Tomorrow’s Technology Today, in an Age-old Business
Sustainability is not simply a catchphrase for Alaska cod catcher Blue North; it is the foundation of its entire operations. Blue North is a Seattle-based natural resources company that has embedded sustainability into its ethical business model while redefining old industries. The company is using new technology to achieve maximum utilization and improve quality and efficiency.
Fishing has both a long legacy and a promising future. Blue North takes this old business that has been traditionally slow to evolve and has transformed it through the adoption and integration of new technology including “Humane Harvest™” to redefine what is possible. Blue North has become a leader in the Alaska cod industry and environmental stewardship as a result.
“We take sustainability very seriously in all that we do,” said Kenny Down, president and CEO of Blue North. “That’s the backbone of everything we do here: ethically harvested, sustainable products. And we’re very fortunate to be fishing in this hook and line sector, which is an incredibly low impact fishing method. We’re catching fish one at a time, and that’s something we believe in.”
Blue North has successfully operated for almost four decades. Brothers and co-founders, Mike and Pat Burns, were attracted to the bountiful natural resources and beauty of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest in the late-1970s.
The brothers now make a living for themselves and their nearly three hundred employees. Before embarking on the venture, the Burns’, who were originally from upstate New York, worked for local fishermen. Eventually, they pooled their resources to purchase their first boat: the Chesapeake. They then entered the long line fishery and went hook and line fishing for cod in the Bering Sea.
“We chose long lining, number one, because it was still an open fishery that we could get into,” noted Pat Burns, co-founder and vice president of Blue North. “We liked the thought of catching fish one at a time. We thought it could be sustainable. I mean we didn’t call it sustainable then, but we realized that it was a low impact way to fish.”
Blue North originally long-lined for halibut, black cod and grey cod in the Gulf of Alaska and tendered salmon from time to time. The company grew and its fleet expanded. Eventually, it added crab boats to its fleet.
“We could see the cod fishery in the Bering Sea really taking off, and there was room for expansion there,” said Pat. “That’s when we got our first freezer long liner.” Blue North shifted its interest completely to Alaska cod fishing. It added several other vessels to its fleet and sold its crab assets.
“We conceded that there was a really bright future in this fishery, and at that point, we made the decision to modernize our fleet. We built a super-efficient, fuel-efficient, labor-efficient and product-efficient vessel,” Pat noted. “We looked all over the world at different models.” Eventually, they choose a Norwegian-inspired design for its freezer long liner: the Blue North.
The Blue North has revolutionized a very old industry by employing new technology and processes to support the company’s ethical business model. The industry has evolved from row boats to what has been described as, “a magnificent vessel.”
Blue North has found a way to get the most out of its capacity while complying with quotas. “I’ve been in the business for thirty years doing this cod fishery,” said Kenny, “and every year we go up to fish, and every year the cod are there, and every year we harvest what the scientists say is the sustainable amount and no more. We’ve never once in our history gone over. We get our limit, and we stop. We’re fishing in a co-op now, so every single vessel that has a license to enter this fishery is doing exactly the same thing, and it works out beautifully.”
Since production is limited to ensure the sustainability of the fishery and the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest, Blue North has had to identify new ways to make its labor, products and processes efficient. This has been done through the new vessel capabilities of the Fishing Vessel or “F/V Blue North.
The F/V Blue North is setting the standard for the future of the company’s entire fleet and perhaps even the future of the industry. This is amongst the most environmentally friendly, low-impact and technologically-advanced vessels in the world.
“We spent a lot of money on this boat, for crew comforts, for instance,” said Kenny of the new vessel. “We want to attract the very best of the best fishermen in the Bering Sea to come and work for Blue North and to be an attractive company, it’s about more than the bottom line. These are investments for the comfort and safety of the crew as well.”
While still equipped with the hook and line capacities that are critical to Blue North’s sustainable operations, the vessel is designed to facilitate the careful release of non-target species and more efficiently use harvested proteins that currently go to waste.
The F/V Blue North is equipped to produce boneless cod fillets, cod loins and will expand with a host of vacuum-packed, consumer-ready products on board. Each fish is processed and frozen within minutes of being caught to result in a superior quality product.
The Blue North results in lower emissions and fuel savings of thirty percent or more when compared to more conventional vessels. Its molded hull construction provides lower resistance which results in a more efficient flow through the water. The vessel is “slippery,” say experts in ship design. Again this is a higher upfront investment but is greener, provides lower greenhouse gas emissions and results in savings over time.
According to Pat, no other vessel in the Bering Sea will have the same capabilities as the Blue North. “We’ll be sailing with the same amount of crew, but this is beyond any ship, it’s a factory. We’ll be able to put up various by-products with the same amount of labor, and it will be easier to work out of this boat because of the automation.” The automation includes automatic loading and unloading freezers, conveyors to move product and an automated vessel offload system. The fishing gear itself is fully outfitted with the latest in automation and efficiency.
Not only has Blue North established itself as a leader in fishing, it has become a leader in the management of the industry as well. Last year, Kenny was appointed to a seat on the North Pacific Management Council by Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee and confirmed by the US Secretary of Commerce.
“We continue to be leaders in the management of the fishery,” Kenny proudly stated. “We’re fortunate to fish in the North Pacific, the pristine waters of the coast of Alaska.”
It also has a firm commitment to “Humane Harvest™,” which supports the ethical treatment and handling of wild fish. The approach emphasizes the benefits of humane fishing and encourages other harvesters to make all efforts possible to decrease the stress, pain and fear experienced by the fish when captured and processed.
Mike Burns, co-founder and chairman of Blue North, was a major proponent of the adoption of the Humane Harvest Initiative™. “There is nothing revolutionary about it; we are just taking the principle guidelines from one industry to another,” he said, referring to the work of Temple Grandin in improving the conditions of cattle.
“It’s a lot easier for people to relate to cattle being mistreated or chickens, but animals that live in the ocean are so far removed from the public purview,” Mike explained. “One day it just occurred to me, we are involved with all of these land animals, and of course, our biggest business is seafood. Shouldn’t we take the principles that we adhere to in the cattle business and apply them to the fish?”
“The two studies we’ve done with Washington State University confirm what a wide body of scientific evidence already proves on this Humane Harvest™,” Kenny said. “You have a higher vitamin content, particularly vitamins A, B and C. You have higher mineral content from stunning a fish immediately. You get a better bleeding process. You have fish filets that have a better water content and a better shelf life.” “Our studies have confirmed that the Blue North method of Humane Harvest™ is achieving results in line with a mounting body of scientific evidence.” More information on Humane Harvest™ can be found at bluenorth.com, http://bluenorth.com/home/#/humane-harvest/
“People tend to keep doing things the way they have been. It’s kind of a unique business in that people can still go out in boats that are one hundred years old and still make a living,” Mike noted, referring to a still functioning halibut schooner fleet in Seattle. “They are still catching the fish the same way they were one hundred years ago, which is inspiring, but there are better and newer ways.”
Though the fisheries operations make up the bulk of Blue North’s portfolio, with five of its own vessels as well as its managed fleet, the company is active in several other natural resource sectors including timber products, agriculture, shipbuilding and land development. All of its businesses are run with a strong commitment to sustainability.
Blue North’s timber business has received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI). Its agricultural operations have been recognized by Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO), and its fisheries operations are low impact and increasingly sustainable through the adoption of more efficient and effective vessels, tools and technology.
“We take a one hundred year or longer vision back,” said Kenny, “but we primarily look forward into the future. Blue North works hard every day to be the market makers in our industry. We’re building this modern ship. We’re the first fishing company in the world to enter into Humane Harvest™, recognizing that these fish are sentient beings and deserve ethical treatment at harvest, so we do everything we can.”
Though ninety percent of its product is exported to Asian countries, as well as Norway, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil, the company is poised to take full advantage of domestic market growth.
“As the U.S. consumer becomes more finicky about the type of seafood that they are eating, we are going to be there to increase our share of the U.S. market,” stated Kenny. “The types of products that consumers are demanding are right in line with these filet products and what we are doing with the Humane Harvest Initiative™, with Alaska, wild-caught, sustainable fish.”
“The market is expanding at an order of magnitude faster than the willingness and the ability of the fleet to change,” Kenny concluded. This is exactly why Blue North is investing heavily in overhauling its fleet to take full advantage of the growing market for its high-quality products.