BY HANNAH WALLACE
Duncan Berry at the Salmon River, with the 529-acre Westwind behind him. Berry is on the board of the nonprofit Westwind Stewardship Group.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
When Duncan Berry moved back to the Oregon Coast six years ago with his wife, Melany, he had no plans to return to the fishing industry. A longtime environmentalist and onetime captain of a salmon troller, Berry had just sold the Apparel Source, his $60 million-a-year textile company, and was eager for another venture that would combine his entrepreneurial background with his environmental ethics. In the shadow of Cascade Head, the rugged headland north of Lincoln City, Berry launched an environmental consulting business called Ecosystems Services.
In 2010 Berry served on a state task force that debated whether the sea surrounding Cascade Head should be deemed a protected marine reserve. Ultimately, the Cascade Head Marine Reserve community team recommended that a 30-square-kilometer area be protected. During the nine-month period of working alongside fishermen, conservationists, business leaders and politicians, Berry got an up-close look at the fishing industry’s supply chain.
What he saw was a disconnect between sophisticated urban consumers — who wanted to know where and how their fish were caught — and seafood processors, to whom “a fish is a fish is a fish.”
“I thought, ‘How do you unite a woman sitting at a kitchen table in Portland with a fisherman who is 60 miles off the Coast in his boat?’” says Berry.
Surprisingly, for a state with a vibrant $148 million fishing industry, there is a huge gap in the value-added segment of the market. A few small-scale operations, such as Sweet Creek Foods in Elmira and Sea Fare Pacific in Coos Bay, process and market Oregon fish, but unlike other coastal states, Oregon has no dominant seafood brand that markets a value-added, locally caught fish. Meanwhile, much of Oregon’s catch is shipped elsewhere. Though there is no hard data, Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, estimates that more than half of Oregon’s seafood harvest is exported each year.
“What’s happening is that all this incredible protein is going elsewhere, and those people are making money on our natural resources,” says Berry. “That is offensive to me as an Oregonian.”
So Berry, 57, set about creating a company that would capture some of Oregon’s rich seafood harvest for fish-loving Oregonians. After 16 months of research — interviewing everyone from fishermen to consumers about what was and wasn’t working for them regarding fish — Berry and investment partner Kipp Baratoff came up with an innovative product: a ready-to-eat, sustainably caught seafood meal, packaged in a foil “retort” pouch.
Christening his new company Fishpeople, Berry planned to launch four products in late September at New Seasons Market and Whole Foods in Oregon and Washington: salmon in a chardonnay-dill cream sauce; Thai coconut-lemongrass tuna; coconut-yellow curry tuna; and smoked salmon and oyster chowder. Almost everything about the product, down to the eye-catching logo (designed by Portland’s Sandstrom Partners), is made or harvested in Oregon.
Berry and his team — which at the beginning consisted of Melany, chef Christine Finson and brand manager Jodie Emmett de Maciel — conducted a dozen or so focus groups, mostly with female consumers in the Portland area. (Women tend to make food-buying decisions more than men.) One of the surprising revelations was that women, while they love eating omega-3-rich fish, avoid cooking it at home because of the bones, scales and odor.
“Women have an uncomfortable relationship with seafood,” says Berry. Though Oregonians, particularly Portlanders, have a reputation for being self-sufficient when it comes to food — witness the explosion of backyard gardens and newfound interest in canning and chicken rearing — this doesn’t apply when it comes to fish.
“Your general consumer is very afraid of cooking seafood,” agrees Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of both the Oregon Albacore Commission and the Oregon Salmon Commission. “They don’t know what to do with it. Therefore, they don’t buy it.”
In this squeamishness, Berry saw an opportunity. The retort pouch — made of food-grade laminate that is BPA-free — eliminates the smell and the mess of cooking raw fish. The fish is already scaled, filleted and cooked in a sauce made by Portland-based Heritage Specialty Foods, which sources nearly all the ingredients in the Pacific Northwest. The consumer’s task consists of throwing the pouch into a pot of boiling water for three minutes, opening it and pouring it over pasta or rice.
Though retort packaging for seafood is the norm in Asia and Europe, it may pose a stumbling block for Northwest consumers, whose limited experience with the technology is likely to be Tasty Bite vegetarian Indian meals. And the pouch may be BPA-free, but it’s not recyclable in its current form. Berry admits this is his biggest challenge, even as he argues that retort pouches have a lighter environmental footprint than cans. He says he and a consortium of businesspeople are working on the recycling issue, “because retort is here to stay.”
Ryan White, local grocery buyer for Portland-based New Seasons Market, initially had doubts about carrying the product precisely because of the unfamiliar packaging. “We don’t have anything on our shelves quite like this,” says White. But once he and Joel Dahll, director of grocery, tried the salmon in chardonnay cream sauce, White says it was a “no-brainer.” He bets customers will dismiss any hesitations about the pouch as soon as they taste the product themselves. The suggested price for a 7-ounce meal is $5.99.
White thinks Portlanders will also be hooked by Fishpeople’s socially and environmentally responsible ethos. The company’s story starts with sourcing troll-caught Oregon fish (one of the most sustainable fishing methods, trolling minimizes bycatch) and keeping jobs for fishermen, medium-sized processors and sauce-makers in Oregon. It includes a “keeping it regional” approach that will limit distribution of the entrees to just Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Northern California may soon follow.
“We don’t want to ship a ton of Northwest tuna to Maine,” says Berry, who thinks that the future of business will be in regionally based models. In the Northwest, Berry is targeting 600-odd retail stores, including New Seasons, Whole Foods and Seattle’s PCC Natural Markets. He’s also talking with food-service providers such as Aramark and Sodexo, who are keen on carrying a bulk version of the product.