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Alaska fishing co-op's longevity tied to ability to adapt.

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Alaska is the country's largest producer of wild-caught seafood, so it's not surprising that Alaska is also home to the country's largest fishermen's cooperative. The Seafood Producer's Cooperative (SPC) is made up of 525 fishermen members who primarily harvest hook- and line-caught albacore tuna, halibut, sablefish, salmon and rockfish.

The cooperative is modeled after agricultural cooperatives, where each member-owner has a capital investment in the enterprise. The seafood industry is highly competitive and there are few companies that have survived in it as long as SPC.

The key to its success has been its ability to adapt and change. SPC was originally called the Halibut Producers Cooperative when established in 1944. It started out supplying the U.S. military with vitamin A made from halibut liver.

Co-op survives changing market

Shortly after World War II, scientists discovered how to synthesize vitamin A, and the cooperative found that halibut liver no longer had much value. To survive, the co-op had to adapt to the changing market, which it did.

The co-op changed its name and transformed itself into a broader, seafood-producing enterprise. Over time, it began to focus on high-value, branded, fresh and frozen products. Today, it markets a significant share of Alaska's troll-caught salmon and markets under its own Alaska Gold brand. Each fish is caught and handled individually, never allowed to "pile up on the deck." In the co-op's processing plant, from filet to freezer takes less than one hour.

So, while it has a long history, SPC scarcely resembles the institution that it once was. The co-op's ability to adapt to changing markets continues to be the key to its success.

Consumers today expect a lot from their food. Not only do they care about its taste and nutritional content, they also care about its environmental, social and economic implications. SPC has been able to address these expectations by marketing itself, its members and their products as "the complete package."

When consumers buy salmon or halibut from SPC, they are buying from a fishery that has been "certified sustainable" by the Marine Stewardship Council and caught by a fisherman who is being paid a fair price.

Story beyond the plate

SPC tries to give its customers the story behind what's on their plate. The cooperative is able to "connect the dots" from the fisherman on a boat, to the restaurant or grocery store, and finally to customers, sitting down to their meals.

To help fishermen tell their story, SPC added a "featured fisherman" page to its website (http://www.spcsales.com/), with vignettes describing individual SPC members, who they are, how they started off in the industry, and the pride they have for their work.

It's easier for a cooperative to do this kind of marketing. As owners, SPC members benefit directly when they share their story with their customers.

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Craig Shoemaker, the SPC plant manager, explains: "The fishermen who produce the product own the cooperative, and I don't think that private companies can market themselves to that degree."

In keeping with its successful tradition, SPC continues to change while remaining focused on providing the best service to its members.

By Andrew Crow, Alaska Cooperative Development Program
COPYRIGHT 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Business - Cooperative Service
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:CO-OP MONTH
Author:Crow, Andrew
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Sep 1, 2011
Words:533
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