The Words of the Chai Family
Party to celebrate reaching the 10 million tons of salmon roe goal.
Land of the midnight sun... America's last frontier... the North, land of the future. All of these are apt euphemisms for the boundless and beautiful 49th state, Alaska. Awe- inspiring mountain ranges and endless miles of spectacular coastline are proof this is God's country. These are incredible surroundings for the work of restoration and Kingdom building!
Working in Alaska is a mission of limitless potential. Possibilities abound. The opportunities in Alaska for business, recreation, and especially for spiritual growth stagger the senses. Though many have passed through its borders over the last two hundred years, claiming its wealth for themselves and their countries, the land and its teeming "fruit" still wait for true owners.
The most amazing phenomenon of this vast, unspoiled land is the annual salmon run of the Bristol Bay. Located on the northwestern coast of the Alaska Peninsula, this area is the site of the largest natural run of salmon in the world. This year alone over 40 million sockeye salmon swam north returning to the place where they were born four years ago, in one of the five main river systems in the Bristol Bay area.
Located 357 miles southwest of the international crossroads of Anchorage Alaska, the tiny native village of Egegik hugs the south shore of a mud-colored river bearing the same name. The name itself has no direct translation from the Yupic language, though many would be quick to say it must mean "place where the big wind never stops blowing." The year round population of Egegik numbers fifty residents. The simple, subsistence lifestyle supports a dwindling population. Young people move away in search of education and broader horizons.
But the summer months and return of the salmon bring change and activity which generates millions of dollars of income and produces food enough to be labeled one of America's most precious renewable resources. The banks of the Egegik River, which lie quiet and peaceful nine months of the year, populated more by caribou and bear than by people, begin to stir with human activity in early April. These early-corners put up with snow and the still-frozen river to set up fish camps where different companies will buy, process and package the salmon for an international market. These camps include laundries, showers, and stores to outfit and supply the households of fishermen which begin to arrive on the Egegik beach from all parts of the country in early June. The fishing season officially opens June 1st and slowly begins to escalate, traditionally peaking around the Fourth of July. From there the catch dwindles until September 1st when the season closes for winter. Throughout the fishing period, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announces "closures" when no fishing is permitted. This allows a monitored number of fish (usually one million) to escape upriver, ensuring adequate spawning stocks for future returns.
ISA plant when the tide is out.
There are two types of fishing used in the Bristol Bay, both utilizing a gill net made of a thin mesh that catches and traps the fish by the gills. One type is drift gill netting, where a 32' boat lays out a 150 fathom length of net and then drifts along the strong river current while fish hit the net. The other type of fishing, long utilized by Alaskan natives, is a set net. A set net is a 50 fathom length of net, staked down on the beach perpendicular to shore. As the tide comes in twice a day the corks at the top of the net make it float while the lead line on the bottom of the net keeps it hanging straight down as the water deepens. Fish are caught and then picked out of the net as the tide recedes, leaving the nets high and dry on the beach. Due to good resource management the salmon run in Egegik has held steady over the last seven years, making it one of the favored drainages of the Bristol Bay system. There are over 200 set net sites, each one located 300 feet apart down the entire length of the fishable beach, which stretches fourteen miles. At the peak of the season there may be up to 900 boats fishing in this relatively small area, adding to the pressure and tension of a fishery that focuses on basically five weeks of the entire year.
Enter onto this scene Mr. Joo Chan Chai and International Seafoods of Alaska (ISA). ISA was founded with the building of a brand new processing plant in Kodiak, Alaska in 1980. The company grew and was already deeply involved in the salmon fishery in that area.
In 1983, Mr. Chai, the president of the company and a member of the 36 Couples Blessing, visited a fish-buying outfit in Egegik along with Tony Aparo. They studied the operation and when that company went bankrupt due to poor management, the decision was made to buy it and establish a branch of International Seafoods of Alaska in the famous Bristol Bay.
A 50 fathoms-long set net where fishermen pick out the tide's catch.
The history of the Bay is long and fascinating. The first canneries were established there in the early 1900s. In those days canneries brought in men and boats and supplied them with all their needs. There was no such thing as independent fishermen during those pioneering times. The boats belonged to the company, the nets belonged to the company, the bed you slept in and the food you ate were also provided by the company. The same company bought your fish, and some seasons the price was a low as a nickel a fish! Various ethnic groups -- Italians, Chinese, and very few native Alaskans -- all lived in segregated conditions within the bounds of their own cultures in this strange new climate.
The men were organized into work crews to cover all the aspects of the business. The Chinese traditionally worked the canning lines. The beach gang unloaded whole fish from the wooden scows and reloaded the canned product onto tramp steamers headed south. The Norwegians and Italians competed for recognition as the best fishermen and those too young or not trustworthy enough to fish yet spent the season building nets for use on the two-man sailboats that were used at that time. The work was hard and dangerous. The pay was low. And, if conditions weren't bad enough on land in the noisy, overcrowded canneries, the fishing conditions on the river were usually stormy and dangerous as well. Drowning and men lost at sea were a part of the risk involved. On June 1st, 1984, a small Navaho airplane landed on the beach at Egegik.
Church members Michael Downey, Dave Barker, Yoko Thompson and myself arrived to set up camp in this new and mysterious place. Seven more sisters would be joining us in a few days. Our mission was to have camp livable and if possible begin making contact with fishermen.
A weighing station.
Back in Kodiak, Mr. Chai had held a meeting for salmon season organization. It all seemed scary and new. Though Mike and I had participated in Ocean Challenge the previous summer, it was the first experience in the fisheries business for most of us. We were as "green" as they come, but had a strong desire to do God's will and bring the spirit of our True Parents to a new area. We set about it, not sure how and feeling nervous, but willing to try. Our business goals were clear -- we had to buy as much fish as possible. The goal given us by Mr. Chai was to purchase two million pounds of sockeye salmon. In order to do this we would need as many fishermen as possible to commit themselves to selling their fish to us.
As we landed on the beach we were greeted by Jim Ring, a fish buyer who had been employed by the previous company. He was friendly and eager to help us get established, but at the same time a little skeptical and curious about the arrival of "Moonies" on the beach.
The International Seafoods camp was located far from the village, on the other side of the river. It seemed very remote. There were a few buildings scattered about -- a small cookhouse and processing building which included the office and a small store, a truck repair shop, five flat-roofed plywood cabins to serve as crew quarters, and three outhouses! The treeless flat tundra seemed to stretch without end behind camp. The running water was not potable. It was pond water to be used only for laundry and showers. Drinking water had to be hauled from a natural spring about five miles down the beach.
There were no roads, only a flat, hard beach where only four wheel drive vehicles could travel. Twice a day at high tide, the seawater would reclaim this "road" making any travel difficult and slow. There were creeks to ford and numerous muddy sinkholes waiting to trap an inexperienced driver. We made our first trips down the beach with white knuckles and clenched teeth praying not to get caught in the tide or stuck in the mud. Because of the salt and sand most vehicles do not have brakes, which added further excitement to each trip.
This hard beach was also our "runway" where giant DC-6's and C-119's would be landing to carry the fish we bought back to Kodiak. In those beginning days our procession area was extremely limited. The fish were washed and iced and then loaded into the planes to be flown to Kodiak for processing, freezing and shipping.
Fishermen and their rigs.
Mr. Chai had given Dave and I the mission of buying fish. Each tide we would travel down the beach, stopping at each set net site to pick up fish. Our first task was to meet fishermen and tell them about our company. It was amazing how news of our arrival had spread. People were wary. The company we had bought out had gone out of business owing money to every fisherman who had sold to them.
Checks had bounced and some fishermen were out an entire season's pay, as much as $30,000. Not only were we a new company, but all seemed to know that ISA had connections somehow to the Unification Church. Most were skeptical. They wondered would we "take over" the beach, dropping prices after running off other companies? Would we "brainwash" their children and lure them away?
We were surprised to find a wide variety of people fishing in Egegik. There were only one or two "professional" year-round fishermen. The majority of the summer residents were teachers. Others owned their own companies. There were pilots, a rancher, a drug dealer, students, even a small group of men who had escaped from Rumania and had somehow heard about this lucrative Alaskan fishery. Here was the opportunity to meet and witness to many people that might not be so easy to get to know in other circumstances.
Our first summer proved to be one filled with much challenge and adventure. In our ignorance, we made many mistakes, but because of the desire we had to serve fishermen and represent Father in the best way possible, they were often overlooked.
Dave and I spent many hours in a three-ton boom truck waiting on the beach for fishermen to make their deliveries. We would leave camp three hours before the high tide in order to beat the water's rapid advance. Once at our designated pick-up point, eight miles up the river, we sat and waited until deliveries would start. We would work unloading skiffs and trucks and weighing the fish for three to six hours after the high tide. Arriving back at camp and dropping off fish we would realize the low tide had already come and it was almost time to head down the beach once again. With no muffler, and then an exhaust leak in the cab, we had a truly noisy, smelly "motor home."
More people began selling their fish to us. We paid them in good money, and we delivered groceries and 55- gallon barrels of fuel. We ordered parts for their truck repairs and fishing equipment for their set net operations. Our service- oriented approach to buying fish paid off.
Processing by hand very early in the season.
We ended that first season with a result of 1.3 million pounds of salmon purchased. It was a respectable total for a company's first year, but it was far short of the goal we had been given. As the season drew to a close, Mr. Chai asked us to throw a "Thank You" party for the fishermen as a way of showing our gratitude for their support. It was an entirely new concept on the beach. In many respects fish-buying companies in Alaska still have the attitude and thinking of the old time ways, when the fisherman "owed his soul to the company store." For the first time fishermen felt something different from a company -- deep appreciation. Our sisters worked hard to lay a huge spread for our guests -- including sushi and sujiko. Mr. Chai hunted down a caribou which was barbequed on a giant spit. About forty fishermen showed up that year. After eating, there was dancing and of course plenty of fish stories being told.
In the years that have passed since 1984, many significant changes have taken place in Egegik. Considering that we are all gathered together there for only three months of the year, the results are truly amazing. In the beginning my understanding of the internal aspect of my mission was very vague. Father has spoken many times of how he wants Ocean Church members to be prominent people in fishing communities. As a fish buyer, meeting everyone on the beach with their deliveries twice a day every day, I was automatically put in the position of building a relationship with the people. That first year it took most of our energy just to keep up with the schedule and maintain a high standard of service, but since that time, as all of us have gotten more experienced at the work and have expanded to include much additional help, we have more time to focus on the spiritual aspect of the mission.
Each season as our spiritual conditions have improved, our experiences and the seasons' results have improved as well. Unity between the ISA managers, Mike, Dave and myself, has been a key point. The pressure of long hours, cold, wet weather and heavy work takes its toll on relationships. We have had to learn to be more patient with one another and more understanding of each one's experience.
Cindy Bergen and Susan Puczylowski with two king salmon.
The overall spirit of the beach has changed greatly in the last six years. I deeply feel it is directly connected to the effort and prayer that brothers and sisters have been making for the area over the past six seasons. In the beginning, it seemed there were mostly men on the beach. Leaving their families at home they came for the summer season with half a mind to work and half a mind to play. We witnessed a lot of alcoholism and behavior that matched the "extremes" of the environment. Rowdiness and drinking that would never be tolerated in the places they lived year-round seemed to be the norm during the fishing season. The changes that have taken place since that time have been very substantial. There are mostly families on the beach now. Each year there is a new crop of children to meet as the families grow. A set net association has been formed helping the fishermen to unite as well. A spirit of cooperation and family exists on the beach, and in many ways ISA is the center of that. People congregate at our cookhouse to drink coffee with friends and ISA workers. The Japanese sisters have become much loved on the beach with their talents for origami, backrubs and their deep heart in listening to others share.
The quality of ISA employees has improved as well. As we have grown more busy the ratio of members to nonmembers has dropped considerably. At first this created a problem in that the spirit of the camp could get out of hand at times. The rough pioneer spirit in this kind of work tends to draw that same kind of character. Each summer more of the Able-type employees seem to recognize that there is something going on around camp that is much more vital than just buying fish. We now have a core group that returns each season, helping to further facilitate the stable, family kind of feeling we want to extend to everyone on the beach. This year we had the first guest complete the Divine Principle series of video tapes. She was deeply moved by the truth she heard and by a testimony of Father's life. Struggling over some things that "just didn't seem to fit," she told us she spent three days praying and trying to understand what God wanted to teach her through these videos. The day she was flying out at the end of the season, she shared with a few sisters about a dream she had the night before. "I realized that all this time you have been trying to tell me that Reverend Moon is the Messiah!" she said.
Other families on the beach have been studying the Level Four book. "I never believed world peace was possible until I read that book," one fisherman, who was also a wife, mother, and teacher, explained to me. "The teaching is so logical, anyone can respect it. No one who knows anything about this movement could believe the negative stories they hear. Reverend Moon is an amazing man!"
Our sisters sing at the end-of-season party.
One of Mr. Chai's main concerns has been to modernize our camp and raise the standard on the beach for housing, shower facilities and equipment to take care of the fish so that we might be able to ship the best product available. In 1986 a major building project was undertaken with the construction of a bathroom facility. It is equipped with indoor plumbing (flush toilets -- a real luxury!!) and modern shower stalls. The foundation was also begun for a guest house which was completed the following summer in 1987. The two-story structure towers over any other building on the beach. The guest house was built in preparation that one day we may be able to receive a visit from our True Parents. It is also furnished with a kitchen, conference room, and bunkrooms for visitors. We have had many visitors to our remote operation: Korean professors and many of our movement's Japanese leaders. This summer, Mr. Kamiyama and Reverend Sudo visited us as well. The large herd of caribou roaming the tundra in autumn have brought Hyo Jin Nim to Egegik for hunting on two occasions.
With the addition of more new machinery our processing area was highly modernized this summer. The two fully automated lines more than doubled our production of salmon -- from 70 pounds an hour in 1988 to 1800 pounds an hour in 1989 with the addition of only three more crew. Because of the speed with which fish are delivered from the ocean to the ISA plant, our sujiko (salmon roe, highly prized in Japan) has gained the reputation of having the finest quality available.
Our end of the season parties have grown to become a highly anticipated event on the beach each year. This year was especially significant as over 200 fishermen and all the ISA employees 'came together to celebrate a major victory. For the first time in our six season history we finally accomplished the goal Mr. Chai had long ago given us, by purchasing 2.3 million pounds of salmon. More than anything we wanted to share this meaningful victory to include the fishermen and their families, too, knowing that without their patience and support for us over the years, our steady growth and accomplishment would never have been possible.
The airplane lands right in front of our ISA plant and guest house.
After feasting on hamburgers and watermelon, everyone gathered together for a prize drawing and finally entertainment. Four Japanese sisters sang a Korean and a Japanese song. They ended with "God Bless America," asking everyone to sing along. There were a few hesitant looks, and a few people worried about appearing too corny, but the majority of those present opened their hearts and sang along. It was such a precious moment. I felt that God was very close to all of us.
Afterward, Mike Downey, our plant manager, introduced the sisters and explained that this would be the last season they would be working with us in I Egegik. "The women who have been working here have been given a new mission. They and their husbands will be travelling to 43 countries around the world to pioneer fish businesses." Throughout the rest of the evening I was approached by many fishermen asking for more details about the announcement. They were genuinely curious about Father's vision for the future and also the faith and commitment of these tiny Japanese women to invest themselves in such a large undertaking. They were very enthusiastic and supportive and said they would like to be kept informed on the progress our sisters make.
This summer ended with many of us feeling the season had gone by too quickly and that we should not be leaving Egegik so soon. Even though this was a year of victory, we know that the challenge is not over. More difficulties wait as we push each year to become a more profitable business and more importantly, true stewards of this special area and its people.
Mr. Chai with Vern Conn hunting caribou.
On June 1st, 1990, a small airplane will land on the beach at Egegik and the challenge begins again. I look forward to being one of its passengers.
This article has a special focus on International Seafood's Egegik operation, but I would also like to mention some of the people involved with the "home" operation in Kodiak.
Construction of the ISA plant in Kodiak, which began with the dock, was started in 1979 under the supervision of plant managers Ted West and David Rodgers. David continues to work for ISA and most recently has had special assignment as captain of One Hope 304, Father's boat when in Kodiak.
Mr. Chai arrived in Kodiak September 28, 1979. By 1981 all plant construction was complete and fish was being purchased. Tony Aparo arrived in 1982 and served as general manager for two years. Present management in Kodiak includes:
Yoshihisa Inoue-Vice President
Neil Shuckerow-General Manager
Martin Byrne-Plant Manager
David Cooper-Chief Engineer
Three years ago ISA Kodiak expanded to a new building formerly owned by Pacific Pearl. It is the largest processing plant on the island. This allowed the original plant to continue processing bottom fish (cod and pollock -- traditionally only fished in winter) year-round, becoming the first company in Kodiak to do so. Salmon and halibut processing are now carried on at the second, larger plant.