Starting, growing, and maintaining a small family business is tough, regardless of the industry you are in. Even the bravest and smartest entrepreneur is climbing a steep mountain, and now they are all facing the “great unknown” that Covid-19 is throwing at us.
Seventeen years of living in Western Washington introduced us to small boat fishermen and shellfish “gardeners.” We learned about tuna fishing, Alaska salmon fishing, and nurturing oysters, mussels, and geoduck (hard to say but worth a pretty penny).
While there, we met Pete Knutson and his family and bought many pounds of fish caught by his sons and family friends.
Loki Fish Co. has been going strong for more than 40 years, and has evolved from a single fishing boat to a vertically-integrated, direct marketing company selling a wide variety of fresh, frozen, and processed fish products in Washington, Oregon, and northern California, as well as through an online store and online resellers.
Small food-based businesses like Loki have a special role; they bring diversity, innovation, sustainability, and vitality to local and regional food systems. Big commercial fishing operations must compromise quality in exchange for cost, degrading the value of the food they deliver.
Like small family farmers, small boat fishers like Pete Knutson and his family not only harvest their product, they have to carefully handle it, process or package it, and take it to market.
And like small farmers, small boat fishers must deal with Federal, state, and local regulations and requirements; complex food safety and handling requirements, pricing that benefits multiple middlemen, and a convoluted supply chain that often seems determined to keep them out of the marketplace altogether.
Launched in 1979, with a single boat, the F/V Loki, Pete began gillnet fishing in the Clarence Strait of southeastern Alaska and in Washington’s Puget Sound.
His wife and partner Hing Lau Ng managed the business, kept the books, and secured the home port. Two sons, Jonah and Dylan, grew up to become integral parts of the family business; Jonah fishes from the Loki (Pete now captains the Njord) and Dylan runs the land-based parts of the business, still with Hing’s help.
The small boat fishing community in Puget Sound was at one time a major supplier of fish to the cities, towns, and villages that ring the Sound. The coming and going of the fishing fleet was part of the region’s lifeblood, and fresh, smoked, dried, salted, and pickled fish was a rich food source.
Today, small boat fishers are continually threatened by huge commercial fishing operations whose goal is to catch as much fish as they are allowed as quickly as possible. Fishing has become a commodity business in a global market place where cost is the driving factor.
Operations made up of huge boats, networks of tenders collecting the catch from each boat, and “on-the-water” processing plants can’t focus on careful handling to maintain quality and taste when the speed of the catch and processing is paramount.
Loki Fish Company, though now selling more than $1 million worth of fish a year, is still a small business by any measure. Loki buys fish from 4 boats (manned by 4 captains and 6 deck hands) and sells direct to consumers, restaurants, and retailers. Seattle’s land-based crew amounts to 3 full-time employees, 3 part-time employees, and 6 farmers market helpers. In Alaska, there are 3 part-time hands who stage totes, load and drive trucks, and help with errands.
The bulk of the harvest comes from fishing in southeast Alaska between mid to late June and mid to late August, although some of the boats may stay through mid September, depending on the weather and the catch. In Puget Sound, from mid October to mid November, the catch consists of Keta salmon every year and Pink salmon every other year, on the odd-numbered years.
Small food-based businesses like Loki Fish Company have a special role in our food system: they bring diversity, innovation, sustainability, and vitality to our local economy. As consumers, when we talk about good food, so often we forget that responsibly caught wild fish are an excellent value.
Puget Sound’s small boat fishers are critical to our local and regional food systems and deliver high quality products, while big commercial fishing operations must compromise quality in exchange for cost, degrading the value of the food they deliver.
Through skill, intuition, luck, and lots of hard work, Loki Fish Company has built a recognized brand and successful business by meeting and overcoming the many challenges small family-owned businesses face year after year.
Missing your favorite restaurant dinner? Make it at home! Get Loki salmon sent to your doorstep. Pete, Hing, Jonah, and Dylan thank you!