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The Alaska commercial fishing fleet: thousands ply the sea for abundant fisheries.

The heart of the Alaska fishing industry, and the backbone of its success, has always been the fishermen and their vessels. The enormity of Alaska's commercial fishing fleet is indicative of the trade's vital importance to communities across the state as an economic lifeline for thousands of workers who choose the sea as their workplace.

Just how big is big and who's in charge?

Alaska's commercial fleet is sizable. As of September 2016, there were 9,350 vessels registered with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G). The registration areas spread from Southeast to the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutians to the Yukon River, including fish-rich waters like Prince William Sound, Kodiak, Chignik, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, and the Bering Sea.

The lifespan of vessels registered with the state encompasses a huge range, with some of the oldest vessels dating back to 1907 and 1912. Add to the equation the varied kinds of commercial fishing boats: From purse seiner to gillnetter, trailer to longliner, and certainly the crabbers, the industry's array of vessels is multi-faceted.

The sentinel of Alaska's commercial fishing waters, along with several other federal governing bodies, is predominantly ADF&G.

Forrest Bowers, the Deputy Director of ADF&G's Division of Commercial Fisheries, is a former Alaska commercial fisherman who understands the layers and nuances of the industry. ADF&G works integrally in oversight with the National Marine Fisheries, International Halibut Commission, North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Board of Fisheries and Limited Entry Commission.

ADF&G monitors the collective of commercial vessels through owner self-reporting and licensure. An online spreadsheet is maintained in real time, delineating a vessel's name, owner, home port city, identification number through ADF&G, year built, length, weight in gross and net tons, horsepower, holding tank, fuel capacity, and type of vessel.

"One of the important tools we have in fishery management is the ability to track efforts," notes Bowers. "The number of licensed vessels is an indicator of effort. When managing fisheries during the season it's critical to know the fishing power of the fleet and when the quota threshold is met."

Commercial fisherman have to be aware of the multiple levels of oversight and compliance, which include different gear types or fishing hooks and nets used. It can get complex. The Board of Fisheries has a vessel size limit for some fisheries, and for the salmon fisheries there are gill net limits for drift gill-netters and statewide purse seine vessel limitations which can bleed into fisheries for Pacific cod fisheries that state manages--as well as some crab fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska that can exclude larger vessels that may be more competitive and owned by fisherman that don't reside in local communities.

Bowers indicates the Ground Fish fishery is the largest fishery in the state by volume and per federal management. The Bering Sea Pollock fishery, which is the largest single-species fishery in the world in terms of volume, generates a large tax revenue split with state and municipalities like Unalaska, Akutan, and Kodiak. The next largest fishery managed by the state in this category is Pacific cod. Add in Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska rock and flat fish--and halibut--and the species, regions, range of vessels, and licensure data management becomes extensive.

The Lure of Prince William Sound

In the coastal community of Cordova, Thea Thomas has been fishing Alaskan waters since 1980.

Thomas began salmon seining in Cordova in 1986 from June to late August. By 1987 she had enough income to launch in salmon gillnetting and purchased a twenty-six-foot bow picker, focusing on the sockeye (red) salmon laden Copper River.

The mainstay in this fishery remains salmon gillnetting. Ten years ago she ordered a thirty-two-foot diesel run, fiberglass-hulled boat, christened the Myrmidon. Her season begins May 15 and is the first salmon fishery in the state. All eyes are on the Copper River sockeye fishery, with news media covering the first salmon being delivered on Alaska Airlines to Seattle.

After the opening is announced, she heads out to the various locations along the sixty-mile wide Copper River and begins her strategy. When the salmon are at their prime, Thomas harvests them, including bleeding and icing on board as soon as caught. Once she's at capacity she delivers to a tender at sea so she can keep her net out and not break from fishing. She works alone, without a crew, and collects her fish ticket from the processor who transfers to ADF&G to help determine strength of run, strength of harvest, and when fishermen can catch more salmon.

Thomas is active and helped found the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. It has about 540 drift and set gillnet salmon fishermen members. Christa Hoover, executive director, says each of the Association's members is a small boat, family-owned business which ranged from first generation to fourth generation operations. "Our members live in Cordova, Homer, Seward, Juneau, Palmer, Wasilla, Anchorage, and beyond," she says, adding that in Cordova, there are 619 residents directly employed in commercial fisheries according to the McDowell Group in a June 2015 report for the Alaska Salmon Alliance.

Thomas says Prince William Sound has long seasons that extend from mid-May to mid-September, averaging two to three openers per week. But don't forget the expenses. A boat costs approximately $200,000, and permits are in the $175,000 range, and then annual expenses include fuel, nets, equipment, food, and insurance. The average revenue for the Prince William Sound fleet in 2016 may be as low as $75,000. In 2015 it was in the $100,000 range. The reason for the lower price this year, she adds, is that the salmon run in Bristol Bay was so strong it put more salmon on the market and reduced the price in total.

Catching Records in Bristol Bay

Everett Thompson knows his fish and his politics. He's the kind of commercial fisherman who stays active in every nuance of the regulation and statutes that affect his trade. As a Naknek resident, Thompson's world revolves around an industry that is magnified in notability because Bristol Bay carries the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

Thompson is finishing his term on the board of the Bristol Bay Fisherman's Association, which has been representing commercial fisherman in the region for more than fifty years. He also serves on the ADF&G Advisory Committee for Naknek-Kvichak's Salmon District.

Thompson started fishing when he was seven years old and this year is his 33rd season. He's been a permit holder since 1987, never having missed a year of fishing, and for nineteen years has been drifting for salmon. For thirteen years he had one of the oldest boats in the Bay, built in 1970 and called the Chulyen, which means "raven" in Athabascan. He currently works with his thirty-two-foot Northern Flyer double-jet aluminum boat, built by Gregor Boat Company and upgraded with a refrigerated seawater system.

The schedule for Thompson in Bristol Bay includes April and May preparing vessel and crew. The Northern Flyer enters the water June 10 and stays there until the end of July. It takes a tractor and trailer to put into the water and remove, $300 each way. The Bristol Bay area is divided into five management districts (Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik, Ugashik, Nushagak, and Togiak) connecting to the major river drainages. Thompson typically fishes Egegik and Naknek-Kvichak, but during one long season he worked all districts.

Thompson's crew size includes three other commercial fishermen. Weather doesn't matter, and for the most part he endures the waves and catches the fish because so much is riding on a season financially. The crew lives, eats, and sleeps on the boat until it's put back on blocks. Notified by ADF&G through KDLG Dillingham public radio and state website messaging, the crew and vessel move into action as soon as escapement is reached and enough salmon are in the rivers to spawn. The fishing openings range from four to twelve hours or more.

How about profits? "It's a respectable, hardworking business, but often fisherman are not rewarded as much as they should be for their catch with ex-vessel prices," laments Thompson. He and his fellow industry members wish the processors gave the price per pound before fishing season starts--but they don't and haven't since before the Limited Entry rules were enacted. "When we're done with the season we find out the price," he adds.

In 2016 it was a great year for Bristol Bay fishermen in the amount of poundage of salmon caught, but the price was only $0.75 per pound. Thompson recalled when he was thirteen years old the price was $2.50 per pound. In 2015, just one year ago, it was only $0.50. The average catch is in the 165,000 pounds range on any given season, while incentives are offered for keeping fish refrigerated below 38 degrees ($0.15 per pound), bleeding the fish ($0.05 per pound), and keep them floating in the refrigerated seawater ($0.05 per pound).

Thompson respects the pristine water and streams--a fishery that's been ongoing for 140 years. "As fisherman were also stewards of the resource and tasked with protecting it for both subsistence and economic value," he says.

Fishing the Mighty Yukon

Commercial fishermen are not just working Alaskan's oceans. Add rivers to the list of salmon treasure troves.

John Lamont is a second-generation commercial gillnetter who grew up in Lamont s Slough, named after his father John "Jack" Lamont, at the mouth of the Yukon River. Jack Lamont started one of the first salmon processing plants (Saltry and Cold Smoker) on the river and genetics ruled the day with his son. The younger Lamont, now sixty, began commercial fishing at the ripe age of nine years old, buying a vessel, gear, and fishing license in 1965. He ultimately built his own camp at the southern mouth of the Yukon River, between Alakanuk and Emmonak.

As a Yupik, Lamont savors his culture and fondly recalls the traditional commercial chinook "king" salmon fishery he enjoyed, which ended because of the Pacific Salmon Treaty's Yukon Salmon Agreement between Canada and the United States regarding access by Chinooks to the spawning grounds in the Yukon Territory and British Columbia. The Treaty was an effort between the United States and Canada to sets limits and allowable harvests of salmon to prevent depletion in one nation during singular migration routes. The effect on fisherman at the mouth of the Yukon was costly.

Lamont was never idle because of regulatory change. Throughout the State's statutory and regulation evolution with the industry he persevered, starting with a seventeen-foot wooden skiff and fifteen horsepower Johnson outboard motor. In the early 1980s he built an eighteen-foot wooden skiff. In 1987 he bought his first aluminum boat. By 2001 he bought a state-of-the-art twenty-foot aluminum skiff manufactured in Emmonak by Yukon Marine Manufacturing, which is owned by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association.

Openers to alert the local Yukon fisherman to start their engines and catch salmon comes via VHF marine radio announcements, local radio in Bethel on KYUK, in Nome on KNOM and KICY, or direct to a smartphone text when coverage is accessible. Lamont drifts with his gillnet using a fifty-fathom (three-hundred-foot) net for summer and fall chum and coho salmon. In ten to fifteen feet of water he can harvest 250 to 400 chums in a twelve-hour opening, depending on the run. Old military landing crafts are used as tenders where the fish can be offloaded for delivery to a processor.

Kwik'pak Fisheries, LLC, also owned by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, is based in Emmonak, the economic hub for processing and market in that area.

"Coho season ends September 10, and then it's the whitefish for some; up to twenty thousand pounds can be commercially harvested," Lamont says. "I make sure my boat, fishing gear, and other necessary equipment are up to speed and prepared for the next year's season and run of salmon: twelve to fifteen communities, four hundred to five hundred commercial fishers in our region, community members, and consumers are depending on it."

Here, There, Everywhere

Ultimately, the commercial fishing industry, from its vessels to its communities, thrives because of the heart of the people who take the risk.

Debbie Rehder grew up with a fishing net in her hand while drifting, long-lining, and crabbing with her father, Ted Rozak. Debbie, a chip off the block, would later meet her best friend and husband, commercial fisherman Charlie Rehder. A tag team was born of formidable fishing prowess.

Charlie started fishing in high school while living in Homer. He had a trucking business in the summer and during the winter months sought crab in Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay on The Big Valley.

The Rehders' current vessel is the one-hundred-foot steel hulled Kustatan.

Their fishing "season" never seems to end. Typically after Christmas, in January, the Kustatan heads from Homer south to Dutch Harbor over a four-day, often rough, trip. Their reward for the journey comes in the form of Opilio "snow" and Bairdi "Tanner" crab in the Bering Sea by St. Paul Island. This crustaceous endeavor's ending date depends on the season and ice; some years they can't finish until late May.

After crab season, it's back to Homer and possibly Pacific cod fishing, if the federal or state season is still open.

From April to May they tender herring in Togiak. When the summer comes the Kustatan becomes a tender for local fishermen's hauls. The process includes special refrigeration, and then the harvests are transported to canneries like Icicle Seafoods with plants in Seward, Homer, on the Kasilof River, and also in Bristol Bay, the Rehders say.

By mid-June there is a switch back to tendering salmon, and the crew and vessel head to Bristol Bay until directed to return to Cook Inlet or Prince William Sound. They tender until the end of August. By mid-September the boat fishes for its halibut in the IFQ (individual fishing quota) fishery. "Since the initial IFQ allocations, the total allowable catch has diminished by nearly 70 percent," says Debbie.

Crab fisheries start on October 15 for king crab. "It used to be a November opening, and over three hundred boats would rush to their sweet spots with forty-eight hours in a derby-style fishery, before IFQs were implemented in 2005," adds Charlie.

Commercial fishing isn't an easy lifestyle, but the Rehders appreciate the opportunity and value the camaraderie. Charlie admits the "Witch of November" (October to March) in the Bering Sea is not always welcomed. The 2015 season brought one memorable storm with 150 mile-perhour gusts that shook the wheelhouse and sucked air out. He adds that income varies year to year, and the economy of the industry is based on the amount of crab brought in, in conjunction with IFQs and one's catch history.

"It's worth it, at the end of the day," says Debbie. "Our family is a commercial fishing family, working across the state and on many of its waters. We're proud and supportive of our industry. We know it matters to Alaska, and to our community in Homer, and there's no more rewarding feeling than that."

Tom Anderson writes from across Alaska.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION: Natural Resource
Comment:The Alaska commercial fishing fleet: thousands ply the sea for abundant fisheries.(SPECIAL SECTION: Natural Resource)
Author:Anderson, Tom
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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