Alaskan Eco-Fashion

Reclaiming Value From Salmon Waste

Salmon meat is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. And now a natural by-product of the fish is becoming a big hit. Anyone need a fishskin wallet?

By taking salmon skins ordinarily dumped on the ocean floor and turning them into striking leather products, an Alaska company is both helping the environment and turning a profit.

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Although the art of tanning fishskins has been practiced by the state’s natives for centuries, a handful of Alaskan entrepreneurs have revived and refined the ancient process. It’s fashion gone environmental.

The Juneau-based Alaskins Leather Co. expects to use more than 700,000 fishskins in its products in 1991. That’s more than 150,000 pounds of the previously unwanted material.

Fishskins cause disposal problems for the fishing and canning industry. Typically, the skins are mulched and dumped onto the ocean floor, said Jerry Garner, president of Alaskins.

Unfortunately, the skins are 50 percent pure protein, composed mostly of scales. This protein does not break down, he said, and ends up on the ocean floor, smothering whatever it lands upon.

“We are allowing for complete utilization of the species,” Garner said. “And we’re proud of that.”

An added benefit for Alaskins is its clean tanning process. Because most of the chemicals used in the tanning are absorbed into the fish skin and only small amounts are used, Garner said their tanning by-products are no more toxic than normal household cleaners.

 

Four partners started the company in 1987 by tinkering with a tanning process using plastic trash cans and wooden paddles. After 18 months of effort, they created a viable commercial-scale tanning process for fishskins.

They produced samples and discovered they would sell at a local trade convention. The first official batch of products sold out at a Juneau craft show during Christmas, 1987.

By the end of 1988, Alaskins products were in more than 100 Alaska stores, including every J.C. Penney outlet in the state. Sales have doubled every year, Garner said, and 1991 figures are projected to top $900,000.

While the products are only scattered across the lower 48 states, he said the company is contacting national retail chains and looking into export opportunities. Alaskins now produces 26 different items from three fish species — salmon, halibut and sea bass.

Products include wallets, checkbook covers, boots, jewelry and business-card holders. Former President Gerald Ford uses a set of salmon-skin golf club covers, given to him last year by the governor of Alaska. And Alaskins fish leather was used for costumes in Columbia Pictures’ Return to the Blue Lagoon.

Garner couldn’t be happier about his firm’s jump into the green side of the fashion world.

“We’ve had very good success with the product,” he said. “The acceptance for it has been tremendous.”

Earth Tip: Reduce your junk mail by writing: Mail Preference Service, Direct Mail Marketing Association, P.O. Box 3861, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-3861. Or call (212) 689-4977.

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