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!
As many of us know, the best way to contribute to the wider health of our environment is to simply use less. Yet, life is fraught with little obstacles that make minimizing our consumption difficult. So we do our best, and we probably follow the familiar “reduce, reuse, recycle” adage when possible. But, inevitably as human beings, we still create waste. One possible contribution to reducing waste is through upcycling – a concept AMCC business members Norb Smerecki and Agi Smerecka, owners of Kettu and crafters of upcycled bags and accessories, utilize in their business. To gather further insight into their business and ethos we poised a few questions about their creative process, their perspective on upcycling/recycling, and their connection to the ocean.
To see Kettu’s current creations please visit the online store.
Are you interested in becoming a business member? Check out AMCC’s business member page.
“We love salmon. Salmon love healthy oceans. We love oceans. We are all connected.”
– Norb Smerecki and Agi Smerecka
Q: What inspired your creations and products?
A: Simple answer is Alaska. This is a great land in which raw beauty is displayed in abundance. There is so much to explore. All this open space invites one to come in and enjoy it. It is therefore easy to get inspired just by living here. When you are away from noise and chaos creativity has a tendency to storm your mind. You are influenced by natural surroundings and energized to create.
Q: Why recycle/upcycle? And how do you incorporate your business ethos of contributing to a healthy environment into your own wider life?
A: Upcycling is really an old concept, which has been practiced by mankind for a long time. Before throwing it away, look at something with a new perspective. Chances are that what was bound to become useless scrap will turn into useful treasure. Upcycling/recycling is so important because we generate way too much waste. Taking some of this stuff out of our environment and giving it another life is a win for everyone.
Our daily life includes a lot of upcycling, which happens in our sewing shop. At home we upcycle, recycle, eat organic and local foods, and spend hours enjoying outdoors. The connection with environment is ever present. When you are part of something so grand you want to do something to help it to stay that way. You want to preserve it.
Q: In your mission statement you note that part of the unique nature of your items is derived from the story of its past. What is your favorite story behind a material you use or an item you have crafted?
A: Our story begins with a couple of bike tubes, a sewing machine, and an idea. We started out sewing mainly out of bike tubes. Gradually, with time we introduced other materials and combined them into finished products. When we were doing our hybrid backpack project we fused four repurposed materials together: bike tubes, truck tube, fire hose, and wet suit. Each material had its own story. In our minds we imagined their past life. Bike tubes perhaps on a long trek on Seward Highway. Fire hose from local Homer fire station was used to put out a number of fires… brave fire fighters who used it. Truck tube had its share of heavy hauling. Maybe a hardy surfer braved cold Alaskan waters in search of the best wave while wearing this suit. This backpack will take all of its history into a new adventure wherever it will go.
Q: What is your connection to the ocean? And why do you feel stewardship of our ocean and our environment is important?
A: We can’t imagine Alaska without it’s magnificent coastline. Each morning when we open the curtains Kachemak Bay greets us with a new and fresh visual treat. We play on the local beaches. Whenever we go away we miss it immensely. The ocean sustains life. It is a home to many forms of life. The ocean is a source of valuable food. We love salmon. Salmon love healthy oceans. We love oceans. We are all connected.
Today, we continue our series on family fishing traditions that highlights the next generation of fishermen that have grown up as part of the extended Alaska Marine Conservation Council family. We were inspired by our friends at The Salmon Project who recently showcased some of our favorite fishing women: Lexi Fish Hackett of Sitka, and Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis (aka The Salmon Sisters). Lexi, Claire, and Emma Teal are the daughters of our founding board members Steve Fish and Buck Laukitis.
We caught up with Lexi, Claire, and Emma Teal on childhoods spent fishing and what their hopes are for future fishing generations. In the first edition we highlighted Lexi Fish Hackett of Sitka, and in this edition we showcase the Salmon Sisters, Claire and Emma Teal Laukitis.
Like we said before, it’s hard to describe how it feels to see these young women step into the roles of conservation-minded fishermen, stewards of the resource, business owners, and mothers. The simplest way to sum is: it’s why we do what we do at the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
At AMCC, we believe in sustaining ties to family, community, and to the ocean that nourishes us so deeply. We believe in nourishing the next generation of fishermen and leaders like Lexi, Claire, Emma, and many other young fishermen across Alaska that we have the pleasure of knowing and admiring.
Through their business the Salmon Sisters, Emma and Claire have been especially generous to AMCC, joining early on as a business member, creating a special “Our Oceans” hoodie with a portion of proceeds going to AMCC, and most recently donating revenue from sales of their young fishermen apparel to support young fishermen. We hope you will join Claire and Emma in supporting AMCC’s work.
In Alaska, it’s the time of year where we apply for our annual PFD.
AMCC is an official Pick.Click.Give. organization and we hope you will consider donating a portion of your PFD to AMCC’s work to bolster the next generation of young fishing leaders.
For additional instructions on how to allocate a portion of your PFD to AMCC, click here.
Q&A on Family Fishing Traditions with Salmon Sisters, Claire Neaton & Emma Laukitis
Question: How long have you been fishing for and what’s your favorite thing about fishing?
Claire & Emma: We grew up on our dad’s boat, but started fishing together as his crew when we were 12 and 13. Our favorite part about fishing is that it’s guaranteed time together as a family — we’ve gotten to know each other and our parents in a different way because of long summer days together at sea. When we were in college on the East Coast, we always looked forward to returning to Alaska to fish for the summers, and still feel an innate seasonal pull back to the ocean.
Question: What does it mean to you to continue your family’s fishing tradition?
Claire & Emma: Our family’s fishing traditions began with our parents, who moved to Alaska in their 20’s. So, our own tradition is young. But our parents learned skills from fishermen on the back deck of boats and on the dock, listened to stories from village elders, saw how fish were treated as a valuable resource and taught these values to my sister and me as we were growing up in False Pass. We continue our family’s fishing tradition by returning to the ocean each year to harvest fish sustainably, and in the off-season we spend our time and efforts celebrating our lifestyle as fishermen, the traditions that keep our industry and coastal communities strong, and the wild seafood that we catch with our business, Salmon Sisters.
Question: What types of lessons has your family passed down to you about stewardship our fisheries and oceans?
Claire & Emma: Our dad always taught us about the ocean — the geography, the birds, the tides, the way salmon swim upstream to spawn. A total education has allowed us to appreciate and respect where we work and the importance of our treatment of the resources there, how abuse of a resource will affect much more than itself. We have been taught that our family’s health is directly dependent on the health of the oceans, so we must do whatever we can to keep it in equilibrium, and thriving.
Question: What are some of your hopes for the future of our fisheries, your community, or the fishing legacy that future generations might inherit?
Claire & Emma: We hope that more young people will get involved in our fisheries and take responsibility for its health. Sustainable fisheries are about feeding yourself and others, without waste. If we can all keep this simplicity in mind, then there’s room to help the industry and ecosystem in other ways. Learning skills that will make us more efficient and smarter fishermen, getting educated on what our communities need and how we can help spread wild Alaska seafood across the globe. We hope the strength in the community of fishermen stays united and strong in the future, because our identities depend upon it.
Help celebrate and support the continuation of family fishing traditions like those of the Laukitis family and donate a portion of your PFD to AMCC this year. Together, we can create the kind of fishing future generations of Alaskans to come deserve.
AMCC has been working with Darius Kasprzak since they collaborated with Kodiak fishermen to secure a decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to set aside up to 6% of the Gulf of Alaska cod quota for the low-impact jig fleet, providing more opportunity for small boat and entry-level fishermen. Recently, AMCC’s Engagement and Development Manager, Samantha Baker, talked with Kasprzak about this jig set-aside, the creation of the Kodiak Jig Seafoods brand, and his support of AMCC as its newest business member.
Sam: How did you get started fishing in Alaska? What does fishing (and specifically jig fishing) symbolize for you?
Darius: I was raised and home schooled on the highly rural south end of Kodiak Is. At age 14, I began crewing on a salmon setnet site along with my father, to make fall spending money for my first school year in a community (Kodiak High School).
Fishing symbolizes an independent, self employed method to make a living close to the ocean. Jig fishing in particular reflects an entry level and open access means to independently harvest premium seafood in a sustainable, low ecosystem impact fashion without reliance on heavy, expensive gear or a plethora of crew.
S: How did you first come to work with AMCC?
D: I first came to work with with AMCC almost a decade ago, during a grassroots struggle against fishery privatization in the Gulf of Alaska.
S: What is your perception of AMCC on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and in the world of fisheries policy?
D: AMCC testifies and is represented at NPFMC meetings, and consistently defends community fishing interests – in terms of available resource access that coexists with the necessary conservation and sustainable harvesting safeguards of responsible marine resource extraction.
S: What are ways you’ve seen AMCC’s work impact Kodiak? How do you perceive AMCC’s role in the region?
D: AMCC affiliation brings diverse subsets of community residents together, in order to galvanize action necessary to maintain the viability of resident, small scale, and family fishing operations – against marine ecosystem desecration, privatization, vertical integration, consolidation and other related aspects of large scale corporate greed and ambivalence towards preexisting socioeconomic patterns and overall social fabric cohesion.
I perceive AMCC’s role as twofold – (1) as that of whistleblower against unsustainable, or environmentally unsound marine resource extraction practices, and (2) as an advocate for policies that foster productive, harmonious port communities.
S: What did the jig set-aside mean for Kodiak fishermen? What did it mean for you and your fishing business?
D: The Federal jig set asides (Pacific cod and rockfish) meant the ability to jig harvest beyond the boundaries of State jurisdiction, without having to invest in expensive licenses or permits. They also provide a dedicated summertime jig fishery in the GOA, even if the State managed jig fishery has already been closed. As a full time jig fisherman, the set asides mean to me a much higher level of job security during the fair weather of summer, as well as expanded range and spatial opportunity to harvest.
S: What has the creation of Kodiak Jig Seafoods meant to you? How do you see this brand growing into the future?
D: KJS realizes an opportunity to showcase the unique and desirable aspects of the jig fishery (sustainable harvesting through artesian hand tended hook and line fishing, and exceptional product quality). KJS provides an alternative to large scale multi-sector corporate processor markets, and contributes to incentivizing free-market style ex-vessel price competition amongst various seafood buyers within my community.
S: How has Kodiak Jig Seafoods been received in Kodiak? How has it been received by others you’ve talked to (i.e. chefs, lodge owners, consumers, etc.)?
D: KJS has been received favorably in Kodiak. Small scale processing facilities appreciate the processing business. Jig fisherfolk appreciate the enhanced sales revenue, in conjunction with elevated pride of their special product recognition amongst local and instate consumers, restaurants, lodges, etc.
S: What else do you have to say about Kodiak, being a fisherman, anything else?
D: Love it! AMCC, keep up the good work!