In the summer of 1973, Trident Seafoods co-founder Chuck Bundrant went to a Tacoma shipyard to launch the Billikin, a 135-foot steel boat able to operate for more than a month offshore, catching and processing crab with a crew of 16.
Back then, Trident was a new startup working out of a couple of trailers in Seattle’s Ballard waterfront. Chuck Bundrant took the Billikin north to the Bering Sea, where he was able to earn an early fortune tapping into red king crab stocks that surged through the ’70s.
A half-century later, the Bering Sea red king crab populations have plummeted — the harvests shut down for the past two years as biologists study their fate in a changing northern climate. Still, the waters off Alaska continue to produce pollock, cod and other fish that account for the most tonnage in the U.S. seafood harvest.
And Trident, which this past week began a 50th anniversary celebration, has prospered from this bounty.
The privately held corporation is the nation’s largest vertically integrated seafood company. It owns two shipyards, a fleet of 37 vessels working off Alaska and 12 shore plants that stretch along a long arc of the state’s coastline. Secondary processing facilities are in Washington, Minnesota and Georgia, as well as in China, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Latin America.
Trident offers a kind of one-stop shopping for seafood with product lines ranging from smoked sockeye to beer-battered cod fillets.
“On our value-added side, we’re investing in research and development to create more consumer-friendly products that are competitively priced with other proteins, and easier for people to prepare at home,” said Joe Bundrant, Trident’s CEO.
Bundrant, 56, is Chuck Bundrant’s son, and got his start at Trident as a 13-year-old working a Bristol Bay summer salmon season. He took over as CEO in 2013 from his father, who died in 2021 at age 79.
Trident’s headquarters office is still in Ballard, which remains a hub of the North Pacific fishing industry even as Seattle, in the decades since the Billikin first went to sea, has had a massive economic makeover spurred by a regional tech boom. The city also has had a hard reckoning amid surging homelessness, drug addiction and crime that has battered the downtown area, and caused some businesses, such as Nike and Columbia Sportswear, to shutter retail storefronts.
Trident occupies a Ballard building in the Salmon Bay Center office complex on Shilshole Avenue, and Bundrant says the company remains committed to Seattle.
“So we have Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon. It’s a great city with a very diverse economy. But I think the seafood industry is a very quiet and significant contributor,” Bundrant said.
Trident employs some 9,000 people, including seasonal workers.
Forbes put Trident revenues at $2.6 billion as of December; Bundrant declines to comment on published estimates of company earnings.
“We don’t have to report those things,” Bundrant said. “People have described us as media shy or defiantly private.”
Trident once might have had a very different fate as a subsidiary of a publicly traded company.
In a 2002 interview with The Seattle Times, Chuck Bundrant recalled how Tyson Foods offered a pile of stock and cash to acquire Trident. “It was very tempting,” said Chuck Bundrant, who later bought out Tyson’s investments in the North Pacific fishing industry.
“Not too many companies make it 50 years,” Joe Bundrant said, “and I’m honored to serve the organization and the industry and celebrate the success we have had.”
The pollock play
For Trident today, Alaska pollock, the largest single-species catch in North America, is a mainstay processed at the massive Akutan plant that Chuck Bundrant built back in 1981. Pollock can be used to make white fish fillets and fish sticks, and byproduct includes meal used as aquaculture feed. It also can be made into a paste called surimi. At a Trident plant in Minnesota, the surimi is transformed into products such as a flaked protein that resembles crab meat.
“They really pushed to develop American markets for Alaska pollock. And that has been spectacularly successful,” said John Sackton, the former editor and current a columnist for SeafoodNews.com.
Trident’s waste disposal practices at Akutan and other plants have drawn scrutiny from regulators. In September 2011, Trident agreed to pay $2.5 million to resolve alleged Clean Water Act violations, and to invest more than $30 million to build a fish meal plant at a Naknek salmon plant and reduce discharges at Akutan and three other plants.
Dennis McLerran, then the Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator in Seattle, called the settlement a “game changer” that would be better for the environment as well as Trident’s bottom line.
Joe Bundrant faced one of his biggest challenges at Trident as COVID-19 both tanked restaurant markets for seafood and posed a major health threat to processing workers who live and work in remote Alaska locations.
In spring 2020, Bundrant imposed a quarantine policy that required two weeks of isolation in hotel rooms for shore-side processing workers and at-sea crews, a significant new expense for Trident.
But in early 2021, Trident’s largest plant in Akutan had a major COVID outbreak, which prompted the corporation to shut down that operation for three weeks at peak pollock season. COVID infected more than 300 workers, and one worker died at the plant.
Bundrant said that Trident now has a vaccination requirement for workers going to work on ships and Alaska shore plants, and no employees have been hospitalized since that policy was put in place. If people come down with COVID at a plant, they are put in isolation facilities. “People get quarantined for a week, and their symptoms go away and they’re back to work,” Bundrant said.
Difficult times for crabbers
A year of commemorating Trident’s 50th anniversary kicked off Tuesday, which would have been Chuck Bundrant’s 81st birthday, with a gathering at Ballard’s Ray’s Boathouse.
On Wednesday, Joe Bundrant took off to Alaska to visit communities where Trident Seafood plants are based. He arrives at a fraught time for the crabbing industry in which his father got his start.
One of Bundrant’s stops will be at the Bering Sea island of St. Paul, which this time of year should be in full production mode processing snow crab. This winter, for the first time ever, the snow crab harvest was called off due to a lack of mature males. And that, on top of the cancellation of the fall king crab harvest, dealt a big financial blow to the city of St. Paul, which relies on taxes generated by the plant to fund much of its budget.
In the Gulf of Alaska, some 7.3 million pounds of bairdi, a kind of larger cousin of snow crab, are available for a winter harvest. But fishers have been upset over prices offered by processors, and in Kodiak they spent two weeks at the docks before agreeing on prices and heading out to the harvest earlier this week.
Sackton said U.S. crab markets have been in a downturn, and there have been ample supplies internationally of snow crab.
“We don’t talk about our relationships with our customers or fishermen or employees, or anything to do with prices,” Bundrant said. “But I will just say that the economy is global. And there’s crab that comes out of Russia [and] eastern Canada, and they’re all intertwined.”
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