Competition Offers Options in Commercial Fishing Gear

By Margaret Bauman

it comes to choosing rain gear and boots for the commercial fishing season,
durability, staying dry and comfort are still deciding factors.

Proven old favorites do attract repeat business, but in the
competition for commercial fishing harvesters and processing workers,
manufacturers are offering an increasing number of products to choose from, in
everything from rain gear and thermal underwear to socks and boots.

And it’s not where they are made so much as how they are made,
said one commercial fishing industry veteran, in response to a question of
whether there was a demand for made in America products.

Many men and women who work in the processing sector of the
commercial fishing industry purchase their gear through the processing firm,
which likely buys a large supply of clothing and boots its workers will need
directly from a distributor or the manufacturer. Harvesters, on the other hand,
are more likely to buy their rain gear, boots, socks, gloves and other clothing
needs in the area of the communities where they live, from Anchorage to the
Kenai Peninsula to Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and myriad other fishing
communities in coastal Alaska with gear shops. It’s a matter of convenience as
well as a concern for supporting community businesses.

Anchorage gear shop owners, who also sell a considerable amount
of fishing gear to sport anglers, differ in their opinions of what sells best,
but generally agree that the famed Scandinavian firms of Grundens and Helly
Hansen draw the most sales for raingear.

The history of these two companies, as their websites explain,
is a fairly colorful one.

Grundens dates back to 1926, when Carl A. Grunden started
producing raingear in the small fishing village of Grundsund on the West Coast
of Sweden. His goal was to produce the best quality foul weather protection for
professional seamen, many of whom were hard working commercial fishermen.
Until the beginning of the 1930s, these garments were made of
unbleached canvas.

They were sewn together, dipped into barrels of boiled linseed
oil until saturated, and hung up to dry at room temperature for 14 days. Then
they were taken down and painted by hand using large brushes with a mixture of
boiled linseed oil and special varnishes, followed by another 14 days of
drying. This hand painting and drying process was repeated four times per

During this same decade the first rubberized fabrics were
introduced and professional seamen found them more durable and comfortable than
oilcloth. The rubberized fabric also allowed for faster production times.

By the 1950s, PVC-coated fabrics were introduced. While PVC
coatings have changed and improved over the years, they are still a leading
choice for raingear for commercial fishermen.

While over the last few years some new lighter weight,
breathable fabric has been introduced, including a lighter weight PVC coated
nylon fabric, many veteran fishermen say they still prefer the durability of
the traditional heavier PVC coated fabric, which is less likely to rip or tear.

The Helly Hansen heritage dates back to 1877, when after many
years at sea, Norwegian captain Helly Juell Hansen and his wife, Maren
Margarethe, began producing oilskin jackets, trousers, sou’westers and
tarpaulins, made from coarse linen soaked in linseed oil.

Within the first five years, the Hansens sold some 10,000
pieces. In 1878, the company won a diploma for excellence at the Paris Expo,
and began exporting its products. In the 20th century, Helly Hansen made
several breakthroughs in product development to complete the layering principle
today known as the 3-layer system.

Helly Hansen’s layering story was completed in the 1970s with
the development of LIFA. “This wonder-fiber, used in LIFA, kept the skin dry
and warm by pushing moisture away from the body, making it the ideal baselayer
fabric for outdoor and workwear use,” the company said. “The latest generation
of LIFA is still used in our baselayers today.”

In 1980, the Helly Tech technology was born, using both
hydrophilic and microporous technology, to make apparel that was both
waterproof and breathable.

Durable socks and boots are also critical to commercial fish
harvesters and fish processing workers, and opinions vary on who buys what and
what works best.

There is general agreement that smart wool, from Merino sheep in
New Zealand, is the best sock. At an average starting price of $16 a pair, shop
owners differ on just how many commercial fishermen are willing to invest that
much in a single pair of socks, but according to salesman Chris Depoe of the
Army Navy store in downtown Anchorage, they are a very hot item.

Preference in boots is always a matter of debate, with XtraTufs
traditionally being the most popular, with Bogs Boots also making headway in

There has been a great deal of discussion of late on the quality
of XtraTuf boots, also affectionately known as Alaska sneakers. Until this
year, they were made in the USA by Norcross safety Products LLC, which was
acquired by Honeywell in 2008. Then production switched to China, and word on
the street, some commercial fishing industry veterans say, is that the quality
has drastically decreased. The issue, said one fisherman, is not where they are
made but how they are made.

Both Depoe and Lute Cunningham, general manager at B & J
Commercial Co., also in Anchorage, said that while they had had some production
problems with XtraTuf boots, these issues have been resolved, and that sales
are strong.