With deep family ties to fishing, Scott Blake co-founded Copper River Seafoods during a time of crisis for the Alaskan seafood industry in the mid-‘90s. Far surpassing its founders’ original goal to make ends meet and sustain their livelihoods, today the business now produces over 18 million kilograms of seafood annually and employs hundreds of local fishermen. The company’s wild, sustainable products are exported around the world and provide fresh and healthy protein to its customers. Here, Blake shares what brought the company success and explains the company’s plans for deepening their presence in the Chinese market
Can you tell us more about your personal journey with the seafood industry and how it led you to found Copper River Seafoods?
I am a fourth-generation family fisherman, and I started the business in 1996 with four other fishermen. I was fishing commercially at a time when Alaska was a production-driven industry, and most of our product was being put in a can or frozen and sold in Japan. The foreign salmon industry was coming online at that point in time. Chile began bringing fresh, farmed salmon fillets and whole fish into the domestic market and into Japan, and for the first time, Alaska had something to compete against in the marketplace. It became a supply and demand issue but more so the farmed salmon industry looked at what we weren’t doing and created their own niche by doing some of these things. The consumer wanted the fresh fish, which was a change that the Alaska salmon industry wasn’t prepared to compete with. We were still very much production driven with a lot of old facilities that were geared around canning and freezing. The change crashed the ex-vessel price, and the cost of salmon in the marketplace went from $5 to $2.5. It went down so far that the other fishermen and I couldn’t make a living fishing – our cost exceeded our revenue. I loved what I was doing and I was very good at it; it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My boys fish now, as well as my cousins, uncles and other family members. So, out of fear of losing my livelihood, I had to find a way to make more money with my fish. It was as simple as that, and I started taking the fish off of my own boat, with three other fishermen, in the spring of 1992 and selling our own fish to try to make more money so our families could eat.
Amazingly enough, the company has grown tremendously. One of the advantages that I had when we were going through this change was that I was able to attract a lot of fishermen to our company because I was a fisherman myself; I spoke the same language and I knew what they were going through. Basically, I just went out to the marketplace and figured out what we were doing wrong and what we needed to change, from there, I started selling fresh fish to the marketplace, which wasn’t done at that time. It was innovative. The biggest challenge was logistics. Fish is hard to get on airplanes and get out of areas like Bristol Bay directly to the market. I started taking fresh fish from the rural areas where it was harvested and bringing it into Anchorage because it’s the fifth largest cargo hub in the world. I realized that all l I needed to do was get the fish to Anchorage to process, and then ship it out to market. No one else was doing that in Alaska at that time because there hadn’t been a need as the product was being frozen or canned, put into containers and shipped overseas.
My goal when I started was to protect my livelihood and be sustainable, so as we grew, it was important for me to offer that same opportunity to other fishermen who are also multi-generational and come from communities that are supported by fishing. Being Alaskan, it was important for me to keep everything in Alaska and to create as many jobs here as possible. In the past, raw material was packed and exported to other countries where value was added. I wanted to keep that value here and sell it to the marketplace directly. Some changes were simple, like no one believed that a pin bone could be pulled out of a salmon filet, but the farmed salmon was being sold with the bones out, which was much easier for the consumer. Everyone here said it wasn’t possible but I saw it being done, so I hired people and we figured out how to do it.
When I first started, I used to tell customers everything that was wrong with farmed salmon – it’s got chemicals, it’s bad for you, etc. A very defining moment was when a retailer said to me, “I’m not interested in you telling me what’s wrong with farmed salmon. I sell 600,000 pounds every month of it, I make a 30 percent margin and my customer loves it. What I’m interested in is why my customer wants to buy your fish.” It was a defining moment for me and I realized that I need to figure out what the customer wants, and if I can’t deliver it, we will disappear. So, we evolved from a production-driven to a consumer-driven operation. I began to realize that there are six or seven key things that the customer wanted, and so I built a business around that, and here we are 25 years later.
It’s been an incredible journey. We grew from four fishermen and one plant to producing over 40 million pounds (18 million kilograms) of seafood annually. Today, we support 254 year-round employees, 800 to 1000 seasonal employees and 1500 fishing families, as well as the local economy. Today, the market is totally different than when we started and much more diversified. A lot of product still goes to Japan and a lot of frozen fish goes to China, Canada, Europe, and so on; the market has become much more global. The logistics supply chain has changed so much, as have global tastes. People ask often about our competition in Alaska, and though we do compete with the other companies for the resource, my primary concern is competing for the center of the plate. I compete against the other proteins in the world, whether it’s farmed salmon, chicken or beef.
I don’t look at farmed salmon negatively anymore. It has introduced salmon to consumers who otherwise wouldn’t have tried it and now a lot more people are eating salmon. And as consumers become more aware, they start to look beyond pricing at the origin of the product, whether it is farmed or wild. We have the largest, most sustainable wild resource in the world, but that wild resource is limited; it won’t grow. It’s sustainable and has a range that comes back every year, but it’s finite, and in Alaska, we have to maximize the value of the limited resource that we have. We won’t get more volume so we have to protect the resource, and, through traceability, make sure that the consumer knows and the value of what they are buying. Gov. Bill Walker talked about growing Alaskan seafood exports from $3 billion to $6 billion dollars. We can’t increase supply, so the only way we can do that is by increasing the value of the resource.
What makes Alaskan seafood competitive on the world stage?
Alaskan food is the best in the world. It’s clean and pure like our water and our air. Alaska’s brand is all about purity. The food is natural. It’s an amazing brand. It’s not something you have to invest and sell; it’s authentic. A lot of people try to copy it. One of the challenges we face in the domestic market is that a lot of product comes from Russia and they call it Alaska pollock or other names identical to our products. This is just one example; there are a lot of products coming from other countries that are misbranded. It’s a challenge, and we are constantly working with the government and other companies in the sector on protecting the brand and making sure the consumer is informed properly of what choice he is making, that there is real traceability. There is still a lot of work to do. In terms of marketing, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) really leads the way.
Copper River Seafoods accompanied Walker on the Opportunity Alaska trade mission to China, and shortly thereafter, a Chinese delegation came to the state for a series of visits, which included a tour of your processing facilities. What are your impressions of this recent activity?
We took part in the trade mission to understand what the opportunities in China are today. I first went to China 20 years ago to process our fish there, which was economically advantageous for us. But since then, the market and technology have changed. As a result, I believe that in a short while we will be more competitive in the U.S. and in Alaska with China’s processing capabilities. Today, we are not focused on reprocessing over there, we are focused on selling seafood to China to higher-end consumers. We sell a limited amount of resource today, but we are looking for them to become a customer in the short term, so we are developing that market. Right now, we only sell about five to ten percent of our product to China. My goal is to increase that by two to three percent per year over the next five years. We are looking to expand out of the domestic market to diversify. China has helped reenergize the Alaskan seafood industry, and a lot of that has been the result of re-processing Alaskan fish in China, which makes us more competitive in the domestic marketplace. Today, we are targeting China’s consumer market, but we are looking to keep as much of the manufacturing process in Alaska as possible.
How do you feel is the best way to market your seafood products in China?
We are in the early stages of developing the China market so we don’t have a promotion strategy in place yet. We will mostly sell to distributors who will then take the product and sell it to consumers. We would like to take the same business model we have in the US and replicate it there. We also like to sell directly to the consumer, which allows us to have a direct relationship with our consumers and be in tune with their needs.
How sustainable is the fishing industry in Alaska?
Alaska is very rich in resources, and we are a relatively new state, so we have been able to learn from the mistakes of other states in terms of protecting our resources. I would say that we have the best resource management in the world. It is mandated in our state constitution that we have to manage our resources sustainably.