For many in Alaska, life revolves around the ocean. Its natural rhythms and marine bounty have provided sustenance — nutritional, cultural and spiritual — to coastal communities for thousands of years. In fact, ensuring that seafood remains abundant and healthy is so fundamental to Alaska’s identity that it’s the only state with a constitutional mandate to manage all fish populations sustainably.
Craig Kasberg grew up in the nation’s northernmost state and began working on commercial fishing boats when he was 15. Proud of Alaska’s sustainability commitment he applied for a state loan at 19 to buy his own commercial salmon boat and help carry on the pioneering ecological efforts. But he found himself increasingly disturbed by the 2 billion pounds of byproducts, including fish skins and crab shells, that Alaska’s fisheries typically tossed each year.
“You see these pipes where they’re just grinding up byproducts and dumping them into the ocean or into landfills to rot,” he says. “The crab shells are the biggest environmental threat as far as byproducts go. There are documented incidences where too many were dumped in a bay and killed off a keystone species on the bottom, which had a negative impact on the ecosystem locally. I kept thinking there has to be something we can do with that.”
Ocean trash to treasure
Kasberg decided to take a stab at a solution. He and his partners launched a company called Tidal Vision and went to work inventing ways to upcycle fishery waste into environmentally safe and stylish products.
In May, the Juneau-based startup introduced a line of Alaska wild salmon leather wallets made from discarded skins on Kickstarter. The waterproof aquatic leather is tanned via a proprietary process using nontoxic, vegetable-based oils.
Tidal Vision is also working on a deal with clothing manufacturers to make T-shirts, rain gear and activewear from chitosan, which is derived from a substance called chitin found in crab and shrimp shells. Chitosan fabric (the company calls its version ChitoSkin) naturally inhibits bacteria growth, eliminates odor and is biodegradable.
Tidal Vision’s eco-friendly closed-loop ChitoSkin production process doesn’t rely on corrosive chemicals like hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide that traditional chitin processors use. “We recycle 89 percent of the chemicals and the other 11 percent reacts with the proteins, lipids and pigments in the shells and becomes a really good fertilizer,” Kasberg says.
Central to Tidal Vision’s mission is its pledge to only buy waste products from certified sustainable fisheries, which gives them a leg up financially. Responsible seafood operations typically cost more to run because they avoid using the most efficient (but harmful) catch methods, like trawling, which can damage coral reefs and seabeds.
Kasberg calls his marine merchandise “visual and wearable symbols” that highlight the importance of protecting oceans and harvesting sea food responsibly. “We want to make quality unique products, but we also want people who buy them to know where they came from and hopefully be proud of supporting sustainable fisheries,” he says.
Turning the tide toward sustainability
Tidal Vision’s wallets are currently sold online and in about 15 stores located throughout Alaska and the Lower 48. In addition to chitosan clothing and athletic shoes, the company plans to launch new salmon leather creations in the coming months, including handbags and belts.
Kasberg also hopes to apply the proprietary tanning process to skins of invasive fish species that plague other parts of the country, including lionfish and snakehead fish. He even plans to develop a process to extract an enzyme from fish bones that can speed up revegetation in clear-cut forests.
The idea is to mimic how traditional cultures use all parts of the creatures they hunt and fish. Incorporating whole-animal upcycling into a mass-production industry is a challenge, but one Kasberg is passionate about.
“I grew up in Alaska, and traditionally people here celebrate the fish,” he says. “I want everyone to start looking at waste differently. Our plan is to keep figuring out how to utilize fish to their fullest potential.”