When I told people from home that I was going to Alaska to join the commercial fishing industry, they invariably made some excited comment involving The Most Dangerous Catch. The television gods have apparently replaced getting a summer job in the canneries with something a little more scintillating as the standard preconception. People now think of crabbers, trawlers, or purse seiners; the kind of serious fishing boats that spend weeks at a time in the rough, frigid waters of the Bearing Sea and have a tendency to go missing when the big storms hit.
I’m sitting in a 1966 Airstream Land Yacht, throwing distance from the beach on the eastern side of Cook Inlet. It’s the middle of the fishing season, and I haven’t seen a film crew or a snow squall yet. Clearly, this is a different type of fishing.
We’re setnetters. Our boats are twenty to twenty-eight foot aluminum skiffs, powered by anything from 55 horse tiller motors to 200 horse motors run through a console. [For those of you who don’t know boats, a boat with a console means that there is a little control station with a steering wheel and a throttle somewhere, usually towards the rear of the boat. If it’s a tiller motor, that means that the driver has to stand in the very back of the boat and control direction and throttle with a short handle that is integrally connected to the motor.] We move our boats around and put them in the water with simple trailers and unlicensed, uninsured “beach trucks”-most commonly, twenty-year-old Ford pickups with severe rust issues. Each boat holds between four and seven nets, which two men can load and unload by hand. The operation is simple, and at first seemed so small-scale to me that it was inconceivable that one beach-mile of fishermen could bring in a million pounds of sockeye salmon in a one-month period. But they do.
Cook Inlet is the body of water pinned between the Alaska Mountains and the Kenai Peninsula, due south of Anchorage. Cook Inlet is the final destination for some of the best salmon rivers in Alaska, which means that every summer it is full of millions of king, red (sockeye), humpy (pink), and silver (coho) salmon on their way to their respective spawning sites in the regions lakes and rivers. Unlike the drift netters or seiners who drive their boats around looking for fish to net, we setnetters set our nets at the same legally regulated sites all season and simply wait for the salmon to swim into them. Though four types of salmon run here, we are primarily catching reds (known to rest of the world as sockeye), and our fishing season is supposedly timed to align with the reds’ yearly run. [More on this later.]
The nets themselves are 210 feet long and 15 feet deep, with about sixty feet of rope tied to each end to anchor the net to stationary buoys. There is a line of corks at the top that keep the net floating at the surface, and a lead-filled rope on the bottom that keeps the net stretched out vertically in the water. The net is made of various substances (a topic of much debate among fishermen), but is always woven into diamonds of a size determined to catch the target species around the gills. The material is thin -think heavy fishing line- but strong enough that it is very hard to break with your hands, though large king salmon, seals, and drifting logs all can, and do, tear sizable holes that must be mended by hand back on shore.
Being in a giant inlet makes for some interesting effects when the tides can run more than twenty feet. Most people think of tides running simply into and off of the beach, a simple up and down. In an enclosed space like Cook Inlet, however, the force of the tide creates a river effect, so that to someone standing on the shore the tides move left and right in addition to up and down. In the words of my captain “On a flood tide in Cook Inlet we’ve got the entire Pacific Ocean trying cram itself up our ass.”
The strength of the tide blows our nets into a U shape, creating a bag against which the fish are held by the shear force of the water. Many of the fish we catch, especially the kings, are not tangled in the net at all, but just pinned there broadside by the tide. This bagging of the net means that we have to pick the fish out at every tide change or risk losing a lot of fish when the net swings around and the “bag” is turned inside out.
Picking the nets is where we fishermen earn our pay. To pick a net, we drive our skiff up to one end of the net so that the bowman (I am one of these) can reach down with a gaff, grab the rope, and lift it up and over the bow so it sits on top of the boat. The captain then cuts the motor and we simply pull the boat down the net, hand over hand, one man on the corks and one on the lead line. The net is pulled out of the water, across the boat, and then falls back into the water on the other side. We pick the fish out of the net as they come into the boat, using just our hands and a variety of learned techniques.
Now, this may not sound hard, but remember: we’re pulling a boat broadside through one of the strongest running tides in the world; the net may contain hundreds to more than a thousand pounds of fish, which all add drag against the tide; we may be doing this in ten foot seas, or in the dark, or both. Every fisherman here has chewed-up hands that won’t heal and complains about their hands and arms falling asleep when they lay down, an effect caused (we think) by growing muscle too quickly and thus incorrectly pressuring blood vessels.
Commercial fishermen are under constant attack from both sport fisherman and environmentalists, and generally for good reason: no fishery in the world has proved sustainable over any lengthy timeframe. Setnetters seem to catch little flak over their fishing practices, however, compared to other methods. The only environmental issue seems to be the total number of salmon caught, but not always for the obvious reasons.
All salmon in Cook Inlet are bound for a river. The salmon we catch are almost exclusively headed toward the Kenai River. The Kenai, like all rivers in the area, has a counter that keeps track of escapement, or the number of fish that have escaped being caught to make it to their spawning grounds. Every year Alaska Fish and Game publishes a predicted run and an escapement goal. Clearly, the escapement number has a direct influence on the size of the run five years from now (red salmon return to spawn after five years in the ocean somewhere, no one is really sure where). In theory, there should be some fairly consistent ratio of escapement-to-return. The problem is that nobody seems to agree on exactly what that ratio is, or even what the desired return should be.
My boss, who has been fishing here for thirty years and is widely regarded to know more about Cook Inlet salmon than anyone around, including the biologists, says that an escapement of 400,000 will produce a return of about 6,000,000 fish. Conversely, an escapement of 1,000,000 will produce a return of only about 1,000,000, due to the salmon fry overcrowding their freshwater feeding grounds and causing a massive die-off. Historically, that is what the numbers show, according to my boss. Either Fish and Game is looking at different numbers, or they have much different motives than we do.
You see, if you have a goal escapement of 400,000, and 6,000,000 reds run up the Cook, then the commercial fisherman can take a little more than 5,000,000 reds, leaving about 500,000 for the sport fisherman and dipnetters. [Every Alaska citizen is allowed about 60 salmon a year by dipnetting, wherein you stand in a river with what looks like a giant butterfly net and hope a salmon swims into it. Miraculously, salmon do swim into them.] The reason the sport fishermen don’t like this plan is that the commercial fishermen would also be catching a lot of kings (which they are allowed to keep), which are the real prize of the sport-fishing world and the goal of many tourists who pay very good money to fly to Alaska to catch them. According to my boss, what sport fishermen would like best is to have an escapement of 1,000,000 reds with a return of 1,000,000 and no commercial fishing at all, which would allow all of the kings to run up the rivers and directly into the boats of fishing guides.
This seemingly scientific battle is made political at the Northern Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC) (I think; there are a lot of commissions). These are the guys that decide what the escapement goal should be, and thus how many fish us commercial fisherman should be allowed to catch. The problem is that this body is under constant siege from both the commercial fishermen and the sport fishermen, with the two sides at opposing goals. Whichever side can gain the most influence in Fish and Game and the Commission can change fishing policy in their favor.
The direct effect on the setnetters is in the number of hours per week we are allowed to fish. We are “guaranteed” (which is to say, under most circumstances) two twelve-hour periods per week, one on Monday and one on Thursday. We fish seven-to-seven on those days every week, more or less regardless of the current escapement. Any hours beyond those two periods are called “emergency openers”, and are granted on short notice based on the number of running reds. The closer we get to escapement, the more hours we’ll get, though we have had some openers already due to some big, though short lived, runs.
The Commission does not want to overshoot the escapement for risk of causing an overpopulation-related die-off of salmon fry. They use the commercial fishermen to limit the escapement, but that tool is only available during the open season. In recent years, reds have been running later and later, through the end of August (the commercial season this year is July 9th to August 9th). Last year 900,000 reds swam up the Kenai after the season ended, more than doubling the escapement goal. Commercial fishermen have been pressing for an extended fishing season but thus far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
I’ve never been anywhere that thrived so much on hope and rumor. Everyone in camp talks incessantly about when we’ll get another opener, for how long, how many fish are running in the southern part of the inlet, how the drifters are doing, what the current escapement is, and when the big run will start. No one mentions the possibility of not reaching escapement this year or catching too many fish. There seems to be no doubt that our practices are sustainable, even below sustainable, and there are data to back up the claim. At the same time, in quite moments the older men will confess that they are not planning on bringing their grandkids into the industry. They will point over the bluff to where our nets are and say ‘This won’t last forever’ with an air of grim acceptance. It is hard for me to tell if they are talking about the fishing or the fish.