Gillnetters Target Up-Market Salmon
October 25, 2011
“They’re just as fragile,” said Hardcastle, a Juneau gillnetter who grew up in California’s wine country and married into an Alaska fishing family. “If you have 10 or 12 people handling a strawberry from the time it’s picked until the time it winds up on your plate, what do you get? A bruised strawberry.”
For Hardcastle, salmon’s the same. After navigating thousands of miles through fresh and salt water over the course of years to finally spawn in their natal streams, these athletic, nutrient-rich fish should be treated extremely carefully when hauled aboard and processed.
“These fish deserve to be honored,” he said.
It’s with that passion and respect for wild salmon that Hardcastle and his wife, Heather, together with her parents and two close friends, have built a successful artisan seafood company. The couple can be described as meticulous about how they handle their catch. Some might say fanatical.
As co-owners of Taku River Reds (TRR,) a direct-market seafood business based in Juneau, the Hardcastles are setting new standards for the gillnet-caught salmon they sell, mainly to high-end restaurants and markets in the Lower 48 and Hawaii.
“We freak out if we see someone handling our fish by the tail,” said Heather, a second-generation fisherman who was born and raised in Alaska’s rain-soaked capital.
Picking up a salmon by the tail forces blood back into the body cavity which leads to faster decomposition and that smelly fish odor, according to Heather.
The Hardcastle operation is more than just about delicate handling. It’s a business ethic that ensures every step of the salmon’s ocean-to-table journey results in a product that commands top dollar and yields superior taste.
“The quality is the best that I’ve been able to find in the market. Not only the way it looks at first glance, but the flavor and the shelf life. It’s beyond anything I’ve seen,” said seafood industry expert Tom Worthington, a partner of San Francisco-based Monterey Fish Market.
Intravenous Pressure Bleeding
Taku River salmon appear perfect, of course, when pulled from the water. But unless proper steps are taken immediately, the quality can quickly deteriorate. TRR crew members not only clean and ice the fish as soon as they’re hauled aboard but they go one step father. Every sockeye, coho and king caught and handled by TRR under goes intravenous pressure bleeding. It’s akin to the embalming process used to preserve bodies except no preservatives or chemicals ever go anywhere near these highly prized salmon.
After a TRR salmon is brought on deck, a crewman slices it head off, removes the guts and inserts a hypodermic needle attached to a seawater pump into the fish’s dorsal aorta, the major artery that moves oxygenated blood from the gills throughout the body. The pressurized water flushes through the salmon’s circulatory system, forcing out nearly all the blood. Next, the crewman inserts the needle again, this time into the caudal artery, forcing any remaining blood out of the muscles and tissue and rendering a product that looks clean, smells like the ocean and remains fresh for about a week longer than non-pressure bled fish, according to the Hardcastles.
“The salt in the seawater pushed through the fish acts as a natural preservative so the salmon stays fresh a lot longer than it otherwise would,” said Dave Faulk, owner of Porterhouse, a luxury market that features meat, seafood, wine and cheese in Eagle, Idaho.
Pressure bleeding is labor intensive and time consuming. Very few gillnetters and only a few trollers invest the effort in it, said Glenn Haight, development manager with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.
“What Heather and Kirk are doing is pretty cutting edge. They’ve carved out a nice niche for themselves and they deserve a lot of credit,” said Haight.
Pressure-bled salmon tend to appeal to discerning fish buyers – some might call them food snobs -- who prize aesthetics as well as freshness and taste. Because a pressure-bled salmon carries practically zero blood, the fish appears nearly immaculate, lacking the dark-red lines down the belly or blood smudges that non-pressure-bled salmon commonly have.
“You can see belly burn within a few hours unless it’s pressure-bled,” said Worthington. “The blood is the first thing that goes sour.”
While pressure-bled salmon costs more, many consumers appreciate the higher quality and are willing to pay for it, Faulk said. In July, he was retailing TRR king salmon for $22 a pound and sockeye at $18.99 a pound. He purchased it from TRR at $10 per pound for kings and $7.50 for sockeye. The mark-up includes the cost of his freight, employees who fillet and sell the fish to customers, and other overhead.
“My customers are people who can afford pressure-bled salmon and who want top-quality fish,” Faulk said.
Photographs of the TRR crew in rain gear hang on his seafood case. People love to know that a pair of Alaskan families actually caught the fish that will be on their dinner plate that night, Faulk said. Elisa Jordan, the meat and seafood manager at Boise Co-op who spent several days fishing with the TRR crew a few years ago, said customers seem fascinated by TRR’s story.
“I tell them about a woman on the boat who, before she cut off the salmon’s head, said ‘thank you’ to the fish. These people are obsessed about treating the salmon with care,” Jordan said.
TRR’s niche seafood serves the growing “slow food” movement comprised of people who eschew fast food and mass-produced grocery products in favor of healthier, sustainably raised meat, fish, produce and dairy items, Faulk noted. Although obesity continues to expand America’s collective waistline, the slow food trend is gaining traction and TRR is grabbing a slice of that lucrative market, Faulk said.
From Boat to Buyer
TRR is what the industry calls a direct marketer. The company has cut out the middle man and sells directly to buyers, taking charge of most aspects of the supply chain.
Direct marketing is not for the feint of heart. It’s a risky proposition on multiple fronts, including: making the investment to buy a permit, boat and equipment; securing markets; battling Alaska’s notorious weather; locating and harvesting often elusive fish; resolving mechanical problems; securing and satisfying finicky customers.
And then, there’s raw, physical labor involved.
“It’s a lot of hassle if you have to fish all day and then come back and have to handle the processing, packing and shipping,” said Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “The advantage is maybe you squeeze a little more money out of each fish. And on the restaurant side, you can tell customers exactly where you got the fish.”
The depth of work was apparent during an offload in Juneau’s Harris Harbor last summer. As the F/V Heather Anne pulled up to the dock after a three-day opener, sheer exhaustion showed on the crew’s faces. At least six more hours of hard work still lay ahead. Remaining tasks included transferring the fish from the vessel to a waiting truck, driving the catch to a warehouse for sorting and packaging, and then driving the fish boxes to the airport for loading on jets bound for the Lower 48 and Hawaii. Accounting and boat maintenance followed.
Despite the work and risk involved, TRR appears to be holding its own. The Hardcastles and their partners, Len and Sheila Peterson, and Renee and Winston Warr, have taken things gradually, building their business one step at a time.
Still, the economic recession has not bypassed the company.
“When the economy tanked in 2008, our sales dropped considerably. We’re still rebuilding,” said Len “Pete” Peterson, who founded the company along with his wife, Sheila.
An Art Form
The origins of TRR date to 1981 when Peterson, a retired Juneau school teacher, decided to augment his income with commercial fishing.
Peterson, father of Heather, had spent the prior four summers crewing on friends’ boats so he wasn’t totally green when he bought his commercial fishing permit and a wooden gillnetter named the F/V AnneLee. But the first summer working the waters of Taku Inlet, about 15 miles south of Juneau, was anything but smooth sailing.
“We fished all night and had a hard time finding any. It was pretty frustrating and nerve-wracking,” said Peterson.
Peterson and his wife ended up catching 23 fish, one-tenth of what they had expected. On the second trip, instead of harvesting salmon, the couple snared a salmon shark.
“The net was in shambles,” Peterson recalled.
On their third opener, the Petersons managed to get their net wrapped around the propeller. Sheila dove into the frigid inlet to untangle it. They eventually decided to cut the net loose. After that, the couple got certified in scuba diving so that they would be better prepared to handle any future nightmare scenarios.
“I breathed a little easier after about the eleventh opener,” said Peterson.
Fishing the Taku River, Southeast Alaska’s largest sockeye salmon producer, is never without its challenges. Straddling Alaska and Canada, the river cuts between steep mountains, has rocky shores and is prone to strong tides, unpredictable storms and harrowing winds. Mastering the trans-boundary river and its salmon fisheries requires mental toughness and formidable skill.
“It’s an art form,” said Hardcastle.
For the Hardcastles, the decision to form TRR in 2003 with Heather’s parents stemmed from a combination of their love for fishing, a respect for Taku River salmon,and a desire to share their passion for wild salmon with others. Previously, the Petersons had sold their catch to large processors and were disappointed to see how their carefully handled fish was lumped in with others that weren’t treated as well. The families figured they could do better. They started pressure-bleeding and selling directly to friends and relatives in Alaska and beyond.
Their efforts took off and soon restaurants and seafood markets began asking for their product.
The Warrs joined them in 2007 and together the families bought a fishing tender so they could expand by purchasing salmon from other vessels that pressure-bleed their fish.
“Our greatest limiting factor is finding fishermen who will pressure-bleed and sell to us,” said Hardcastle.
For the Hardcastles, living in Juneau and running a family seafood company is the fulfillment of a shared dream. The couple, who met in Maui when both worked on whale-watching boats, wanted to live in Heather’s hometown and join her parents in commercial fishing. With their friends, the Warrs, and the Petersons, the Hardcastles are enjoying a quintessential Alaska lifestyle and making a living selling a high-end product they love.
“It’s like fine wine. You savor it. And some people are willing to splurge on a $125 bottle,” said Renee Warr.
Paula Dobbyn is a freelance writer based in Anchorage.
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