth of our Co-op has been filled with many learning moments. As an organization owned by ruggedly independent producers who make a living on the ocean, it is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to make all content. But when we as fishermen return from a long, difficult fishing trip out on the edge and pull into our plant in Sitka, it is our plant waiting to receive our fish. One of the reasons that our Co-op has survived and flourished is our strict adherence to Rochdale’s Seven Principles, which give direction to cooperative organizations. The other reason that our Co-op has flourished is that we have not lost sight of our quality-focused mission.

Quality is the keystone of our Co-op. This tradition of quality began with the very first fishermen’s annual meeting taking place in 1944. An expert was brought in to speak at length on how to improve quality. To this day quality is a pervasive theme in all meetings of the fishermen Board of Directors. Quality is so important to who we are because our organization is built on the pride we have in producing our fish for our company. But our co-op’s reputation built on quality doesn’t derive from just bleeding and icing fish correctly to produce the freshest quality fish, but also having a relationship based on integrity and transparency with our customers.

We really hope that you the enjoy the fruits of our co-op’s labor—you can order our seafood online for home delivery at www.AlaskaGoldBrand.com. Stay tuned this month for more stories on our co-op, including a story on the special place where we fish, and the stories of the actual producers that form part of our co-op, and more. Also, celebrate with us. Take $75 off an order of $300 or more of our Alaska Gold Seafood.

Use coupon code: AKGoldDiamondAnniversary

Expires May 31st, 2019.

Thank you,

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

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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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Line-caught salmon, the craft beer of seafood

Lance Preston, who trolls on the F/V Seaboy, a classic wooden troller, is a Seafood Producers Cooperative board member with a passion for premium-quality salmon and our fishermen’s cooperative. Here he is in own words describing why being a member of SPC is so important to him and why you get a quality fish from Seafood Producers Cooperative.

Lancestill
Lance Preston, Seafood Producers Cooperative member. Click here for his story on line-caught salmon from SPC.

 

Seafood Producers Cooperative is owned by the fishermen, so it’s our organization. As fishermen, we are responsible for the quality and we take great pride in what we do. Owned by fishermen, we have the opportunity to stress quality.

We produce the best Alaskan seafood that you can get. Only a small percentage of Alaskan salmon are caught by trollers using hook and line methods. It’s a boutique fishery. As Lance says, “Like your micro-brews, we’re a micr0-fishery.” Line-caught salmon, the craft beer of seafood. Fish come on board One Fish At A Time. We catch the premier species–king salmon and coho salmon. “White table cloth material.” Fish are landed on deck, pressure-bled using a micro-pipette, gutted, and iced within a half-hour. In contrast, a net-caught salmon might spend hours on deck before being handled.

At the end of the day, a co-op fish comes from fishermen who take pride in quality, because they own the organization.

Lance puts it elegantly: “I get to produce a quality product that is sustainably harvested in a well-manged fishery and belong to a cooperative that is taking care of us and we’re all taking care of each other. We’re all part of it. We are owners of the entire organization cooperatively. No one’s being exploited. We’re making a decent living. And I get to go fishing. What guy doesn’t like to go fishing?”

 

Lance-thumbsup
Thumbs up. Lance Preston on being a member/owner of Seafood Producers Cooperative.

 

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Seafood Producers Cooperative: NSEA’s Business of the Quarter

Seafood Producers Cooperative

 Seafood Producers Cooperative is a longtime supporter of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, because they donate all of the salmon served at the annual fundraiser “Salmon At the Bay” each summer.

In an age when 90% of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad, most of it farmed using dubious labor practices causing environmental havoc, Seafood Producers Cooperative is ruggedly American and has a proud heritage built on 70 years of relentless commitment to high-quality wild fish and responsible stewardship of the ocean.

Owned and operated by small boat hook and line fishermen who fish the waters of the North Pacific for wild salmon, halibut, sablefish and albacore, Seafood Producers Cooperative is a fishermen’s cooperative built on the work of families whose livelihoods depend on the health of our waters. These fishermen are the Eyes of The Ocean. Nobody has a tighter connection to our waters than a hook and line fisherman. They know that fish like salmon are a barometer of the health of our planet. They are also the first to recognize that salmon are nature’s true reward—delicious, with a life story that is inspiring. They know that salmon are worth looking after.

It’s clear that Seafood Producers Cooperative and NSEA share a common mission based on making it possible for people to enjoy the pleasures of eating wild salmon for generations to come, which is why SPC supports NSEA. Most of SPC’s owner/fishermen are family operations. Boats are passed along to sons and daughters over generations. Some SPC members can trace their families’ lineages with the cooperative over four generations. This heritage is important—the owner/members of SPC want their grandchildren to fish the same way that they do, with an eye to the future and a focus on quality.

Fishermen's Cooperative
Dick Curran, fisherman-member of Seafood Producers Cooperative

Seafood Producers Cooperative fishermen like Dick Curran take time to look after the ocean. During the break between fishing the Gulf of Alaska and outfitting for the Chatham black cod fishery, Dick Curran has removed from coastal beaches and waterways nearly 30,000 pounds of plastics and marine debris that would have been harmful to local wildlife. As SPC member Tom Fisher says, “A healthy ocean is healthy for me. We don’t want to damage our livelihoods.”

The cooperative also benefits the fishermen because their fish reach a wider market. SPC black cod is well known by fish buyers around the world as the best black cod available. Seafood Producers Cooperative’s troll-caught Alaska Gold™ salmon is craved by restaurants and retailers around the world because of the meticulous handling procedures our fishermen use to bring the salmon to market. The cooperative’s story and reputation as a source for the highest quality line-caught seafood has been known by fish buyers for a long time. Seafood Producers Cooperative is aiming for end consumers to better know the cooperative and the special fish the cooperative brings to market, so now SPC fish is available for purchase by consumers on SPC’s e-store: www.AlaskaGoldBrand.com. At the site, readers can check out stories from our fishermen, the cooperative’s history, seafood recipes, and purchase SPC’s high-quality fish for delivery anywhere in the country.