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Analysis: Alaska's Native corporations, once shy of seafood, may now view it as the next frontier

Another new influx of capital may be on its way into seafood.

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Most seafood industry members have likely never heard of Alaska's Native Corporations, but with the news this week that Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) was cleared by the US Department of Justice to acquire and merge Pacific cod giants Blue North Fisheries and Clipper Seafoods, most people will know about them soon enough.

The deal, which is expected to close as early as next week, a source familiar with the process told IntraFish, would create a group with roughly 33,000 metric tons of owned Pacific cod quota, another 13,000 metric tons for management or lease, and $95 million in revenues.

Alaska's Native Corporations have plenty of assets, and are much, much bigger than you might expect. Alaska's 12 Native Corporations, created under a federal law in 1971 called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, employ 58,000 people worldwide, according to the Alaska Resource Development Council. They are the state's largest landowners, and combined corporate revenues for the companies is estimated at over $8 billion.

The groups' pot of money has been invested over the past four decades in assets both good and bad. However, recent years have shown a significant increase in sophistication of the management of the groups, in part because of an influx of a younger generation more eager to grow the groups.

Alaska Native Corporation 2017 Revenues

Bristol Bay Native Corporation - $1.7 billion

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation - $2.6 billion

NANA - $1 billion*

Chugach - $920 million

Cook Inlet Region Inc. - $439 million

Calista - $480 million

Sealaska - $293.4 million

Doyon Limited - $290.5 million

Koniag - $267 million

Ahtna - $238 million

Aleut Corporation - $211 million

Bering Straits Native Corporation - N/A

Source: Alaska Business Monthly

*Some of NANA's income is dispersed to other Native corporations

In 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available, all Native Corporations were profitable. And BBNC in particular did well. The group reported $1.7 billion in revenues in 2019, with earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of $89 million, and was clear in its annual report that new acquisitions are on the table.

So far, the group, like other Native corporations, has relied primarily on "in-the-ground" investments for the majority of its revenues. Like other Native groups -- Sealaska held ownership in Ocean Beauty in the 90s, as one example -- BBNC has had short lived and not particularly successful forays into seafood.

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In the 1980s, the group held a position in Peter Pan Seafoods, but after a canned salmon botulism scare and management challenges, it sold it on. But it's long been a goal to expand into the seafood space, and the ambition certainly won't stop at Clipper and Blue North: rather than look at previous M&A experts from past deals, BBNC enlisted seafood-savvy Antarctica Advisors -- which has had a hand in Stavis, Mark Foods, Daybrook and Seafreeze deals, among others -- for the Clipper-Blue North acquisition.

Aside from BBNC, only one other Native corporation, Sealaska, has purchased any significant assets in the seafood industry in recent years.

Sealaska, based in Juneau, Alaska, inked a deal to acquired control of Seattle-based processor Independent Packers Corporation in 2016, acquired a majority stake in processor Odyssey Enterprises in 2017, then merged the group with Orca Bay Seafoods together with Japan's Tokusui Corporation of America.

Acquisitions by Native groups aren't just another place to deploy capital -- it's a smart place. It's important to remember that Native-owned companies have a unique edge over other seafood companies: US government contracts give preference to Native-owned businesses. That's no small thing given some of the massive government purchases that have happened recently for both pollock and salmon. Already Sealaska has, via its subsidiaries, won significant US Department of Agriculture (USDA) contracts, in part because of its unique status.

Though none of the Native Corporations' acquisitions are, so far, what you might call "mega deals," they show at least that Native corporations are watching the space carefully, mulling deals and reading prospecti. And that's the first step on a journey to much bigger things.

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