Schoolhouse Fish Co. is brought to you by Eric Grundberg, Malena Marvin, Keeja the dog, and the F/V Happy Time. Eric and Malena are part of a wave of Alaskan entrepreneurs crafting businesses based on values. By keeping more fish revenues in coastal communities, prioritizing craftsmanship over volume, and supporting local nonprofits, Schoolhouse Fish Co. is doing their best to pay it forward to future generations of fish and fishing families. We’re excited to have Schoolhouse Fish Co. kick-off our new Q&A series highlighting AMCC members!
How long have you been commercial fishing? What drew you to this work?
Eric: I began fishing commercially over a decade ago in my early 20s. I had come to Petersburg to work seasonally for my uncle’s sea kayaking business and decided to stay and try a different line of work. Commercial fishing is the biggest industry in Petersburg and it was a good fit for me. I enjoyed working hard outdoors and knew that if I stuck with it I could eventually run my own boat and fishing business. Six years ago I ran a 42 ft. power troller, the F/V Happytime, and became a salmon troller. Malena joined me 3 years ago and now we operate Schoolhouse Fish Co. together.
The Happytime is outfitted for diving and I also take it out in the late fall with a sea cucumber diving crew. I still go longlining for halibut and work the herring roe-on-kelp fishery with friends on other boats.
What would most seafood consumers be surprised to learn about your life as a small-boat commercial fisherman?
Eric and Malena: I think many people think of fishing as just that, fishing. But fishing is just the tip of the iceberg for our business. Eric works incredibly hard to keep all the working parts of our boat in good repair and is constantly fixing and improving it. Malena works on developing the Schoolhouse Fish Co. brand, as well as on learning the best ways to connect our salmon with people all over Alaska and the lower 48. By necessity, small boat fishermen must also be active advocates and we put a lot of time into that. Eric stays on top of all the fisheries politics that impact us as trollers and longliners, and Malena is passionate about protecting clean water.
Why did you start direct marketing your catch?
Malena: Like many fishermen, Eric was busy enough for many years just running and maintaining the boat on his own. After we got together we had more capacity to sell our own fish and wanted to set up a family business that would reflect our values. My experience with marketing combined with Eric’s experience with fishing meant we had a strong skill set for successfully selling our own quality seafood. We saw that by marketing our own fish we could get a more stable price since we would sell direct to customers rather than send our fish into a complex global market. At the same time, we are finding that more and more people actually want to know their fishermen and see first hand that they are supporting sustainable business.
What do you especially love about your fishing livelihood?
Malena: Eric and I both love the tides and living a “tidal life.” We enjoy that our fishing business and way of life are set to a natural rhythm that we have no choice but to follow. We also love our way of life in Petersburg, and getting to share so much wild food and wild places with a special island community.
What’s happening in the small-boat commercial fishing industry that is exciting or encouraging?
We love seeing new direct-market businesses pop up and more young friends getting fishing boats. It’s also wonderful that more and more seafood lovers are choosing to support people like us. It feels great to see people learning about what makes us different and appreciate the care we put into being conscientious and environmentally-minded fisher people.
What do you see as the biggest threat to your way of life as a small-boat commercial fisherman?
Unlabeled farmed and GMO salmon pose a threat to businesses like ours that depend on marketing actual wild and healthy salmon. In order to support small-boat fishermen like us, we’d also like to see the state of Alaska get serious about protecting the clean water and habitat that are the foundation of our fisheries. The state has invested a lot in marketing “wild Alaskan” seafood, but our politicians also have to be firm with environmental policies that will keep our seafood products pure and clean for future generations.
What advice would you share with others looking to start a small business?
Malena: Obviously being successful with a small business is a lot of work, but it’s also an opportunity to be creative. Small businesses are all about implementing dreams and I think the more you can identify and feel stoked about living your biggest dreams, the more successful you will be!
What part of AMCC’s work resonates most with you?
Malena and Eric: We love that there is more and more overlap between advocacy work and entrepreneurship, and that AMCC is embracing that sweet spot between traditional nonprofit work and that of small business. You are leading the way here in AK in showing that “growing the economy” and “saving the planet” are really the same thing if we do it right!
Where in Alaska would you like to visit or spend more time?
Malena and Eric: The fishing season doesn’t leave a ton of time for summer recreation, but we’d love to get out and float more of Alaska’s amazing rivers. We are lucky to live right next to the Stikine, but would like to travel to the northern part of the state and experience more wild Alaska!