Northern Keta, a Juneau-based company co-owned by Elisabeth Babich, has been awarded the Governor's Exporter of the Year award for small businesses.
"Companies like this I just think are the best of the seafood industry and the best of Alaska," said Margy Johnson, director of the state Division of International Trade and Market Development, which chose Northern Keta for the award. "I was just delighted that they got the award."
Babich started Northern Keta in 1993.
"I actually was a seiner for 12 years and I gillnetted my own boat for eight years," she said. "It was going really well until about 1988. ... The influx of the farmed salmon was more and more noticeable and the price kept dropping. In the early 1990s, I wouldn't have been able to make money any more."
On a trip back to her home country of Austria, Babich noticed salmon caviar from Alaska fish in the stores. When she returned to Juneau, she joined with a fellow fisherman, Leon Woodrow, and two roe, or fish egg, technicians, Mark Heironymus and Sean Fansler, to form Northern Keta. Heironymus and Fansler still own a portion of the business.
The company first exported to Germany, then to most of the rest of the European Union, Israel, Japan and Hong Kong. Last year, it added France and Russia to its list of markets. It now brings in more than $1 million in gross revenue per year, Babich said.
"They just hustled," Johnson said. "They started small and they're getting bigger. They handle the product very carefully, and the packaging is just beautiful."
The domestic market for Northern Keta's caviar has never been huge, Babich said. An average of 90 percent of the caviar is exported, and last year the company exported 98 percent of its product.
"Americans just aren't fish eaters and certainly not egg eaters," Babich said. "The roe we do send them goes to sushi bars or Russian immigrants, people who are used to eating it."The company converts the roe to caviar by soaking it in a saltwater mixture, or brine, then packs it into one-kilogram plastic buckets or boxes, blast-freezes it and sends it via ocean cargo container to its destination.
The company's roe technicians prepare the roe differently depending on the country of destination, Babich said.
"Every country has a little bit different requirement," she said. "The French eat different caviar than the Germans do, and Russians want either a different species or salt content."
Northern Keta prepares caviar from the roe of all five salmon species in Alaska. The company buys roe from several commercial fishermen the company has trained to extract eggs, and from hatcheries such as Douglas Island Pink and Chum in Juneau and others operated by the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.
"Basically if we have surplus brood stock we recover the roe from those fish and sell it to Northern Keta," said Rick Focht, director of research and evaluation for the DIPAC hatchery.
Brood stock refers to the adult salmon that return to the hatchery and provide the eggs for the next year's production cycle. Once the hatchery has collected enough eggs to meet its production goal, the remaining returning fish can be sold to companies such as Northern Keta. The amount of eggs collected from excess brood stock can vary greatly from year to year, Focht said.
DIPAC has been supplying roe to Northern Keta since 2001, Focht said. The hatchery has worked with other caviar companies, but now sells exclusively to Northern Keta, which operates out of a building near the DIPAC hatchery.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.