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Red Lobster sees seafood differently than most Alaskans

Craig Medred,Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

The national seafood chain Red Lobster is airing a picturesque new television commercial featuring an Alaska crabber who lives in Washington state, a fishing boat that's registered in Washington state, and gorgeous Alaska tanner caught using crab-pot sized loopholes in Alaska law. The theme of the campaign is "Sea food differently."

Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer at the advertising firm Grey New York, told The New York Times that the intent of Red Lobster's new campaign was to "prove that authenticity (of Red Lobster) by showing the real people, the real places, with real dialogue that is not scripted." 

The dialogue might not be scripted, and the crabber featured does indeed fish in Alaska waters for a living, but it appears everything else was. The setting was staged amid green, lush, coastal rain forest and tidewater glaciers -- far from the treeless, glacier-less Bering Sea where most Alaska crab is caught. And the way the crab were caught -- by "sport fishing" -- bears no relation to the way crab is commercially harvested for the chain.

A spokesman for Grey did not return calls seeking comment for this story. Red Lobster offered this statement:

Red Lobster has been a long term partner and supporter of the fisherman and communities of Alaska. We were licensed to fish by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the specific species in the specific location shown in the ads. Additionally, we went the extra mile to have a local biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the boat during filming to ensure we were following proper protocol and respecting the Alaskan waters; all crab captured during filming were released. The intent of the ad is to portray the beauty of Alaska, the quality product found in its waters and to share our mutual commitment to bringing guests the best seafood.

It is true that the people involved in making the commercial were licensed to catch crabs, and it appears no crabs were harmed in the making of the commercial, though no studies were conducted to determine if any crabs died after they were dumped back into Inside Passage waters. It's also true the state of Alaska spent considerable time and energy to ensure that the company didn't break any Alaska laws. All this was done for a restaurant chain that sells Alaska crab at cut-rate deals to most everybody in the Lower 48 -- but to absolutely nobody in the 49th state.

Alaska doesn't have a Red Lobster. The company would not comment on whether it intended to open a restaurant here or had ever considered an Alaska location. Its new commercial campaign is, however, of some value to Alaska. The commercial makes foggy and rainy Southeast Alaska look like a scenic, wild nirvana almost everyone would want to visit. And no crabs were killed to sell that message.

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State officials say that "catch and release'' -- a sport-fishing practice more common with Alaska rainbow trout than crab -- was part of the deal when the producers of the commercial decided they wanted to film it just outside of Petersburg, the hometown of Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell. Petersburg is more than 1,000 miles from where the bulk of Alaska crab is caught in the Bering Sea, but filmmakers favored the community for its setting with lush coastal, rain forest and plenty of nearby ice.

The former provides a stunning backdrop when the F/V Valiant, a boat owned by Seattle-based Bowlden Inc., sails out of port in search of fresh crab, allegedly to eat. Ice from the LeConte Glacier near Petersburg provides a chilling backdrop when crabs are pulled aboard the boat to begin, one is led to believe, the journey form ocean to table, which, of course, would have been impossible even if the crew had wished it so.

A heap of trouble loophole

Legally speaking, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Doug Fleming in Petersburg, the crab in question were caught by "sport fishing,'' and in the 49th state, the sale of sport caught shellfish or fish is strictly forbidden. The Doc Warner Lodge near Juneau, the state capital about 100 miles north of Petersburg, was earlier this year fined $10,000 for this offense and placed on probation for two years even though it didn't even really sell any fish. Doc Warner's simply served its guests salmon caught by lodge employees, which law enforcement officials decided was enough to constitute the illegal sale of sport-caught fish. The lodge landed in a heap of trouble.

And a heap of trouble is just what state officials in Petersburg wanted to avoid when Red Lobster came to town, said Fleming, the area sport fisheries biologist. He and the local Alaska Wildlife Trooper went to considerable lengths to find a loophole in state law that would allow Grey New York to film its commercial without anyone getting busted. Those efforts, he added, had nothing to do with Campbell's position as his boss. The production company "approached us here at Petersburg through one of the local fishermen,'' he said. The fisherman was a friend of a Marysville, Wash.-based skipper Jon Forsythe, who had been picked to star in the Red Lobster commercial.

"This didn't come from headquarters," Fleming said, although headquarters did end up involved. "I just happened to sit in on a meeting in Petersburg in April" where the issue came up, said Charles Swanton, the director of the state Division of Sport Fisheries. He is Fleming's immediate boss. Swanton said he made it clear that whatever happened would require the review of state troopers to make sure the law was followed to the letter.

"That was about the extent of my involvement in it all," he added. Gordy Williams, a special assistant to the commissioner, eventually took on oversight responsibilities. "We had to go through headquarters," Fleming said.

But Fleming took responsibility for working with a Petersburg-based trooper to come up with a plan on how to stage a make-believe crab fishery. It was the friendly Alaskan thing to do after colleagues in the state Division of Commercial Fisheries washed their hands of the project. "I got this thing dumped on me, to be honest," Fleming said. "It wasn't something Commercial Fish had an answer for."

Sport-fishing for commercial crab sales

Fleming went looking outside the box for a solution. He recognized that although commercial crabbing seasons were closed in the Petersburg area -- seasons that are short and catch only a small volume of crab -- sport seasons remained open. And there is no law forbidding the use of commercial crab fishing gear to sport-fish crab, though sport fishermen are limited to only four pots. For photographic reasons, unfortunately -- to make it look like the F/V Valiant was at work as a crabber -- Grey wanted more than four crab pots aboard the boat during filming. The work-around on that, agreed to by Fleming and the local trooper, was to wire shut the doors on the extra pots so they couldn't be fished.

"We had a limit of four pots they could fish," he said. "All the other gear was disabled so they couldn't use it. They had to comply with all of the sport regulations … That part of our approach. Then we had to work on (what to do), once the crab pot came on board."

Most of the people on the Valiant for the crab shoot were non-residents. The crab limit for non-residents is three crabs. Grey wanted a big load of crab to come aboard the boat for filming. The state decided the film makers could leave the crab pot down long enough to catch orders of magnitude more crab, but only if they agreed to release all of the crab after the pot came up. Grey also wanted to offload the crab, as is common in commercial fisheries. The state said no.

"We would not allow them to just dump the crabs onto the deck," Fleming said. Sport fishing regulations encourage gentle handling of crab. Those regulations require the release unharmed of all undersize crabs and any crabs over the daily limit. State officials told Grey they'd have to figure out a way to cushion the fall of crabs brought aboard the Valiant.

"You'll notice in the video, there's a tote that's set there on an angle," Fleming said. The tote was positioned to protect the crabs.

Reached by telephone on a boat outside of Ketchikan, Jon Forsythe, the crabber featured in the film, defended the way in which Grey put together the production. It was good for Alaska crab, or at least the sales of Alaska crab, he said, and it was good for Alaska. The commercial shows tasty seafood coming from a place that looks wild and pure, and wholesome seafood is what Red Lobster is trying to sell. According to Forsythe's wife, it's good, too. She said she and her husband too sometimes dine at a Red Lobster near their home Washington state.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com and Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com