Brailer bag business continues to grow
What fishermen today use to move salmon from their holds to the tender originated with Kate Mitchell in Homer. In 1982, two fishermen came into "Mitchell's Marine Canvas & Upholstery," complaining that the web brailers they were using were damaging the catch.
"You pick the load and every fish has a mark on it, and they're marking it a number two, and we're losing money! We need something with a smooth side," Mitchell recalled them telling her during a 2016 interview on KDLG. "Kate, you sew, you should be able to make something work!"
She did. By the next year, Mitchell had trademarked the NoMar bags that have carried a lot of salmon over the rails, and helped carry the industry further along its quality revolution. The name of the bags, which later became the company's name, too, is derived from the "no marks" left on the fish. By the time Bristol Bay's fleet caught on, Mitchell had a booming bag sewing business and several new competitors.
It is still a good business to be in, as Bristol Bay Brailer has found. The small company, started in 2015 in Naknek, had prime booth space at the Pacific Marine Expo and no shortage of customers.
Manager and sole seamstress Diane Hill was very pleased with the exposure and orders.
"People from Southeast are now looking at us, and that's been really good," she said. "We're growing. Probably just in one year about double, and now we're full, so we'll be able to sew all winter."
It's a family (and friend) business, and Hill was flanked by her husband Bill, his mother BJ from Naknek, plus Karl and Stacy Hill from Igiugig, and Russel and Yvonne Phelps from Naknek.
Still, when Dianne says "we" when talking about sewing all winter, she pretty much means "me." As the orders rolled in, she was eager for the long, dark days ahead that she'll spend at the kitchen table in Naknek.
"I can make a bag in about an hour and half to two hours, and in the winter I can just work eight hours, make four to six bags," she said.
In the spring, she'll ramp up the efforts like the rest of the industry during the crunch time before the fishing season. "I'll be sewing morning 'til night. It's fun though, it's good, it's really exciting, and I love it."
The Hills and Phelps had hoped to create a small business that could support some local jobs, and it seems they are nearing that goal. Hill said a new building is nearly complete, and that the company can probably hire three or four people to cut while she sews. (She added that Stacy Hill has recently been sewing the handles.)
Orders are up from "a couple hundred" bags the first year to now more than a thousand, said Hill.
"I think people like having a choice," she said, pointing to the different colors, sizes and fabric weights.
The heaviest weight fabric seems to be the preference lately. It costs a little more, but brailer bags swing loads of fish over the heads of young greenhorn crew, get dragged along the deck and sides of tenders, and have lately been stuffed pretty full in Bristol Bay.
"People are catching a lot of fish and they need their product to hold up," Hill said.