AFDF Member Spotlight: Al Burch

 Al Burch, AFDF Board Member # 1


Al Burch…Decades of service and sage advice

“Here’s the Marigold, our first commercial shrimp boat,” says Al Burch, taking a stroll down Memory Lane in his Kodiak office, cluttered with all manner of memorabilia. “It was built in 1898 as a sailing yacht. It was owned by Rex Beach (author of The Silver Horde) at one time, and silent film actress Clara Bow. When we bought it, we converted to one of the first shrimp boats. That had to be 1959. Eventually we had the Marigold, the Celtic, the Endeavor and the Vida.”

“But the old Marigold, everything on her was done by hand. No hydraulics whatsoever…chain drive. You’d split the tow with a gypsy (deck winch) and haul over the side. There was lots and lots of handwork, and lots of hours. Everything had to be washed first. You’d pick out the scrap fish and then put the shrimp in the hold, shovel by shovel for three cents a pound.”

Clara Bow may have been a silent actress, but Al Burch, a founding board member of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation has rarely been silent during a fishing and fish “politicking” career that has spanned more than half a century. Starting as a shrimp dragger in Seward with his brother Oral in 1959, Burch was an innovator by necessity. Testifying before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation and Wildlife and Oceans in May of 1999, Burch noted, “During those early years we did whatever we could to keep the boat busy: a little crab, shrimp, salmon, halibut, charters, seals and sea lion reduction. In those days there was a bounty on harbor seals and the bounty helped put food on the table.”

Al first came to Alaska in 1946 at the age of 10. His brother Oral had been stationed in Alaska during WWII and took his discharge there. Oral convinced his mother to bring his brothers Al and Bill up from Montana to see what Alaska was all about. They moved up to Seward permanently in 1954, after Al’s father passed away. Al graduated from high school in Seward in 1955, and the town was his home and homeport until Mother Nature rearranged the landscape.

The earthquake of ’64 destroyed the Celtic and his operation in Seward, and he moved to Kodiak. During the next decade, the local shrimp and crab fisheries declined below harvestable levels, and the federal bounty on seals was buried deep in the history books. But as shrimp were tailing off, cod and pollock began showing up in the nets as the ocean temperature warmed and groundfish stocks increased dramatically. So Al and Oral rolled with the tide, and outfitted two draggers, the Dusk and the Dawn to pioneer the local trawl fisheries.

At the same time he was working the gear, Al was working the Alaska Congressional delegation to fight for and implement the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 and move the foreign fleets beyond the 200-mile EEZ. He fished joint ventures, delivering to foreign floating processors during the transition to Americanization, but he’s always remained true to the Kodiak community, supporting the local shorebased trawl fleet through the Alaska Draggers Association (now the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association) and working to develop the capacity of shorebased operations to process groundfish and surimi and to develop what was once considered “fish waste” into valuable by-products. That was the genesis of AFDF, working to prove that Americans could catch and process groundfish in order to wrestle a portion of the allocation away from foreign entities.

“We started holding meetings in 1977,” Burch recalled. ” We incorporated in May of 1978, and by the end of June we received $1.45 million from S-K.”

With the help of that federal Saltonstall-Kennedy funding, Al and AFDF brought in the first Baader 182 filleting machine and opened the door to for pollock and surimi processing on Alaskan soil.

In addition to being a founding member of the AFDF board, Al served as a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Advisor Panel for 30 years.

Inducted into the United Fishermen of Alaska’s Seafood Hall of Fame in 2009, Al said, “It was great. I’ve been working for the fisheries for 35 years now, and you never know if people understand or care what you’re doing.”

Still sitting on the AFDF board and working to improve technology and understanding in the Alaska commercial fishing industry, Al Burch can be certain that a lot of folks understand his grit, determination and vision. And it’s a safe bet they care about Al, too.

–Submitted by John van Amerongen, Trident Seafoods