Alaska may have an undiscovered cottage industry within its grasp. Last year more than 160 million salmon were pulled from Alaska waters to sell to buyers around the world. But what if more than dinner food could come out of the catch -- something that would have everyone from fashion designers to car makers clamoring for the latest "Made-in-Alaska" craze?
It's salmon leather.
Exotic looking and durable, the product created from the skin of the salmon is a fast-rising trend among eco-friendly consumers. Companies across the globe are turning it into shoes, jackets, pants, dresses, wallets, handbags, belts, jewelry, wallpaper and furniture. It's being used to upholster luxury yachts and jets, and BMW has even installed it as trim on dashboards and consoles in some of the German automaker's vehicles.
But for all of the salmon that Alaska sends to market, not to mention some of the innovative ways fish waste and byproducts are being put to use in the state, there is no large-scale, salmon leather manufacturing operation here.
Over the years, several Alaska entrepreneurs have tried to launch salmon leather enterprises, but they didn't have staying power. In fact, a lone man from Kodiak appears to be the only person in the state commercially producing the skins, and his aren't for sale as raw leather. He keeps the hides to himself and uses them to create specialty leather goods.
It's too bad, because demand for the product is so high now that Nanai, a German company that produces and sells salmon skins, just this year opened an office in Los Angeles. With skins purchased from an organic fish farm in Ireland, Nanai has adapted its tanning process and its name from the ancient traditions of Arctic region in Siberia where people have fished salmon for thousands of years.
"There is a large demand for it," said Sabah Coles of Nanai's newly opened Los Angeles office. "It's used for iPhone covers, motorcycle seats, and has been used for golf gloves, shoes, wall panels, lamps and book binding -- anything that you can do with regular leather."
The company's website touts salmon hide as "the modern, responsible choice in exotic leather" -- something "you can use ... and enjoy ... with a clear conscience." As a byproduct of the fishing industry, salmon aren't bred specifically for their skin, states the website.
Flexible, strong, light and breathable, the skin is likened to snake skin in appearance. And "it has an amazing 3D texture ... except that salmon leather has a softer suede like feel to it," according to Chilean-based ES Salmon Leather, another commercial manufacturer. Icelandic-based Atlantic Leather is also a supplier of salmon leather.
All three companies promote the creation of their product from age-old fishing traditions and play up its eco-friendly status as a sustainable material derived from the natural bio-waste of salmon processing.
The leather has inspired UK-based shoe designer Jonathon Mors to use Icelandic salmon leather to create an electric-blue sneaker for fall and winter 2010. "Elk and fish leather have been traditionally used in the arctic to make strong, supple footwear for generations," states his company in a press release. "Mors has taken this as inspiration and updated it."
Dressed up or dressed down, fish is the new feeding frenzy in the fashion industry.
"I always think of salmon skin as something you peel off your food, but in fact this is a beautiful substance," explained fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi in a video about the inspiration behind an elegant evening dress he made from Alaska salmon.
Mizhrahi -- deviating from the way leather might traditionally be incorporated into a garment -- used the luminescent fish skins to create custom-made sequins, individually sewn onto the entire dress for his creation's final eye-catching effect.
One Alaskan has skin in the salmon leather game
But turn away for a moment from haute couture and international trends. Right here in Alaska, on Kodiak Island, turning salmon skin into leather is something retired wildlife biologist Jeffrey Barnhart has been doing for years. Through his Alaska Salmon Leather Co., Barnhart buys salmon skin from local processors, tans them himself with his secret method, and then hand-crafts the finished hides into wallets, checkbooks, card cases, fly-pockets for fisherman and other products.
"My operation is pretty small -- mom-and-pop size," he says.
Barnhart isn't surprised by the growing interest in the salmon leather industry, but admits he is a bit of purist when it comes to production. For instance, he prefers to create products from a single hide because he finds the seams created by sewing multiple skins together distasteful.
He says his tanning process, which he won't reveal, takes a lot of work. Fifty to 60 skins can take about three weeks to prepare. He'll use any species of salmon, but avoids pink salmon because they're too small to be worth the effort, he said, and don't have big enough scales. Since it's the scale-pockets of the fish skin that gives the salmon leather its exotic appearance, products made from pinks lack the texture and distinction produced by the larger species.
Although Barnhart may be the only active tanner in Alaska right now, a 1980s company also called Alaska Salmon Leather bought skins from a Cordova processing plant and sent them overseas for tanning and incorporation into a variety of products. Then, as now, practitioners of the trade were leery to reveal their methods. In a 1988 interview with the Anchorage Daily News, one of the company's co-owners, Tim Cooksey, protective of what he envisioned as the lucrative fledgling operation, kept the tanning techniques and the location of the Korean factory to himself, stating it was "the only one in the world."
Around the same time, a Juneau-based company called AlaSkins was also getting into the act. After forming in 1987, it eventually opened both a tannery and a retail store in Juneau. By 1991 sales were projected to top $900,000, according to news reports at the time. The company boasted product sales throughout the nation and hoped to expand overseas. It claimed that Alaska's governor had given former President Gerald Ford a pair of the company's salmon-skin golf clubs and its leather was used in costumes for the movie "Return to the Blue Lagoon."
But for all of the promise these large-scale salmon-tanning ventures seemed to hold, for one reason or another, they just didn't last.
Barnhart, who has been perfecting his method since 1995, originally thought salmon skin would be a good material for car upholstery and leather couches. But that idea didn't get far, something he attributes to a lack of consumer demand.
Fifteen years later, it's another story.
In the hunt for skins
Barnhart doesn't envision himself rivaling the international companies that are mass-marketing salmon skin to any industry willing to give it a try. But he does have hopes for expanding his operation, including a possible move out of Kodiak to a bigger facility with more equipment and more capacity. If things go well, he might even hire a crew of full-time employees, instead of the occasional part-timers he uses now.
In the meantime, he's on a constant hunt for skins to buy.
Could an even bigger salmon leather operation work in Alaska? Barnhart says it remains to be seen. The technology and logistics -- and availability of skins -- can be a challenge.
Nanai evolved from a company that once produced smoked salmon and ended up inventing new machinery to reproduce traditional tanning processes on a large scale. One of Alaska's now-defunct salmon leather companies also tried pioneering new methods. Dan Callgahan, AlaSkins' vice president of operations, described them in a 1991 interview with the LA Times: "We use an old cement mixer for drying, a washing machine motor ... as an agitator for tanning." And like Nanai, the same article took note, AlaSkins looked to indigenous traditions as a guide for using fish skins as leather, taking a cue from Alaska's Tlingit Indians who used the material to make rain gear and boots.
Even after solving the technological challenges, a major hurdle for would-be Alaska entrepreneurs today could be ensuring there are enough skins available for purchase from local processors in the first place.
Processing that doesn't occur in-state or even in the United States sends the salmon skins away from Alaska and its entrepreneurs; that could mean much less raw material would be available to feed a potential startup industry, Barnhart said.
But the biggest factor may be consumer appetite, literally.
"The bottom line is that there is not enough demand for skinless products coming out of Alaska to justify the expense of taking the skins off and producing them for tanning purposes," said Ray Ruitta, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Alaska's processors are largely producing fillets with the skin on, he said. And while some fish skins are taken off at a secondary processing stage to create breaded fish sticks or pre-marinated, ready-to-cook restaurant packs, by the time that secondary processing occurs, any salvageable skin would already be too cut up to be of much use, he said.
If nothing changes, Alaska's lonely salmon leather industry could be doomed to never grow beyond the niche artisan market.
But there may be hope if a fashion designer like Mizrahi, who says he won't sacrifice glamour even for a good cause like eco-friendly innovation, thinks the trend is only just beginning.
"I don't think the environmental issue is a fad," he said in a video interview about the creation of his salmon-skin dress. "All of a sudden it's going to dawn on these greedy people that they can make a lot of money if they conserve and if they learn how to be more eco-friendly. And it's going to become a big industry and then it's going to be great."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.