Chuck Bundrant, an epic figure in North Pacific fisheries who started his career as a deck hand on a crabber and went on to cofound Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, died Sunday at his Edmonds home. He was 79.
Bundrant was a fierce competitor who played a pivotal role in ushering in a new era in harvests off Alaska as foreign fleets were pushed out of the 200-mile zone and Americans rushed in to catch pollock, crab, black cod and other seafood. And as U.S. fleets gained control, he fought to ensure that Trident’s network of shoreside processing plants and seagoing vessels would prosper.
“Friends and people mattered, and his word and his honor,” said Brent Paine, executive director of the United Catcher Boats, a group of trawl vessels whose owners do business with Trident. “He would do million-dollar handshake deals, and he would stick to it.”
Bundrant arrived in Seattle in the winter of 1961, a skinny 19-year-old who had driven a 1952 Ford station wagon from Evansville, Indiana, where he had graduated from high school. He wanted to earn money in the fisheries to pay his way through college in Tennessee. But after talking his way onto a crab boat, he launched into a lifelong career in the Alaska fisheries.
In 1972, he co-founded Trident, a privately held company.
Today, Trident’s website describes the company as North America’s largest vertically integrated seafood company, though it does not publicly report revenues. Trident has a fleet of more than 40 company-owned vessels, including catcher processors, trawlers, crab boats, tenders and freighters. The company also has 11 Alaska seafood processing plants, three in Washington, one in Minnesota and one in Georgia. Trident employs about 9,000 people at the peak of summer harvests.
Trident is led by Bundrant’s son, Joe Bundrant, who became chief executive officer in 2013, when Chuck Bundrant became board chair.
“I loved my dad so much. This company is alive and well because of the values he instilled in us,” Joe Bundrant said Sunday. Those values he defined as serving the stakeholders, which includes customers, seafood communities, fishermen and employees.
From early on, Chuck Bundrant was an innovator. His boat, the 135-foot Billikin, in 1973, was able to catch, cook and freeze crab.
He also was a risk taker.
In 1981, Bundrant made one of his biggest and boldest bets. He built a fish-processing plant on Akutan, in Alaska’s Aleutian chain that could be slammed by storms packing 100-mph winds. Back then, fishing fleets from Japan, Russia and Korea dominated the Bering Sea trawl harvests. But 1976 legislation had given U.S. processors and U.S. fishermen first claim to the harvests within the 200-mile zone, and Bundrant saw opportunity on the remote volcanic island.
History proved him right. Akutan is now a centerpiece of Trident’s Alaska operation with a huge capacity to process pollock — a staple of McDonald’s fish sandwiches — as well as other seafood.
After the foreign fleets were gone, the battle raged between shore-side processors and factory trawlers, and spilled over into Congress when the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, introduced a bill that would kick out 18 factory ships.
Marathon industry negotiations involving Trident and seafood companies, brokered by Stevens and the late Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., yielded a deal. It was called the 1998 American Fisheries Act, and boosted the annual pollock shares of Trident and other shore-based processors to 50% from 35%, and extended $90 million in federal loans and grants to buy out some of the rival factory trawlers that catch and process pollock at sea.
“We did this behind closed doors. The public process stunk,” said Donald Mitchell, an Alaska attorney who participated in the negotiations on behalf of an Alaska-based native seafood company, North Sound Economic Development Corp.
The legislation ended the pollock wars. Within a year, Trident had bought out factory trawlers owned by Tyson Foods.
And, Bundrant was a key player when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council made a major overhaul of Alaska crab harvest rules that vested catch shares with boat owners and purchase rights to processors.
“Bundrant was very intensely involved,” said Dave Fluharty, a University of Washington professor who served on the council during a crucial 2002 meeting in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, as the plan was developed.
“He did most of his work before the meeting and was there to talk to people and to remind people of what he wanted. He was focused on the long-term relations that he had with people — and kind of acted as the grand old man of the North Pacific fisheries,” Fluharty said in an earlier interview.
John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, called Bundrant a dreamer, and a man of few words, but when he spoke, that “gravelly voice was listened to from Cordova (Alaska) to Capitol Hill.”
Connelly said Bundrant was a formidable competitor. But he also would send a helicopter to rescue another company’s stranded boat.
In a Seattle increasingly dominated by tech companies, Bundrant kept a low profile.
Bundrant spurned suits unless the occasion demanded it, and in a 2002 interview with The Seattle Times dismissed golf greens — the classic business-meeting ground — as a “waste of good cow pasture.”
He led the company from a modest office near the docks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood even as his wealth grew. In 2017, A Bloomberg estimate put Trident’s annual sales at $2.4 billion and calculated the value of the company at $2.1 billion.
In a 2017 interview with The Seattle Times, Joe Bundrant scoffed at the estimates but did not offer one of his own.
Through the years, Chuck Bundrant had a passion for sport fishing. And during his later years, Bundrant continued to fish in Hawaii, where he had a home, and in Alaska. He also would visit Trident operations in the summer to thank employees for their contributions, according to a statement from Joe Bundrant.
Bundrant was a devout Christian, and at Akutan, with his partner Kaare Ness, built the Safe Harbor Church between the Trident fish processing plant and the island’s village
In 2006 Bundrant was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But “thanks to Chuck’s strength and stubbornness, as well as unending support from those close to him, he kept doing what he loved the most” according to the statement from Joe Bundrant.
He died from natural causes with his family by his side, Joe Bundrant said.
Bundrant is survived by his wife, Diane Bundrant; his son Joe Bundrant and daughter-in-law Mary Bundrant; daughter Jill Dulcich and son-in-law Frank Dulcich; daughter Julie Bundrant Rhodes and son-in-law Randy Rhodes; 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Bundrant also is survived by his sister Linda Nelson and brother-in-law Doug Nelson.
Plans for a memorial were pending Sunday.