You might call Reid Ten Kley's family a frontier dynasty. His grandparents Jack and Lyn Vantrease came to Alaska to homestead on the shores of Lake Iliamna-one of the world's largest freshwater lakes-in the late '40s, and began set-net fishing for sockeye in Bristol Bay from a double-ended sailboat. Two generations later, the fishery is still the center of the family's life and work, operating as a family cooperative, which was created 10 years ago by the Vantrease's grandchildren. What hasn't changed is the family's commitment to sustainability and the core values of the Alaska fisherman.
How does your family business work?
Rather than fish in the traditional way, selling the catch at the dock, our family made the decision to brand our red salmon and control its distribution from the point of harvest to the moment it's handed over to the customer. Now we sell directly to chefs on the West Coast and in New York, and to consumers in both markets through a CSA [community supported agriculture] model.
In many ways, however, aren't you still bound by tradition?
Yes! We still set-net by hand, from small 20-foot skiffs that allow us to navigate in shallow water, and to bring the fish in quickly to a refrigerated processing area, within six hours of when it's caught.
Quality and freshness are important to us, so we've made some improvements in handling and distribution, but it's nice that the actual fishing is done the same way it's always been. Because we are a third generation fishing family, we are an integral part of a community, an economy, and an environment that we are committed to maintaining.
As your company has grown, how has this affected the family?
Getting out on the water and fishing is still my favorite part of it. But now my wife has been able join me, and the fact that there are so many skill sets required besides catching fish means that we can give jobs to more family members. That's been very satisfying. And so has seeing the market's growing appreciation for sockeye, in part because of our efforts. Customers today also understand why it's important to be able to preserve Alaska's fishing traditions and its great natural beauty for future generations.