11:15am

Wed November 16, 2011
The Salt

A Clothing Company Goes Fishing For Change With Salmon Jerky

What does a clothing company that sells high-end products with names like Nano Puff know about the fish business?

"It is a big jump," Yvon Chouinard, the storied founder of Patagonia, admits to The Salt. He's talking about the company's new plan to sell fish — salmon jerky to be exact — at his retail shops around the world.

But maybe it's not too crazy of a leap for an entrepreneur and environmentalist who fishes British Columbian rivers and is keenly interested in the raw materials in the stuff around us.

"For the same reasons I'm in the clothing business, I wanted to get in the food business," Chouinard says, "which is basically to change the way things are done."

Can a single gourmet product change the commercial fishing industry? It's quite an ambition. And at $12.50 per 2-ounce package, Patagonia's salmon jerky isn't exactly an economical snack.

But Patagonia is hoping that what it's already learned in the cotton business may help it nudge the fishing industry in a better direction. Since the 1980s, the company has considered such questions as what chemicals are used to grow cotton, how much water it takes, and where that water comes from.

When Chouinard and others don't like the answers, they change the way they do business. That's made them a model and case study for other companies interested in sustainable business practices.

As Fortune reported a few years ago, it was Patagonia's 1996 switch to organic cotton that established the material as a serious contender for customers' dollars and an option other companies would consider. A decade later, the world's largest purchaser of organic cotton was not a high-end boutique. It was Wal-Mart.

So after a few decades of turning his eco-friendly clothing company into a market force, Chouinard has started looking for different ways to spread environmental messages, including two vehicles that maybe have broader appeal than outdoor wear: music and food.

Last spring, he launched Patagonia Music, with artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, Philip Glass, and Pearl Jam are offering exclusive tracks, and all sales revenues (at least 60 percent of each song's purchase price) being donated to an environmental organization of the musician's choosing.

Now he's moving on to salmon.

The romantic story of salmon is a familiar one: the fish spawn only in their birthplace and make epic journeys, sometimes thousands of miles, from the ocean back to their freshwater stream. In some rivers, salmon are still plentiful.

But in others, they're endangered, sometimes because commercial fishermen can't know if they came from a healthy population or a dwindling one.

Patagonia is partnering with a conservation trust Skeena Wild on the Skeena River to take fish only from sockeye and pink salmon populations with the best chance of survival. The company hopes it will set an example for other salmon fishermen to fish more carefully.

"Legendary smokehouse guru" Harald Kossler is also on board to help make the salmon jerky as tasty as possible. And First Nation fishermen will use tools similar to those their ancestors developed 10,000 years ago to fish the salmon.

Harvesting fish with traditional equipment like dip nets and fish wheels allows them to be caught alive, Chouinard says. It also improves the taste of the salmon.

There's a lot of fish jerky already on the market, but Chouinard feels that most of it is either really sugary or tastes, well, fishy. Live-caught fish can be bled, eliminating some of that strong taste.

The company says the jerky will be available sometime this winter, and if it's successful, Patagonia Provisions plans to increase its line of fish products. Chouinard says he would like to introduce Americans to the Peruvian anchoveta and other fish that are lower on the food chain.

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