Chuck Bundrant rides the high seas of the seafood industry

Chuck Bundrant likes to hang around the shipyard — his shipyard. On a blustery spring day, he finds the Gladiator, the Royal Viking and the Arcturus all in for overhauls before they head north to grab more Alaska seafood.

Bundrant admires the new paint on one ship. He chats with a skipper who has lingered aboard another. Then, before he heads back to his Ballard office, he ponders how to get more of his catch onto America's dinner plate. A big potato company had just called about marketing a new frozen-seafood entree. Perhaps some sort of pollock dish. He'd check that out with his product-development team.

At 60, Bundrant has emerged as the biggest player in the biggest fisheries in North America: the 4.4-billion-pound Alaska harvest. He is a lanky, gray-bearded Tennessean who first came to Seattle in a beat-up Ford back in 1961 and worked his way up from the decks of the king-crab fleets to head Trident Seafoods, a privately held, Seattle-based company with annual sales of more than $500 million and a payroll that balloons to 4,000 workers at harvest peaks.

Trident, founded in 1973, now ranks as one of America's biggest seafood companies and is this state's 13th-largest privately held company, with a network of 10 shore-side plants and more than two dozen vessels. Trident's seafood, which includes salmon, crab, pollock and cod, is served in Europe and Japan. Its U.S. customers include Burger King, Costco and Trader Joe's.

At its helm is Bundrant, a man of unwavering convictions about how things should be ordered in the vast and wild realm that stretches to the boundaries of the Bering Sea. He inspires absolute faith from friends and sometimes fear among those who oppose his interests.

"Chuck has these disciples who surround him — and they're loyal to the core to his beliefs and his philosophies," said Brent Paine, a North Pacific pollock fisherman representative. "They're the most determined group in the industry — and they don't lose."

His fabled clout was on display earlier this month in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where he lobbied for an unprecedented overhaul of the rules for taking one of the nation's premier seafood offerings: Bering Sea crab.

The politics of seafood

These harvests pit skipper against skipper in a race for the crab. Over the past three decades, they have claimed the lives of scores of deckhands who labor in one of the nation's most perilous fisheries.

The new system — approved by a federal fishery council meeting in Dutch Harbor — would hopefully reduce fatalities by vesting vessel owners with a fixed percentage of the harvest. The shares then could be fished more leisurely, helping skippers avoid the Bering Sea's notorious storms.

The new rules also break new and controversial ground by vesting Trident and other Bering Sea processors with exclusive rights to purchase 90 percent of the harvest.

Critics say the rules put the federal government in the untenable position of creating a competition-squelching cartel of processors.

"This issue is 100 percent about money — and greed," said Paul Parker of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, a group that fears the new rules in Alaska could lead to similar changes to New England's fishery.

Bundrant brushes aside such critics. The proposal, he says, is crucial to protecting investments in the fishery and ensuring that boat owners — once they have the luxury of time and an assured quota — won't abandon traditional Bering Sea buyers.

"These opponents act like the processors have no equity in the fishery — I call that greed," Bundrant said. "When I wake up in the morning, I don't have any problem looking at myself in the mirror."

Trident's full-court press in Dutch Harbor was classic Bundrant, reflecting his fierce competitive streak and his political prowess.

In Congress, where the fate of the new crab plan will be decided, Bundrant is a player — and known to many Northwest politicians. Since 1980, he and other Trident officials have made political contributions of more than $150,000, a review of federal records shows.

Bundrant often works closely with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who helps write federal fishery laws and who values the jobs, investment and tax dollars that Trident provides for Alaska's coastal communities.

Bundrant employs a former Stevens aide, Brad Gilman, as a lobbyist on fishery issues. And one of his Trident partners, Bart Eaton, has a long-standing friendship with Stevens. As a young crabber, Eaton helped Stevens push through Congress landmark legislation in 1976 that ushered in a new era of U.S. fishery management.

"I bought my first suit to go to Washington, and I always went back with crab or a king salmon tucked under my arm," Eaton recalls.

As a crab-boat skipper, Eaton in the late 1970s and early '80s employed Stevens' son, Ben, as a crewman. And in the mid-'90s, Trident briefly employed Ben Stevens as a Capital Hill lobbyist.

Ben Stevens says he did not meet with his father or other senators on Trident's behalf but attended hearings and worked with congressional staff.

"The business relationship that I had with Trident — hopefully it brought some value to the company," said Ben Stevens, who now serves as a state senator in the Alaska legislature.

Sen. Ted Stevens declined to comment for this story. Bundrant says he has nothing but respect for him. "He's the best thing that every happened to Alaska, and everybody who lives up there knows that."

The fight to the top

Despite his public battles, Bundrant likes keeping a low profile. His headquarters is in a drab office park by the docks in Ballard. He owns a modest house in Magnolia distinguished by sweeping waterfront views. When Bundrant gets away from it all, he boards a 60-foot landing craft once used in the Exxon Valdez oil-spill cleanup and motors out to a small San Juan island, which he owns.

Bundrant spurns suits unless the occasion demands it, and with his laid-back drawl dismisses golf greens — the classic business-meeting ground — as a "waste of good cow pasture."

He prefers to go sport fishing, displaying a boyish enthusiasm worthy of Tom Sawyer as he regales a visitor about snagging a big restaurant-chain account on one Alaska trip. Trident now has a corporate yacht, the 76-foot Annandale, used to take clients and an occasional politician out to angle for salmon.

In his climb, Bundrant pushed past the Norwegians, whose shipyards produced factory vessels of enviable size and efficiency. He has held his own against two Japanese conglomerates — Nippon Suisan and Maruha — who control major Alaska seafood plants.

As Trident's president, Bundrant is one of several partners in the company and has controlling interest.

Bundrant briefly considered selling to Tyson Foods when its top man, Don Tyson, sought to add seafood to his chicken-based empire. "He said he wanted to be the biggest and the best and offered me a lot of stock and cash," Bundrant said. "It was very tempting."

Bundrant passed and a few years later bought out Tyson's Alaska fleet and shore holdings.

Bundrant's career began in 1961 when he dropped out of college at Middle Tennessee State after watching the movie "North to Alaska," a John Wayne epic of the Alaska gold rush.

"My dad thought I was crazy," Bundrant says. "He always told me that if you don't get a college education, you will be digging ditches the rest of your life."

Bundrant arrived in Alaska as a skinny young man — 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds. But he proved an able deckhand who could take the drudgery and rigors of setting crab pots and hauling nets.

Each year, he saw the crab fleet endure long, hostile price negotiations with buyers. Why not bypass all that by building a boat that could catch and process crab at sea, he wondered. It was a revolutionary idea, liberating the vessel's owners from the grips of the shore-based processors.

In 1973, his new boat, the 135-foot Billikin, was the first Alaska vessel to catch, cook and freeze crab. It debuted as the rest of the crab fleet was on strike demanding better prices from processors. At a smoky cannery mess hall, many of the crabbers told Bundrant they didn't want him working until the strike ended. And they wanted to vote on his fate in private.

What happened next is the stuff of Bering Sea legends — and a pivotal moment in Bundrant's career. He demanded to know who was with him and who stood against him.

One the elders of the fleet, Inar Peterson, rose to speak.

"He was in the second row, and I'll never forget this," Bundrant recalled. "He looked around at all these young pups and said, 'You know if any one of you guys was in Chuck's shoes, you'd go fishing. My vote is for him to go fishing.' "

"Nobody said a word after that — the old man had spoken."

Over the next five years, Bundrant would take 10 million pounds of crab aboard the Billikin and earn his first fortune.

But it was in 1981 when Bundrant made his biggest — and boldest — bet. He built a fish-processing plant on Akutan, a remote volcanic island that could be slammed by storms packing 100 mph winds.

Back then, fishing fleets from Japan, Russia, Poland and Korea dominated the Bering Sea. But the 1976 legislation gave U.S. fishermen and U.S. processors first dibs to all the seafood within a 200-mile zone off the U.S. coast. And in Akutan, a place where others saw only desolation, Bundrant saw an opportunity to claim a major stake in North America's biggest white-fish harvest: pollock.

History proved him right. By the '90s, Akutan emerged as a centerpiece of Trident's Alaska operation, employing 700 workers during a winter harvest that produces a pollock roe for Japanese markets, a surimi paste for simulated seafood products and fillets for fish and chips.

While the foreign fleets were all but gone, the Americans had so overcapitalized there wasn't enough pollock to go around. Bundrant persuaded Sen. Stevens to introduce a bill that would kick out 18 factory ships. These vessels were largely rebuilt in Norwegian shipyards with heavy foreign investment, and thus — in Bundrant's view — flaunted the intent of the 1976 act giving first rights to the 200-mile coastal fishing range.

Marathon industry negotiations, brokered by Stevens' aides and then-Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., yielded a compromise. The 1998 American Fisheries Act boosted the annual pollock shares of Trident and other shore-based processors — largely controlled by Japanese companies — to 50 percent from 35 percent, 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.

The pollock wars had ended. Within a year, Trident had bought out rival factory trawlers owned by Tyson. Bundrant was riding high.

Showdown over crab

With the future of the harvest at stake, there was no way Bundrant was going to miss this month's showdown over crab — played out before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group of largely industry and state officials created by the 1976 federal fishery law.

Commercial flights into Dutch Harbor were booked solid with hundreds of fishermen, processors and community leaders wanting to have a say. Bundrant flew in on a friend's corporate jet.

For Bundrant, Dutch Harbor is familiar ground. As a young man in the '70s, he'd spent many a day unloading his catch at this port. And it was here he had faced the crab fleet and stubbornly pleaded his case to work the Billikin through the bitter 1973 strike.

Now, almost 30 years later, he was back again at another critical juncture in his career. Everyone knew the size of the 260-boat crab fleet had to shrink because of a big dip in harvests, and vessel owners were eager to win quotas that could be fished or sold to the highest bidder.

No single player crafted the final plan, but Bundrant's presence loomed large. He argued that if the federal government gifted vessel owners with exclusive rights to catch a public resource — crab — then the companies that pioneered the processing deserved exclusive rights to purchase the catch.

"Bundrant was very intensely involved," said Dave Fluharty, a University of Washington professor who serves on the council. "He did most of his work prior to 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."

The final plan, approved by an 11-0 vote, offered shares to vessel owners and protections for communities wary of losing crab deliveries, and vested 90 percent of the purchase rights to Trident and more than two dozen other processors.

Trident's share would be the largest — just under 20 percent of all Bering Sea king crab and snow crab.

Opponents of the processor shares already are lobbying in Congress.

"If you proposed to do this in any other industry in America, people would look at you like you were from Mars," said Earl Comstock, a former aide to Sen. Stevens who represents some of the opponents of the processor-share system.

Bolstered by the council vote, Bundrant said he is confident of victory in Congress.

"Sell tickets — it will be quite a show."

Hal Bernton can be reached at 206-464-2581 or