How this founder is saving his home state’s fishing industry
THE CULMINATION of Duncan Berry’s lifelong romance with the sea is available in more than 5,000 grocery stores around the country. Fishpeople Seafood, which employs close to 40 workers in-season, delivers for domestic consumption sustainable seafood caught in American waters by independent fisher folk. After 20 years of building fashion companies, Berry returned to the Oregon coast where he was raised. There, he has rededicated his life to the people and wildlife that make up “the last industry based on hunting and gathering,” he says. “We have two million years’ worth of that tradition in our bones.”
Berry, the son of a novelist and a photographer, spent summers as a deckhand on his older brother’s salmon troller, Legacy I. By the time he was 16, he says, he was the youngest fishing boat captain in the state, plying the rough chop of the Columbia River. “It’s known as the graveyard of the Pacific,” says Berry. “It’s a rough piece of art. It made me into a man early on.”
Berry exulted in the purity and simplicity of life on the water. “On shore, there are traffic jams and bills to pay,” he says. Afloat, there are “tide and wind and weather patterns. Gear that gets fouled. Whales under your boat.” But one day in 1971, Legacy I took on board an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife official, who predicted a bleak future. “He said, ‘In 10 years, you guys are all going to be gone,’ ” recalls Berry. “‘Fish stocks are dwindling. I’d find myself another job.’ ”
Berry moved down to the Caribbean and spent a couple of years sailing, and then earned a degree in design and metalworking from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He started three businesses in the fashion industry. The last—a Seattle-based organic cotton company called Greensource—was a Patagonia-like venture that reached deep into the agricultural supply chain.
In 2005, Berry, then 50, sold Greensource and returned with his wife to Cascade Head, on the central Oregon coast, where they’d met at age 15. Two years earlier, they’d launched a nonprofit to create a 527-acre camp, farm, and wilderness area there.
In Oregon, Berry reconnected with the fishing peers of his youth. The government official’s warnings had come true: They were “living in the red poverty zones of our coastline,” Berry says. Much of the fish caught domestically was being shipped overseas, often for processing in Asia— some of which was then sold back to the U.S. “We were selling logs, not furniture,” says Berry, describing local fisher folk’s failure to capture full value for what they risked their lives to obtain.
In 2012, Berry co-founded the Portland-based Fishpeople Seafood with Kipp Baratoff, an executive versed in environmentalism and rural economic development. The company works with independent fishers to source only sustainable stock from the Arctic Circle to coastal California. In Toledo, Oregon, Fishpeople built the first of what it expects will be several processing plants where workers receive a living wage and health insurance—virtually unheard of in the industry.
Fishpeople turns its catch into frozen soups, meal kits, and fresh and frozen filets, which are sold by Walmart, Whole Foods, Kroger, Costco, Safeway, and other major groceries and mass merchants. A customer can trace her dinner back to the vessel in whose nets it met its destiny, thanks to a code that appears on most Fishpeople packaging—a nod to consumers’ desire to know more about how their food is sourced. “My goal is to change our relationship with the sea,” says Berry.
The company took unspecified millions from investors. “Seafood has a huge ticket to entry,” says Berry. “It has high capital expenditures to get out on the ocean, and you have to preserve a product that spoils very rapidly. I realized there is no way I am going to bootstrap this.”
Berry goes out on his suppliers’ boats as much as possible, though these days he’s more apt to take photos than to cast nets. And while he owns his own boat, he now prefers skin diving. He loves to swim with salmon, a fish he deeply admires. “If you dropped most humans into the environment that a salmon survives, I don’t think they’d make it,” Berry says. “Along with the fisher folk themselves, the fish are the heroes of our story.” —LEIGH BUCHANAN
From top: A fishing boat that catches Pacific cod for Fishpeople; an albacore tuna; a wildcaught tuna and friend aboard the fishing vessel Virginia Anne.