FISH FACTOR: Wild Alaskan making major gains through digital

  • Wild Alaskan Company of Homer has seen solid business growth during the COVID-19 pandemic for its subscription boxes of the state’s fresh seafood. (Graphic/Wild Alaskan Company)

The Wild Alaskan Company based in Homer has taken “mission based” seafood e-commerce to a whole new level.

While many Alaska fishermen and groups sell boxes of seafood directly to customers and can claim several hundred monthly customers, Wild Alaskan has notched more than 140,000 seafood regulars since 2018 and since COVID-19 hit, the company is adding 100 to 200 customers every day. The average order for their subscription service is $160 per month.

Founder Arron Kallenberg calls it a “three generation overnight success,” referring back to 1926 when his grandfather moved from New Jersey to fish at Bristol Bay.

“My dad grew up fishing with my grandfather, I grew up fishing with my father, but that being said, I was the nerdy kid that took his laptop out to sea in Bristol Bay,” Kallenberg said, adding that his grandfather, Robert, served on the Alaska territorial Board of Fisheries, as an adviser to the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission and wrote his Master’s thesis at Cornell University on conserving Bristol Bay’s red salmon fishery.

Arron Kallenberg went on to work in the internet startup field for nearly two decades, mostly in New York City. A few years ago he chose to walk away and create a tech-enabled marketing and logistics company to sell Alaska seafood directly to subscribers. He assembled a team of data driven strategists and systems builders to create a company that now puts 40 people to work remotely across the U.S.

“We’re a tech company that sells seafood, a digital fishmonger,” he said with a laugh. “We have the ability through social media and digital based, data driven advertising to attract members to the membership service. And we have an incredible amount of proprietary software that manages a very complex, nationwide frozen fulfillment network that allows us to ship fish across the country at very reasonable rates.

“So it was those two aspects of the business that did give the company quite a bit of early success. And then recently we’ve sort of reached critical mass.”

Wild Alaskan sources salmon, cod, halibut, pollock and more from large and small Alaska providers, and the mix of frozen portions in three boxed options is dictated by supply. The seafood is sent to fulfillment centers across the country, and a software network manages the inventory and orders to minimize both cost and shipping distance. The reduced shipping time also allows the company to use biodegradable packaging instead of Styrofoam.

“Our software has some pretty sophisticated technology that will curate a box of fish for a member in one part of the country based on the availability of certain species inside the supply chain. But the flexibility that the software provides us allows us to decentralize this supply driven model in different regions. That’s something that’s pretty unique from an e-commerce perspective. Typically, e-commerce companies will have to maintain the same level of inventory across one or two facilities,” Kallenberg said.

Reducing the carbon footprint from shipping is a primary goal of what Kallenberg calls his “mission based company.”

“Our goal is to expand our warehouse network to the point where we can achieve one-day ground transportation to 99 percent of the country,” Kallenberg said, adding that Alaskan Wild plans to open a fulfillment center in every major metropolitan U.S. area.

“Our mission is to accelerate humanity’s transition to sustainable food systems,” he said. “And I believe that Alaska can set an example globally. In order to do that, Wild Alaskan has to become a big business so that we can shift the consumption habits away from these unsustainable options into America’s own backyard. The carbon footprint implications of fish going round trip to another country and back, or farmed salmon coming in from another country are ridiculous,” he said.

Kallenberg believes the U.S. has “unknowingly downgraded its seafood supply” by importing up to 90 percent of its seafood, and exporting most of its own to other countries.

“We export the best and import the worst,” he said.

Wild Alaskan Company intends to change that pattern.

Young fishermen get federal nod

U.S. fishermen will soon be eligible to receive training and financial benefits long enjoyed by farmers and ranchers.

The Young Fishermen’s Development Act sailed through Congress last week with a simple voice vote because of bipartisan support, according to REP. Don Young’s office.

Modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program that can be traced back to 1862, the Act creates the first federal program dedicated to enabling future generations of fishermen.

This bill directs the National Sea Grant office under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish a program through the Commerce Department that provides for a competitive grants program for state, tribal, local, or regional networks or partnerships; a mentorship/apprenticeship program with older fishermen; financial support for training and education in sustainable fishing practices, marine stewardship, business and technical initiatives.

“We are thrilled,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, in response to the bill’s passage.

ALFA was part of a national Fishing Communities Coalition which helped herd the Act through Congress over two years.

“Alaska’s congressional delegation played the lead role in advancing this legislation, building bi-partisan support for an important industry and Alaska’s number one private sector employer,” Behnken added. “We are celebrating a brighter future for our industry and our young fishermen. Huge thanks to Senator Sullivan, Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young and their hard working staff!”

The $2 million program will be paid out over six years and is funded by fishing fines; so in a way, fishermen are picking up the tab themselves. By comparison, mandatory federal backing for ranchers and farmers (including aquaculture) is $15 million for this fiscal year, $17.5 million for fiscal year 22 and $25 million for fiscal year 23.

Southeast does Dungies

Panhandle crabbers pulled up their second best Dungeness catch ever in combined summer and fall fisheries.

A fleet of 104 crabbers pulled up 790,000 pounds during the two-month fishery that ended on Nov. 30, down slightly from catches that typically are closer to one million pounds. Also down was the number of participants which usually approach 200, likely due to a low price.

Selling the crab at the dock helped boost the price from $1.68 per pound paid during the summer fishery, said Adam Messmer, a shellfish manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Douglas.

“There was definitely a few more boats selling off the dock which bumps the average price up a little bit. For the fall, we had $1.91 so it was up a bit from the summer,” he said.

The average price for the 2019 season was $3.07 per pound for Dungeness, which weigh two pounds on average.

Still, combined with the summer Dungeness fishery it adds up to a near record catch for 2020.

“With the fall season, we’re at almost 6.7 million pounds which is the second highest on record,” Messmer said.

Southeast’s highest Dungeness catch was 7.3 million pounds in 2002. The most valuable harvest was in 2019 at $16.3 million to fishermen on a 5.3 million pound harvest.

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Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
12/16/2020 - 9:16am