Bristol Bay Local Hired as New MAP Agent
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The new Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent in Dillingham has a lofty agenda that includes helping entrepreneurs start new seafood businesses, eliminating seafood processing waste, and bringing about informed discussion of controversial issues like the proposed Pebble Mine and offshore gas and oil development. For this week's CoastWise Alaska, we spoke with Bristol Bay resident and new MAP agent, Izetta Chambers.
Bristol Bay is home to Alaska's largest wild commercial salmon fishery. It's also home to Izetta Chambers, who recently took the reins of the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program office in Dillingham. Chambers says she's glad to be part of a program that's trying to help the region's fishermen, seafood processors and marketers, and other marine resource users.
CHAMBERS: “I am very thrilled about it. I am so happy to be back in my home region, and to be able to be on site to help people with their ideas, especially with starting a fish processing business or seafood marketing businesses.”
Chambers will be based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Bristol Bay campus in Dillingham, and will serve the people of Bristol Bay, the eastern Aleutians, and the Alaska Peninsula. Chambers was raised in—and still calls home—the community of Naknek, an important fishing and seafood processing town on the east side of Bristol Bay.
She and her family own and operate Naknek Family Fisheries, a seafood direct-marketing business that processes and sells premium-quality, quick-frozen salmon fillets. Chambers said she wants to pass on the lessons she's learned to others looking to start their own businesses.
CHAMBERS: “Having gone through the process from venturing into direct marketing, helping my mom get on board with direct marketing and then delving into it further with the fish processing business, I would really like to bring that real-life, practical experience to work for people of the Bristol Bay Region, who want to add more value to their product.”
In 2006, Naknek Family Fisheries organized as a Limited Liability Company, or LLC. They built their processing plant in 2007, and in 2008 they began processing salmon. Chambers said getting the business off the ground was hard, but ultimately worthwhile.
CHAMBERS: “You know we had growing pains this summer. In the beginning of the season I was even toying with the idea of selling out, of getting out of the business entirely—it's just such a headache and so much paperwork. But I am really glad we stuck with it because this season was sort of a turning point for our company. I think we are really close to actually being in the black, which is phenomenal for a business as young as we are.”
When she's not helping out at the family business, Chambers found time to get a law degree from the University of Arizona. And it's likely that degree will help her with some of the more controversial issues being debated in the bay, such as the proposed Pebble hard rock mine and offshore gas and oil development. She's quick to point out that while she has her own opinion on these issues, she says it should be up to all the region's residents to learn as much as they can and make up their own minds.
CHAMBERS: “Our role is not to be advocates for or against any issue, or to take a position on issues, but I certainly see myself playing a role in getting information out there and stimulating discussion, and educating the people on some of the issues especially in terms of water quality—at least providing a sounding board to get that information out there. So I'll probably be, at least in the short term, organizing conferences or perhaps putting on workshops, and inviting people from both sides to present, and to state their positions, and to present their data.”
Chambers said she believes concern about the region's economy is linked to the high rate of outmigration of residents to urban areas in search of jobs and higher education.
CHAMBERS: “I think the offshore oil and gas—people have mixed feelings on it. A lot of people in Bristol Bay support onshore development of oil and gas resources, because we are paying such a high price for oil and gas out there. It's amazing, especially like in the village of Naknek, you can see so many people moving away. When I graduated in 1993 from high school there were 282 students I believe at the Bristol Bay consolidated school with K–12. I think this last year it went down to 144. So I think the high cost of fuel has really put a damper on the local economy.”
In 2009, Chambers was one of nine winners in the Alaska Marketplace competition, sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives. Her business idea was to make plant food from compost derived from salmon processing waste. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that she'd like to help seafood processors in the bay reduce or even eliminate the need to dump fish waste into the bay.
CHAMBERS: “I've got this strange periphery project that has to do with fisheries, and that I see as one of my big long-term goals, and that's the small task of changing the entire Alaska seafood industry to go from very wasteful to zero waste.”
To do that, Chambers plans to bring seafood scientists, biologists, economists, and other specialists together to find better uses for the seafood waste, ranging from high-tech fish oils to low-tech garden fertilizer that people in the area can use to grow their own food.
CHAMBERS: “I'm from the village of Naknek, for instance, and if you go to the store there you are likely to pay $2.49 a pound for potatoes. My stepdad has a real green thumb and from an 8×10 plot they grow enough potatoes to feed their two households. If we can just improve our soil conditions and not have to import soils, because right now if you want to augment your garden plot, you have to buy a bag of soil, and it's like 36 dollars for one bag of soil. If we can produce these things locally, imagine the economic benefit to the residents.”
Before leaving the state to pursue her law degree, Chambers managed economic development projects for the Lake and Peninsula Business Development Center in King Salmon, and was a general manager with the Naknek-based Paug-Vik Inc. Ltd., the local Native corporation. Chambers also holds a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of Arizona. She can be reached in Dillingham at 907-842-8323.
CoastWise Alaska is a production of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks, which offers outreach and technical assistance to help Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy the state's marine and coastal resources. Check out our Web site at CoastWiseAlaska.org.