Written by Jen Finn
Macro plan from micro-processor
Tony Wood can help you direct-market your salmon, and you don't have to process them
By Matt Marinkovich
In Bristol Bay, where the sockeye's astronomical returns has everybody working triple-time just to get them processed, the fishermen's ongoing struggle is how to increase the price they're paid for their catch.
Processors seem to have Rolodexes full of justifications for why the price falls short of fishermen's expectations; they just flip through and pull out the excuse that best corresponds to the fisherman's latest gripe.
Tony Wood has the answer to the beef that "there's nothing a fisherman can do with their fish in Bristol Bay besides catch them." Wood is part of a new breed of fishermen who have no complaints about their processor, because he is his processor. He started with nothing but an idea and the resolve to make it work; he has since created a model — and a much easier path — for other fishermen to follow in his footsteps.
Wood came to Alaska on a sportfishing trip with his parents when he was 17 and returned to work summers as a guide and apprentice pilot at the King Salmon Lodge. After he finished college he and two friends maxed out their credit cards and started their own fishing and hunting guide business with a total of $21,000 between them.
He first caught fish with a gillnet in 2000, when he stood in for three days as a crewman on a Bristol Bay drift gillnetter. "I really, really enjoyed it," he says. Those three days planted a seed in his thoughts about fish, people, and the fact that people want to eat fish.
"When I was in the guide business I would come back from Alaska, back to the Midwest, and would travel around and do sport shows, and everybody would always ask me if I had any salmon for sale. That's when I spawned the idea of direct marketing and processing my own fish," he explains.
In 2003 Wood put his idea to the test when he leased a drift permit and an open boat to fish in the Naknek River during the in-river Special Harvest Area openings, and opened his doors as Wild Alaska Salmon and Seafood. "I started everything I'm doing right now with minus — less than zero," he says.
He worked with small custom-processors in King Salmon and shipped home a modest pack of frozen vacuum-packed sockeye fillets and sold them to the general populace of greater Chicago. "If I ran into you, somehow or some way we would have a conversation about salmon," Wood says. "Everybody wants salmon — they just may not know it yet."
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