NESPELEM – In 2008, when Pacific Seafood purchased the steelhead fish farm (often known locally as simply “the net pens”) along the Columbia River a few miles west of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ Nespelem Agency campus, they could feel the cautious concern of the Colville Business Council and the tribal community.
The previous owner had gone bankrupt, and in his first meeting with tribal leaders Pacific Seafood CEO Frank Dulcich said he could feel the lack of trust that had come from the tribes’ experience with the previous company’s failure.
Dulcich could feel the result of the prior company’s poor treatment of the community as well. It was a feeling of animosity that had come from false promises, he said.
Pacific Seafood pledged to make a change.
“We made a commitment that we would be much different,” said Dulcich. “Being a family business, we had an opportunity to demonstrate what we wanted to do. We wanted to build a world-class farming operation in territorial area. It took a lot of hard work by the nation and our company to build this into what it is today.”
Ten years later, Pacific Seafood’s subsidiary, Pacific Aquaculture operates three individual sites raising steelhead trout on the Columbia River, and the company is looking to continue to grow their operation locally.
The company currently awaits a final review through the Colville tribal permitting process in order to build a processing plant that will bring six new jobs to the site as soon as next year and potentially 15 new jobs over time, according to Pacific Aquaculture General Manager John Bielka.
The company issued a short release this week that noted, “The facility will be located along the shore by the current farm and is slated to open in early 2020. It will process dressed Columbia River Steelhead to start and fillets at a later stage. By processing the steelhead right away, we are able to deliver a higher quality product.”
Along with other aquaculture operations, Pacific Aquaculture operates a hatchery in Shelton and rearing ponds on Boxley Creek near North Bend where steelhead are raised to fingerling age before being shipped to the company’s net pens on the Columbia River.
Currently, the company rears fish to six to eight pounds before shipping them to a processing plant in Clackamas. Final products are shipped to distribution centers across the western United States and Japan, according to Bielka.
Pacific Seafood, which is considered one of the largest seafood companies in North America, also operates storefronts in Tacoma, Portland, Newport, Ore. and Bay City, Ore.
Since 2013, the company’s Columbia River operation has received certification for Best Aquaculture Practices from the Global Aquaculture Alliance, becoming the first fish farm in Washington with the certification. That certification is maintained annually in part through adherence to both tribal and federal environmental protocol, said Bielka.
In 2015, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program issued a “Best Choice” rating for Pacific Aquaculture’s Columbia River Steelhead.
In 2016, the company developed a new facility just miles downriver from their previous sites, and while the previous locations had been on privately owned fee-land, the third site was developed on land owned by the Colville Tribes.
Along with what the company calls a poundage-based royalty payment to the Colville Tribes, the company pays annual land lease, according to Dulcich.
Part of the community
Good business isn’t just vertical integration and adherence to law; especially for a family-owned company, good business is community based.
“We really want to always give back,” said Dulcich. “That’s what we do as a company. In most communities that we are in, we are either the largest or the second largest employer, whether that’s in the areas that we harvest or the areas that we grow fish. It is incumbent on us to be part of the community and help.”
In that spirit, the company contributes to local events such as the Colville Tribes’ annual Earth Day Celebration and others. During the holiday season, the company donates turkeys to tribal programs for distribution to the tribal membership (“One of the things we wondered early on was how do we say thank you to some people we will never be able to meet in the nation,” explained Dulcich).
The company also works closely with tribal programs.
Pacific Aquaculture operates an additional pen at their second site raising trout for the Colville Tribes. Those trout are released into Rufus Woods to augment the recreational fishery, said Bielka.
The company also monitors water quality parameters in Rufus Woods and shares the data with the Colville Tribes’ Office of Environmental Trust.
Perhaps the company’s biggest contribution is through their employment.
The company gives 20 percent of their annual earnings back to the employees through profit sharing and dollar-to-dollar matching on retirement contributions.
“Everybody has to work to feed their family, to provide for their family,” said Dulcich.
In their operations on the Colville Reservation, Pacific Aquaculture also practices tribal member preference hiring, said Bielka, who noted of the current 30 full time employees, half are tribal members.
Starting wages across the facility range from $13 to $18 per hour and those employees who become qualified to dive earn an additional $25 per hour when diving, said Bielka.