New Business: Salmon Skin Wallets, Crab Shell Shirts For the Masses

A small Juneau business launched a Kickstarter campaign this week to crowdsource funds for a unique line of apparel and accessories. Tidal Vision is hoping it’s onto the next big thing: garments sewn from discarded salmon skin and crab shells.

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Tidal Vision’s salmon leather wallets will retail for about $75. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Tidal Vision’s salmon leather wallets will retail for about $75. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Craig Kasberg, the founder of the company, pulls out a wallet from his back pocket. It’s a muted jade color, shiny with a slightly bumpy texture.

“It’s much different than what you see when you throw a skin away in the garbage when you’re cooking up your dinner or something,” he says.

The wallet is made entirely from salmon skin sourced from a processor in Kodiak, and then sewn at a tannery in Washington State.

The odor is different than what you might think.

“I would say it smells quite similar to any vegetable tanned leather really,” he says.

The skin has gone through a 24-step process that dries it out until it turns into leather. The material doesn’t stink because the fish oils have all been removed.

“And then replace those with all natural based vegetable tanning oils.”

Alaska has a long history with fish leather. Historically, Alaska Natives across the state have used salmon and other fish skins to craft durable garments, bags, boots and other items necessary for village life. These days, a few Native artists continue the time-consuming tradition of processing fish skins.

The material was also marketed to tourists and fashion houses in the 1990s until those ventures fizzled. Over the last few decades numerous Alaska entrepreneurs have tried their hand at the fish leather business, prompting speculation that it could be a new cottage industry for the state.

Kasberg says the biggest hurdle is convincing consumers byproducts are cool.

“When people think of fish waste, they almost plug their nose in reaction. When people haven’t seen it, smelt it, felt it, I think there is a challenge there,” he says.

Kasberg owns a gillnetter and has fished commercially in Southeast Alaska for almost a decade. He recently sold his commercial fishing license to help fund the new business.

His partner, Zach Wilkinson, has a background in economic development in agriculture. He says the agriculture industry already uses animal byproducts to make high-end items, like shoes and handbags, so why not Alaska fisheries.

“Clearly this stuff is valuable and useful and we could be doing something with it,” he says.

Some seafood processors sell byproducts for pet food, fish meal and vitamin supplements.

“What I’m particularly excited about it is kind of moving those things up the value chain and producing higher value products,” Wilkinson says.

Another item Tidal Vision plans to roll out is clothing made from chitosan extracted from crab shells. The fabric is antimicrobial, so it’s perfect for socks, underwear or gym shirts.

“We’re still going to recommend you wash your clothes but as far as odor goes, you won’t have to,” Kasberg says.

The use of chitosan is common in many industries. It’s usually stripped away from crustacean shells with formaldehyde, but Tidal Vision has a patent pending on a greener, more environmentally friendly method. They’re hoping to eventually expand the product into bandages and other medical supplies.

“The sutures that dissolve into your bloodstream are made out of a chitosan,” he says.

If the products take off, Kasberg says the business could add an overall boost to revenue for fish processors in Alaska. He would be giving them a dollar a pound for the skins, which he says is 90 percent more than fishmeal manufacturers pay. And that money could trickle down to commercial fishermen who supply the processors, like Juneau fisherman Anthoney Sine.

“That would increase our price. That would increase the money that we would be getting on our end,” he says.

Sine owns a boat called the Fortune and is preparing for the upcoming gillnet season. He says the price of seafood can fluctuate; alternative revenue streams could provide more stability.

“It greases the wheels,” Sine says. “Our seasons are short, especially the salmon season. Being able to get a little more money for my product strengthens my business for sure.”

Kasberg’s Kickstarter campaign has already raised more than half of the money it needs to begin mass production. They’re starting with wallets and plan to roll out one item at a time.