While the first Copper River salmon hit markets and tables in Seattle on May 18, the first fish arrived in Anchorage on time for dinner on the day of the first opener, thanks to processing newcomer 60° North Seafoods.
Out on the Copper River flats, F/V Genevieve Rose captain John Derek Wiese and deckhand Robert Silveira harvested the Chinooks and Reds, quickly offloading them to the waiting helicopter.
A helicopter carrying a sling load of the fresh salmon from 60° North, Cordova’s new fisherman-owned seafood processing plant, arrived at the Merle K. (Mudhole) Smith Airport in Cordova on May 17 while the opener was still in progress. The fish were loaded onto a Piper Navajo Chieftain and off to Anchorage.
“First fish is a celebration of the start of Alaska’s wild salmon season,” explained John Derek Wiese, co-owner of 60° North. “It does get to be a race with processors and markets to be the actual first fish to market, but it’s mostly for fun and bragging rights.”
Wiese spoke highly of the first fish celebration in Seattle and Alaska Airlines’ media red carpet event, crediting them as probably unmatchable promotion for their industry.
Getting the salmon to Anchorage for dinner before the fleet had returned was a collaborative effort between 60° North, 10th & M Seafoods, Regal Air, and Ridgeline Aviation.
“We wanted this first fish to go to Alaska because this is an Alaska based company and fisherman owned,” co-owner Rich Wheeler said. “Alaskans are just excited about the start of their salmon season as everyone,” Wiese added.
60° North was founded by Wheeler, Sena Wheeler and John Derek Wiese.
“Quality is what honors the Copper River fish,” Sena said. “The more of us that get high quality fish out there, is better for Cordova, for all the Copper River fishermen.”
On Aug. 1, Ross Swanes of Northern Fish contacted Rich Wheeler to see if he’d be interested in buying the facility, a plant he and Sena had been sending their fish to for years.
“They really wanted it to be for the community and for the fishermen,” Sena said. Swanes wanted it to go to a fishing family, she said.
On Sept. 5, after numerous phone calls and meetings, Rich contacted Wiese and they hit the ground running.
“What John has brought to the table legitimizes our being in Cordova,” Rich said. “That connection to the fleet, he legitimizes what we’re doing here.”
The Wheelers have spent the last several years honing their skills on direct marketing high quality frozen fish across the lower 48 through their company, Sena Sea, while Wiese has been working on direct marketing high quality fresh fish through his company, Copper River Fresh.
“With quality as the pinnacle, that’s what makes it a perfect fit,” Sena said. “We have the same kind of quality goals, but with different expertise.”
Sena earned a master’s degree from Oregon State University in food science, writing her thesis on Omega-3 in the onboard handling techniques correlated to sensory quality. “It’s really full circle for us to be doing this endeavor,” she said.
Through the two different product lines servicing a variety of customers, 60° North provides custom wholesale, custom retail, custom direct marketers, label printing capabilities, custom marketing and traceability.
“We catch and buy fish from quality minded fishermen, process to order, and ship to retail and wholesale markets or consumers throughout the U.S.,” Wiese said. “We also provide custom processing for sport, subsistence and commercial direct market fishermen.”
They plan to include more value-added products such as smoking and thermal processing next season.
“During the darkest times of the winter, when we weren’t sure how it was going to turn out, we thought of the town of Cordova and that’s really why we pushed through and made this happen,” Sena said.
For seven months leading up to the first opener, Rich, Sena, Wiese and the rest of the staff worked 12-hour days to be ready for the season.
“The support we have seen from the community has been unreal and very much appreciated,” Wiese said. “I’ve heard lots of good responses in regards to locally owned processors, but being the small guys, we have a lot to learn about where we fit into the industry.”
On Monday, May 28, boats dotted the water waiting to deliver newly harvested Copper River salmon after the third opener. Royal blue hoodies sporting 60° North’s logo stood out against the silver bowpickers.
On the dock, 60° North employees worked in a rhythmic pattern, emptying brailer bags into slush ice totes, weighing and sorting each load, moving them quickly off the dock and into the processing plant.
By 4 a.m., they were ready to be shipped across the country.