Can A “B Corporation” Carve Out A Market For Yukon River Chum?

Jul 27, 2017

Credit Fish and Wildlife

It’s taken months of work for the Yukon River’s newest buyer to set up, but a “B Corporation” called Fishpeople expects to open up shop soon. B Corporations have only existed for a decade. They have to live up to social, environmental, and accountability standards to gain international certification and there are only a couple of thousand of them in the world.

Fishpeople has had a lot of problems in its first Alaskan venture, and it will probably encounter more. One of the company founders says that they may be late getting started this season, but they plan to be on the Yukon for the long run.

“I wouldn’t be making this investment,” says Kipp Baratoff, “ and the founder of the company wouldn’t be up here trying to figure out how to make all this work if we weren’t making a long-term investment.”

Baratoff co-founded the Portland based company Fishpeople, which has been setting up in St. Mary’s to buy and fly salmon out to market. 

Since Boreal, a fish buyer based in the region upstream of Mountain Village, closed down, the people of the six villages in District 2 of the Yukon River have had to travel over 100 miles downriver in open skiffs to fish and sell their catch to Kwik-Pak’s buyers in Mountain Village.

Many in the region hoped to have been selling salmon to Fishpeople by now, but the company ran into major logistical challenges. The company chose St. Mary’s because it had an airport large enough to fly jets out with fish on board, and a big enough dock for them to set up their heavy equipment, refrigeration systems, cranes, totes, and other gear typical of a remote buying station.

“It was a natural choice,” says Baratoff.

What he didn’t know was that there was not enough power at the St. Mary’s dock to operate the company’s gear. Getting that and other issues resolved took more time than anticipated.

“The good news is that we’re going to be fishing here soon. I’m watching the guys on the utility poles as we speak.”

Once the lines are in, Baratoff needs time to make enough ice and get ready to buy an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 pounds of chum salmon during the next commercial opening in District 2. The plan is to provide free ice to fishermen who will bleed and ice their catch before delivery. Baratoff says that Yukon chum are unique, and need to be treated carefully to maintain their quality.  

“They have to swim nearly 2,000 miles for spawning,” he notes. “That means you got to store up a lot of fat, and that fat is what creates a significant amount of flavor and health profiles for the protein. “

Fishpeople has a unique approach to buying and selling fish. The company doesn’t just sell the product, but the story that comes with it. They have a website that tracks the fish from the time it is caught until the time it is sold to consumers. It also tells the consumer about the people who caught it and the fishery it came from. Baratoff says that consumers want to know that they are buying wild fish that is sustainably caught and good for them. They want that documentation - a sense of organic high quality that his company plans to provide.

“Consumers deserve to know, and consumers pay for that in this day and age.”

Certified as a B Corporation, Fishpeople is a unique kind of company - one that is supposed to be responsible to more than its shareholders. As a B Corporation it is also supposed to look at all the stakeholders involved. Baratoff says the “People” part of his company’s name is just as important as the “Fish”.

“Your stakeholder is everybody that’s within your supply chain network, if you think about it. And how you protect the rivers, how do you protect the fishermen, how do you protect the communities that those fishermen live in, how are you contributing to a healthy vibrant sustainable stewardship of natural resources. That comes from the appropriate merging and balancing of people, planet, and profit, and that’s at the core of who we are.”

Fishpeople has its chance to make a difference on the Yukon River where the salmon is not only fatty, but also one of the only sources of cash for local villagers.