Seafood fisheries giant Chuck Bundrant knew nothing about boats or commercial fishing when he walked the docks at Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle in the winter of 1961 and landed a job processing crab in Alaska. He just hoped it would pay his way through college.
But from that first job, Bundrant went on to become a legend in the industry , by co-founding Trident Seafoods , in 1972. After his death at home in Edmonds, Wash., on Oct. 17, Bundrant was remembered both for his shrewd business skills and the loyalty he attracted from business partners, harvesters included.
“He treated his fishermen fair,” said Robin Samuelsen, a veteran Bristol Bay gillnetter who fished for Trident for years. “He provided excellent service; his word was better than gold. When us fishermen had complaints he looked into it.”
“He worked with us in the Bay and it worked out for us,” said Samuelsen, also the chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham, Alaska.
“He engendered loyalty,” said Norm Van Vactor, president and CEO of BBEDC. “People said for all the things he had done for them they would continue fishing for Trident through thick and thin. He treated his fishermen like family.”
“You had to hand it to Chuck,” said veteran Bristol Bay harvester Shawn Dochtermann of Kodiak, who received his first Bristol Bay salmon settlement check from Bundrant in the trailer Bundrant was operating out of in North Naknek in 1985. “He also worked hard to create the biggest seafood processing facility in the world in Akutan.”
Bundrant also had a crucial role in the survival of The Cordova Times, a weekly newspaper that has served the Prince William Sound fishing community of Cordova for over 100 years, according to Jennifer Gibbins, the paper’s former owner, editor and publisher.When Gibbins purchased the newspaper in 2011, Bundrant asked what he could do to help, she said.
“He recognized that in a small community like that the newspaper tells the community things the statewide newspaper does not; that it was the heartbeat of the community,” said Gibbins, now the executive director of the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska. “It wasn’t about Trident. It was about support of the community. The paper would not exist without Trident’s investment.”
In its announcement of his passing, Trident Seafoods mentioned Bundrant’s ability to motivate others with a combination of high support and high expectations.
“I find I get a lot out of people when I push them,” he would say with a smile. But he applied the same work ethic to himself. He also helped harvesters buy boats and get loans for permits, said Van Vactor.
“I’ve known him to offer up even the company jet to take somebody for medical care,” Vactor said.
Caught up in the commercial fisheries business, Bundrant never went back to college.
Today, Trident Seafoods, among the largest vertically integrated seafood companies in North America , engaged in harvesting and processing, markets frozen and fresh seafood in domestic and overseas markets. International operations include China, Japan and Germany.
The company sells wild-caught Alaska salmon, cod and Pollock to retailers, including Costco and Safeway, and restaurants, including McDonalds and Long John Silver’s.
Bundrant helmed a company that would forever change the course of the Alaska seafood industry, due to what became a ‘billion-dollar fish,’ wild Alaska Pollock, said Craig Morris, CEO of the Association of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.
His passion for Alaska seafood, including the pollock, will be missed, Morris said.
“He was an evangelist for the fish around the world, an advocacy he’s instilled in his children and all that work for Trident,” Morris explained. “The notion of eating more seafood was his mission and his gift to our industry.”
Bundrant bought his first boat, the 135-foot Billiken, with partners Kaare Ness and Mike Jacobson, and set out to harvest, cook and freeze crab on the vessel, something that had never been done before.
When the Alaska Legislature was pushed to consider a bill to outlaw onboard harvesting and processing, Bundrant sought help from another Alaskan fisheries legend- in-the-making, Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove. Tillion, a former commercial fisherman and member of the legislature, refused to back the bill. Ten years earlier, Bundrant rescued Tillion when he fell overboard during a commercial fishing trip, and for Tillion it was payback.
Tillion died at his home in Halibut Cove, Alaska, on Oct. 13.
Bundrant’s son, Joe Bundrant, has been chief executive officer of Trident Seafoods since 2013.