Taking their fish directly to the people

Some local fishermen fighting low processor prices by selling their own catch

Posted: Thursday, August 01, 2002

As prices from processors drop, some of Juneau's commercial fishermen say they're approaching customers directly.

With brightly colored signs on the roadside and loads of fresh fish sold directly to local supermarkets, fishermen hope to recoup what they feel their catch is worth by going straight to the buyer.

"There's absolutely more (fishermen selling off the docks)," said Dale Kelley, executive director for the Alaska Trollers Association. "The bottom line is pretty much dictating fishermen's actions these days. The more depressed our price at the dock, then the more fishermen we seem to see looking for other alternatives."

Sandro Lane, owner of the Taku Fisheries and Taku Smokeries processors, said he's also seen an increase in fishermen selling their wares directly to consumers.

"If they can make a living at it, it's great," he said. "It doesn't help the seafood processors, but all's fair in love and war. Our target market has never been the local fresh-fish market."

Commercial fisherman Tara Lee Mason agreed that low prices at local processing plants - which include Lane's companies and Alaska Glacier Seafoods - convinced her to start selling fish off the docks.

"We just thought, 'Geez, we could make just as much selling it ourselves,' " Mason said. "It was a lot about how low the price was, and we thought that our fish was worth more than what the processor was paying us."

Today, she and her husband Charles have upgraded operations and formed The Little Fish Company, a small operation near Western Auto that was founded to sell locally caught fish directly to customers.

The realization that downtime spent waiting to make sales on the docks was cutting into their fishing hours prompted Mason and her husband to shift operations to the more permanent Little Fish Company, Mason said.

Though an illness in the family made their first year in operation hard-going, they're on track to sell more local fish next year.

"We just purchased a crab tank, so we're going to have a live crab tank running," Mason said. "We have a shrimp permit we just purchased. ... We felt that Juneau deserved some fresh fish here and there."

Operating with the same mindset are several of Juneau's grocery stores, whose meat department representatives said they make an effort to buy as much fresh fish as possible from locals.

Pat Buettner, assistant meat manager at SuperBear, said his market buys seafood such as salmon, clams and oysters directly from local fishermen.

"We've made a lot of friends that way, just dealing with the (locals)," Buettner said. "We don't even carry farm-raised. We boycott it here. Anything that's farm-raised, that's putting direct competition to the Alaska fishermen, we don't sell."

The close connection makes a difference, he said. The locals he's worked with are very careful when shipping and handling the fish they bring in, and work hard to ensure freshness, he said.

Tim Wolfe, meat department co-manager for Alaskan and Proud market, agreed with Buettner's assessment. Over the years, A&P has found a group of fishermen it can depend on, he said.

"It's been years of dealing with them, years and years and years," he said. "People in this town are pretty well local-oriented. They understand what freshness is and that's exactly what they buy for."

There are downsides for fishermen who sell straight off the docks, said Tom Gemmell, executive director for United Fishermen of Alaska. In his experience, many fishermen experiment with this more direct marketing method, but choose other options when they realize how difficult it can be.

Kelley agreed, adding that the industry in general is constantly shifting.

"This year, who knows what the long-range outlook's going to be? There's so many things that are dictating prices at the dock right now," Kelley said. "Primary is the huge influx of farmed fish at an incredibly low cost. I think it (selling from the dock) is great for those that are out there and find that the option is working."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.

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