Off Alaska’s coast began the journey that would vault the North Pacific’s richest fisherman into an exclusive club of America’s richest citizens, but it was in Seattle that Chuck Bundrant made the big money.
“The Man Who Got Americans to Eat Trash Fish Is Now a Billionaire,” Bloomberg News headlined in a story heralding Bundrant’s achievement.
The “trash fish” in question was the Walleye pollock which is no longer considered a trash fish. Today the North Pacific pollock fishery is worth more than $500 million per year, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And it is just part of the harvest from federally managed offshore fisheries for pollock, Atka mackerel, Pacific cod, halibut, sablefish and flatfish worth about $1 billion per year.
By comparison, the state-managed salmon fisheries with landings valued at $467 million are a weak sister. The cash-strapped state of Alaska collects roughly $50 million per year in taxes, primarily on the salmon catch.
The state’s gets little out of the offshore fisheries or the hundreds of millions of dollars more processors like Trident make as they move fish to market. The wealth goes Outside.
Bundrant earned his. He got rich by helping pioneer a sea change in how Alaska fish are sold.
He built a “vertically-integrated company that now does everything from harvesting and mass processing fish to selling value-added products such as canned salmon and pollock fish sticks,” Bloomberg noted.
“‘He realized that he needed to be vertically integrated to be able to deliver a large quantity of processed fish to large retailers and institutional-scale consumers,’ said David Fluharty, an associate professor in marine and environmental affairs at the University of Washington.”
Bundrant could not be reached for comment. He “declined comment” with Bloomberg, it reported.
Seattle = New Japan
Bundrant didn’t get rich on his own. He had partners at Trident, and he drummed up political help.
After enactment of the Magnuson Fishery and Conservation Act in 1976, the federal government seized control of all fisheries management in waters from nine to 200 miles off the U.S. coast and began to force out foreign fishermen, primarily the Japanese.
Foreign fishing companies then turned to U.S. shell companies to get around the restrictions on foreign fishing in what would come to be designated the U.S.’s “exclusive economic zone (EEZ.” The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1996 started a crackdown on that practice,and the American Fisheries Act of 1998 went even farther.
The Fisheries Act required 75 percent U.S. ownership of fishing companies working in the EEZ off Alaska. Trident was a major player lobbying influence.
“….Bundrant cultivated politicians who would pass legislation that aided Trident’s business by keeping foreign fisheries at bay,” Alexander Sazanov reported at Bloomberg.
Among those politicians were the late Sens. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. They were the authors of the Magnuson-Stevens act and key players in the passage the American Fisheries Act.
Once they had moved foreign competition out of the way, U.S.-owned businesses moved in. Japanese trawlers were largely replaced by Seattle-based trawlers. Trident became one of the big financial winners.
Bloomberg’s business index today values the privately held company at about $2.1 billion. The company operates 16 processing plants, 10 of them in Alaska, and 41 fishing vessels, and it is broadly diversified.
While getting help from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, an entity propped up by the state of Alaska to help sell “wild Alaska salmon” in a market being steadily over-run by farmed salmon, Trident covers its Alaska bet with its own farmed fish operations.
“When we talk about the ‘seafood’ we offer, we’re not just talking about Alaskan salmon,” Trident says in explaining “Our Catch” on its webpage.
A scroll down the page brings a viewer to “Salmon, Atlantic:
“Atlantic Salmon has a mild flavor profile, moderately high oil content, and a consistently rich red-orange color. Atlantic Salmon is farm-raised in Chile, on a carefully controlled diet, in clean, cold water. It’s naturally loaded with Omega-3s, and as good for you as it is for the environment.”
Trident has also joined other U.S. fish processors in shipping Alaska salmon to China to be deboned, a practice some food safety experts have questioned given Chinese problems with food contamination.
“‘Companies like the Seattle-based Trident Seafood company routinely ship fish and crab to China for processing, including the deboning of salmon, the Chinese labor costs of which are one-fifth what they are in the U.S.,” Natural News reported last year.
“‘There are 36 pin bones in a salmon and the best way to remove them is by hand,’ Charles Bundrant, founder of Trident, which ships some 30 million pounds of its 1.2 billion-pound harvest to China for processing, told The Seattle Times. ‘Something that would cost us $1 per pound labor here, they get it done for 20 cents in China.'”
Trident prides itself on its economic efficiency which has made it a hugely successful company. That success, in turn, made Bundrant a rich man, and a true American success story.
“Bundrant was a college freshman with $80 in his pocket when he drove halfway across the country to Seattle to earn a few bucks fishing,” Sazonov wrote. “The year was 1961.”
It wouldn’t take Bundrant long to migrate north, where began what the Trident website calls “a 12-year journey across Alaska, aboard any ship he could find, discovering everything there is to know about fishing and crabbing along the way.
“Chuck met two other like-minded crab fishermen in the early 1970s, Kaare Ness and Mike Jacobson. All three pooled their money together and built the Billikin—a 135-foot boat that not only changed the course of their partnership, but also changed the course of the entire seafood industry. The ingenious Billikin was the first vessel of its kind to feature crab cookers and freezing equipment onboard, so their fresh catch could be processed as soon as it was pulled out of the water instead of coming all the way back to shore.”
Ness was a legendary Alaska skiper who came to Alaska from Norway and eventually, like Bundrant moved, south. Ness died last year at age 86.
“Ever loyal to his Karmoy countrymen and his Norwegian-American community, Kaare Ness demonstrated his personal generosity time and time again to individuals and organizations far too numerous to list,” read his obituary in the Seattle Times. “Among those he helped most were the Nordic Heritage Museum, Pacific Lutheran University, King’s Schools, the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial, the Karmoy Fishermen’s Memorial, and Karmoy’s Loftet House for drug and alcohol counseling.”
The history of the Alaska fishing industry since statehood sadly and too often parallels that of the Gold Rush at the start of the 20th century. People make their fortunes, and they leave.