It’s been almost 30 years since Julie Decker made her first summer run to Alaska from Chicago to work as a patcher for Alaska General Seafoods in Ketchikan. She went back to Chicago for the winter. But she would find herself in Ketchikan again the next year at age 22.

This time she was back as a graduate — both from Northwestern University and from cannery work. Decker walked the docks, determined to find a spot on a boat. She worked as a greenhorn deckhand on a gillnetter, and that was it. The pull of Alaska was too strong to resist.

She came back to crew on the same boat the following summer after spending the winter in her hometown of Detroit, waiting tables, teaching English and working at a domestic abuse shelter. That experience seemed almost prophetic when she found herself on deck with an abusive captain.

Realizing she was stuck on a boat in remote area with her assailant, she was determined to find a safe exit. When the boat was unloading at the tender, she called the captain of another gillnetter to pick her up and take her to Wrangell. That gillnetter was Gig Decker, and as luck would have it, he was looking for a deckhand.

“The first time I saw her on the back deck, I could see that she was hard-working and focused. Then, when I met her, she was friendly, interesting and different. She enjoyed fishing and being in Alaska, yet we could talk about any topic. There was something mysteriously attractive about all that,” says Gig Decker.

They finished the season together, harvesting salmon, then diving for cucumbers and urchins. After learning the cucumber and urchin dive fishery, the pair began working to set up the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fishery Association from their home port of Wrangell. In 1999, Decker became the association’s executive director, which garnered the experience of guiding an organization through early growing pains.

Since then, Decker has dedicated her onshore time to promoting the interests of fisheries stakeholders and fishing communities.

“Julie has always been dedicated to her family and community, and this shines through in her advocacy for Alaska’s fisheries and a bright vision for future generations and our coastal communities,” says longtime friend, commercial fisherman and Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board member Tomi Marsh, of Ketchikan.

In 1999, the Deckers married on Valentine’s Day and welcomed their son, Sig, that year. Their daughter, Helen, was born in 2001.

In 2006, Decker joined the staff of Wrangell Seafoods, which was formed to take over the local seafood plant in the hopes of retaining the community’s vital processing capacity. The hurdles proved to be too high for an independent, fledgling company, and Trident Seafoods purchased the operation in 2009-10.

Soon thereafter, Decker served on the board of the nonprofit Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. She was hired as the development director in 2011 and became executive director in 2014, a position she still holds.

“Julie sees the larger picture in the many hats she wears, not only in the benefits for industry and the environment, but the socioeconomic benefits for coastal Alaska communities,” says Riley Smith, deputy director of the foundation. “She really cares about people, relationships and family, and it really shows.”

The foundation has been integral to the evolution of the seafood industry through research and development since its founding in 1978, including the Alaska Mariculture Initiative in 2013.

Under Decker’s leadership, that initiative led to the creation of the Alaska Mariculture Task Force by then-Gov. Bill Walker in 2016. Decker became the chairwoman of the task force in 2017. Their work produced the Alaska Mariculture Development Plan, which projects a $100 million-dollar Alaska industry in the next 20 years.

“One of her greatest strengths that I’ve observed is her ability to bring the right people together to address common needs and move forward shared visions,” says Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “Whether she is at the head of the table or not, she’s always a leader in the room. Our industry needs more people like Julie who are always looking to improve what we have and not settle for just ‘good enough.’”

The Deckers have carried on the traditions of a fishing family in Southeast Alaska. Their kids grew up on the family boat, F/V McCrea, fishing in the summers. Sig attended the University of Southern California, and Helen went to the University of California at San Diego.

In the summer of 2020, both Sig, 21, and Helen, 19, were seining on the F/V Vigilant with family friends. On a stop-off in Petersburg, they and two other crew members died in a car accident on the island. The other passengers were Ian Martin, 29, of Petersburg, and Dennis Lord, 37, of Elmira Heights, N.Y., who were fishing on the seiner Magnus Martens.

The news rippled through the industry, causing an outpouring of support. In a summer studded with pandemic-related fears and coronavirus precautions onboard, a tragedy like this seemed almost unimaginable.

“Julie and Gig will always be the most amazing parents,” says Marsh. “They would come to my boat, passing Sig and Helen over the rail. The deaths of Helen and Sig are painful, but the support of community from all over exemplifies how much good work and respect Julie has built over the years and that these values of family and community that Julie and Gig hold dear are real and long-lasting.”

The accident propelled an existing plan for the Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial. Naturally, the Decker family had already been leading the way on arranging funding, planning and siting for the project, with Gig Decker serving on the board since 2017.

Everyone in the industry knows Julie Decker, but not because she’s self-promoting. In fact, it’s the opposite. She is tirelessly committed to promoting the work and ingenuity of those around her.

“Julie is also the most gracious host and friend, she is always thinking of others, not in a self-serving way but because she likes people and their quirks,” says Marsh. “She can see connections and potential, and links people together because she knows they have common goals or will just enjoy each other. The table at Julie and Gig’s is always open with good food, drink, conversation, and laughter.”

Decker’s natural penchant for bringing people together in collaboration has benefited the industry as a whole.

“Julie Decker is a constant source of support and advocacy for Alaska’s seafood industry and our story of sustainability,” says Julianne Curry, Public Affairs manager for OBI Seafoods.

Through the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, she took the reins of the Alaska Symphony of Seafood, which celebrates innovation in product development from Alaska’s commercial fisheries. Under her guidance, the annual competition has focused global attention on Alaska, seafood products, and innovation, including the introduction of a new category called Beyond the Plate, promoting utilization of byproducts, which provides more value from the resource.

“We are incredibly lucky to have Julie opening new doors for seafood product development to expand beyond traditional markets for Alaska seafood,” Curry says. “I’m incredibly grateful for all she has done to increase the value of Alaska seafood.”

And the admiration is mutual.

“I am grateful to know and work with incredible people, in a wholesome industry that deserves to be celebrated, not only for the superior food it supplies to the world, but also the embodiment of traditional values of family, hard work, responsibility to one another, and prudence for the environment,” says Decker. “The evolution of the seafood industry to integrate new opportunities in ways that benefit us all is the next challenge that I look forward to.”

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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